Zach Etsch joined the Lemelson Center team shortly before Draper Spark!Lab debuted on July 1, 2015, in the newly renovated 1 West Innovation Wing at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). Since then, as a Lead Facilitator he has played a key role in shaping the inviting and inventive visitor experience in our hands-on gallery, which is targeted to families with children ages 6 to 12. His love of teaching is evident as he welcomes all visitors with a warm smile and enthusiastic introduction to our special space for budding inventors!
Usually, Zach is the interviewer and author for this “Spotlight” series featuring the Spark!Lab team. Now the tables are turned; it’s high time he took center stage to talk about his interests and experiences. During this busy spring break season, Zach generously took the time to answer the following interview questions.
Name: Zach Etsch
Title: Lead Facilitator
Explain Spark!Lab in four words: Do. Learn. Change. Be.
When did you start working at Spark!Lab?
I was hired in June 2015. They onboarded us so we would be able to start working with the public as the new Draper Spark!Lab opened—along with the rest of the 1 West Wing of NMAH—on Independence Day weekend.
When people ask how long I’ve been here, it still surprises me when I blurt out it’s already coming up on three years. I’ve learned so much about the museum field, the world of work, invention, innovation, and people in general . . . it feels like a small lifetime.
What are your job responsibilities?
The Lead Facilitators are two of the four part-time staff charged with making sure the everyday, on-the-floor realities of Spark!Lab produce a successfully-running learning lab. This responsibility includes dozens of tasks of varying importance, from brainstorming effective interrogatives that stimulate creative, focused thinking in 6- to 12-year-olds to picking tape off the floor.
I also conduct evaluation, developing and using data-collection instruments to determine Spark!Lab activities’ effectiveness in eliciting learning in a target age group. Seeing evidence that an activity “works” with our visitors is extremely rewarding. It's very cool to see what little tweaks you can make to the way you present information and materials to trick people into “getting it.” That’s the teacher in me, I guess.
What previous background do you have in working with children?
I earned my Masters’ degree in teaching Secondary Social Studies. Being a teacher in a public school seems like a previous life for me in a way, but I have the technical certification that legally allows me to pick up that career in the future if I wish. In my educated (albeit biased) opinion, things are pretty hard for public school teachers right now, so I have the most profound respect for the honest and toilsome work they do every day—especially the difficulties they are thrown from all sides nowadays. As a professional, I’m sure I’d rather be helping kids in this informal setting during the current historical moment.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? What are/were your intellectual interests? Are there any other previous work experience(s) you’d like to mention?
My story goes like this. As an undergrad, my passion was history content as well as the study of the discipline generally; I took courses from as many professors as I could. I received my BA in History from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and minored in Educational Studies.
As time went on, I focused my efforts on social studies education, thinking I was going to become a public school teacher. I decided to stay on for another year at the same institution in an intensive program that allows you to complete your entire Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT). This program included an unpaid teaching internship: while taking classes in how to teach (i.e., educational psychology), I served as a 10th-grade Government teacher in a local public school for most of the year.
With my MAT in hand, and possessing the state certification to teach in my home state of New Jersey, I applied to nearly 50 school districts. For the upcoming school year, none of them could afford me my own classroom at that time.
After the school year started, I considered other options, and interning at the Smithsonian Institution was my first choice—working here had been something of a pipe dream since childhood. Not only did the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access grant me a spring internship, I also got my job here as an educator at Spark!Lab. My failure to apply in time to get a teaching job ended up being the best thing for me professionally; it pushed my career in an awesome new direction filled with adventure, learning, and personal growth.
When you’re not working at the Museum, what do you do in your free time? What are your hobbies?
As a docent at NMAH, I come in for a couple hours a week to present interactive carts to the public on the topics of World War I history and money counterfeiting/numismatics. But I guess that doesn’t count.
I spend a lot of time on Interstate 95 behind the wheel of my 2015 Mitsubishi Lancer. Most of my family is in New Jersey, so I drive to visit them. I grew up on a farm in Middlesex County; my dad’s business grows hay, straw, rye, feed corn, and other grains. My brother went to school for it and, now that he manages the farm with my father, he brings vast knowledge of agricultural science to an already three-generations-old family business. For her part, my mom created a popular subsection of our organization by integrating agritourism (corn maze, hayrides, birthday parties, other activities) and education (field trips for every public school in our district). I also visit friends all around Maryland, so I am very much a man on the road.
I also spend my time with videogames, television shows of varying quality, and (not often enough) reading.
What’s your favorite thing about Spark!Lab?
Honestly, a lot of people say they couldn’t stand working with them—and, when you look at the numbers, Spark!Lab hosts absolute hordes of them—but I love kids. Watching children think and live and go through their day fills me with many kinds of hope I wouldn’t otherwise have for humanity. Although it’s definitely tough to be their age, kids’ unreserved honesty and general goodness-of-heart engender some of the most meaningful thought and interaction I see in life, uninhibited by all the absurdity of adulthood. Hey, if I can help make their long vacation or dragging school day more palatable, that’s a good job. Never mind that I studied for years how to make them learn.
What’s your favorite invention in Spark!Lab?
Tony Hawk skateboard and Eddie Van Halen guitar (my brother and I love that stuff).
What’s your favorite invention in the entire world?
A microwave? Pretty sure I would starve otherwise.
In which of your own inventions do you take the most pride?
Reused existing set of hooks/bands to affix key to badge (makes job easier).
What is your favorite object at NMAH?
Sutter’s Mill gold flake in On the Water that started the California Gold Rush.
What is your favorite museum in the world?
This one for obvious reasons!
Draper Spark!Lab is located on the first floor, west wing, of the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except for Tuesdays and Dec. 25. For more information, visit https://invention.si.edu/about-sparklab