Over a year ago, Spark!Lab staff analyzed evaluation data we had taken since reopening the exhibition in 2015. During the course of this overview, we worked to make sense of a lot of information so we could identify broad trends in activity formulation and visitor behavior in our exhibit. As it turned out, from our data we found that we tend to create invention challenges that resemble three main categories: mechanical, technical, and design-based. Each one of these engages very different literacies in our visitor base.
WHAT IS “LITERACY”?
Strictly pedagogically speaking, the term has in the past been tied to reading comprehension and writing skills. Students were considered “literate” if they understood high-level vocabulary words or if they constructed sentences fluently. However, 21st century interpretations tend to apply the word “literacy” more liberally. The focus has broadened to include students’ ability to comprehend not only written communication but all kinds of specific content areas—and, in turn, children are expressing their multiple literacies in ways that are more varied, interesting, and well-supported than ever before.
In the context of Spark!Lab’s learning activities, literacy looks a little different from the traditional definition. Children make sense of content and materials to solve problems we pose in the form of invention prompts. Play, experimentation, excitement, failure, triumph, and other forms of affective behavior abound. Given the nature of this experience, a child’s time in Spark!Lab tends to resemble informal play rather than rote memorization or quiet reading. As a result, when the inventor demonstrates comprehension and internalization of larger principles, this tends to resemble control over knowledge or skills in an actionable way. The process of making shows how much the inventor knows—what the inventor is thinking.
We’ve observed three ways in which the invention process tends to play out.
Many of our activities require assembly. No, seriously. The action being done when visitors come to many of our tables consists of taking seemingly random materials and putting them together. When you watch a child begin this undertaking, you’re really seeing multiple complex processes happening simultaneously. Even just looking at where their eyes go, you can watch them identify needs; identify possible uses, strategies, and combinations; identify workarounds; identify strong points as well as places for improvement; and identify an acceptable stopping point for their work. Mentally and physically, meanwhile, they are exploring, focusing, envisioning, tinkering, experimenting, reimagining, readjusting, and repeating. To assemble a mechanical thingamabob that carries out the function they desire, they have to demonstrate multiple competencies simultaneously, interchangeably, and repeatedly—all in rapid succession.
That’s a lot to ask for a 6-to-12-year-old! It comes as no surprise that these inherently and intricately interrelated processes can be overwhelming at times. Volunteers wearing yellow aprons on the floor in Spark!Lab, our engineer at his workstation, and staff members brainstorming and creating materials and signage in our back offices all collaborate and cooperate to craft these self-contained activities (miniature learning environments unto themselves) so that the whole experience of inventing is cut up into digestible, well-paced steps. The human brain, especially that of a child, can only handle so much abstract thinking at once. In assembly-based activities, we tend to emphasize primarily the tinkering, combining, and creating aspects of inventing. Then, we introduce sharing, explaining, and selling as ways to continue to extend the experience later.
“This is a STEM lab, right?” Visitors who arrive assuming that invention is all about electricity, engineering, and computer coding are only partially correct. There are, of course, many other ways to demonstrate inventiveness! That said, we do always try to offer at least one activity on the floor of Spark!Lab that tests our more proficient audiences with a more technical challenge.
Hard skills and knowledge, typically learned in traditional schooling settings, sometimes come into play with the inventing kids do here. Kids reference familiar as well as new concepts as they connect electrical wires and plug them into power sources; test buttons, switches, and levers; and decipher technologies such as lasers, sonar, and DJ turntables.
Often times, the invention prompt we provide relies on the inventors’ figuring out how devices work or harnessing the powers of these newly learned concepts. We hope that this approach encourages visitors to become comfortable with uncertainty when they receive a challenge and to figure it out gradually as time goes on. For example, certain activities from the past, such as “Design a Video Game Controller” or "Create a Prosthetic Hand,” have emphasized exploration, experimentation, repetitive action, and observing results in the lead-up to the stage at which they actually assemble their creation. These analytical processes equip them with the knowledge and confidence to move forward with their own ideas and interpretations.
The more technical activities are ripe with opportunity for older caregivers. Not only do they allow for younger visitors to test their competencies against an appropriate challenge; these moments also prove to be great teachable moments—chances for adults to demonstrate concepts they know and build upon what the kids have or have not previously learned.
At any given time, there also tends to be at least one activity in our exhibition that promotes designing. To this end, we have had kids develop their own wearable buttons with pictorial and textual messages; create the decorations on the exterior of a lunchbox; arrange the elements of a tactile map; and place bits of art on a special surface that plays sound when touched.
Fortuitously, design skillsets and ways of thinking closely resemble the steps of our invention process. One way to facilitate activities of this nature is to emphasize for young inventors the element of explaining one’s thought processes and decisions in coming up with the design. Kids practice their literacy in the skills of explaining, sharing, making connections, demonstrating, persuading, projecting their voices, and making good use of technology. (This dovetails effectively with our Sell It Station, a video-recording activity area where kids can promote their idea via a 90-second clip, and the Sketch It Station, where they play a game to draw their invention and label all its component parts.) Practice of these key, transferable skills—which will definitely be of use to kids in the real world one day—makes perfect.
Have you seen kids develop literacy in other ways as they explore their own inventiveness? Sound off, America! Tell us a story of comprehension and expression.
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 Tuesdays and December 25. For more information, visit https://invention.si.edu/about-sparklab.