Working with the Spark!Lab National Network, I get asked by interested museums, “How would my museum connect to hands-on invention education?” From children’s museums to local history museums and art galleries, most museums across the country don’t focus on invention. Even science centers—havens of kinesthetic and free choice learning—aren’t always about gadgets and who made them. But all of these places have one important thing in common: everything in them is an invention.
In Draper Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History and in Spark!Lab National Network museums across the country, visitors become inventors. They work to solve a problem with no right or wrong answer. They draw on their own experiences of lighthouses or bike headlights to create a beacon using light. They share knowledge between generations to invent their own music as a DJ, mixing songs from records on a turntable with music stored digitally on phones. They experiment with PVC pipe and lawnmower wheels to create a vehicle that could carry them through the snow, or on the moon, or through the grocery store. And with this knowledge, they look at everything they see for the rest of the day as an invention.
Some museums use Spark!Lab activities to highlight their collections. After all, if everything is an invention, what better way to understand how you might solve a problem now than to look at how people have solved the same problem in the past? Maybe the materials we would use now have changed—an electric guitar certainly has very different components than a classical one. Maybe the problem itself has changed—the invention of the shopping cart only happened once refrigeration was common in homes; you could buy more groceries, and you needed a way to collect them all in the store. Using invention challenges to connect the past to the present brings every historic object to life, and opens up a world of questions about its existence.
Other museums think about their exhibits and ask visitors to consider what inventions might be needed. From space to baseball to dinosaurs, exploration of these topics by curious minds leads to lots of questions. Visitors can learn and take in information from an exhibit, and then apply their creativity, asking themselves “Does it have to be this way? How could I make this better?” Spark!Lab National Network sites use their spaces to allow visitors to apply their knowledge and participate in a unique challenge by exploring how they could improve or change the world around them.
Ideas for inventions don’t always happen inside museums, either! Communities can participate in invention, too. Locally shared trials, like snowstorms or public transit systems, can prompt questions to visitors about how to solve them, increasing collaboration as groups come together to share experiences and ideas. Young visitors can participate in discovering the community around them—designing their own subway car as the city integrates new trains, or exploring older technology used by community members in the past to invent new ways to harness wind or water power.
Leaving Spark!Lab, visitors can explore the rest of a museum with new eyes, looking through the lens of invention. They can puzzle through why someone would choose that shape for a car, or how an artist might have assembled a sculpture. By challenging themselves, young inventors start to look at how and why others challenged themselves, too.