A Look Back at Spark!Lab

When we opened Spark!Lab nearly four years ago, I had no idea what we were in for. We had carefully planned, designed, and tested the hands-on activities for our visitors, we had recruited and trained a diverse group of staff and volunteers, we had plans for handling all sorts of situations—from the slowest to the busiest days, from a lost camera to a lost child—and we’d generally infused the lab with the Lemelson spirit of creativity and innovation. Even so, I was not really prepared for the adventure that lay ahead of us.

Spark!Lab 1.0. Photo by Harold Dorwin.

We opened Spark!Lab on November 21, 2008, and in our first month alone, served nearly 30,000 visitors. Spark!Lab quickly became the go-to place for children and families visiting the Museum and, unlike most Smithsonian sites, drew a large percentage of repeat, local visitors. We had visitors coming back on certain days of the week to see their favorite staff and volunteers, and played host once a month to a local homeschool group we nicknamed “the Sparklers.” Out-of-town families who were at NMAH for just a few hours often spent the bulk of their time in Spark!Lab. (Seeing parents physically remove their children from Spark!Lab so they could go see the ruby slippers, Dumbo, or the Star-Spangled Banner was not uncommon.) We received high praise and (almost) no complaints from visitors about their Spark!Lab experience, and by the time we closed in October 2011 as part of a major renovation at NMAH, had served more than 600,000 visitors.

During NanoDays, visitors made their own "nano-bots." Photo by Kate Wiley.

Having all of these people come through the lab taught us a lot. Through observation and general conversation, we knew visitors were having fun. But in-depth evaluation and interviews showed us that real learning was also taking place. Kids were practicing 21st century skills like collaboration, flexibility, and problem-solving, and together families were exploring, experimenting, testing, tweaking, creating, and inventing. As we’d intended, visitors were using Spark!Lab’s hands-on activities to engage in the invention process and were developing inventive and creative thinking skills, and as we’d hoped Spark!Lab became an inventive “hot spot” for Museum visitors.

Though I was sad to close the doors to Spark!Lab last fall, I am excited about the work we’re doing now to create a new Spark!Lab experience. In 2015, the Lemelson Center’s new Spark!Lab will open in the renovated West wing on the first floor of NMAH. Like its predecessor, Spark!Lab 2.0 (as I like to call it) will offer visitors a unique hands-on experience where they can learn about the history and process of invention and, through science, engineering, and creative  activities, discover their own inventive abilities. We are using the lessons we learned from the first lab to develop uniquely Spark!Lab activities that will give our visitors a hands-on learning experience unlike any other.

Kids can take their inventions to the patent office. Photo by Stephen J Boitano.

Next month we will begin prototyping new activities and, soon, working with an exhibition designer to develop the look and feel of the new space. We have a long way to go before Spark!Lab 2.0 is a reality and I’m sure the concept will evolve as we flesh out our ideas. But I’m looking forward to continuing to learn about what interests and engages our visitors and thinking about how we can develop Spark!Lab into an even more fun and effective space that helps the Lemelson Center fulfill its mission to encourage inventive creativity in young people. Watch this space for updates on the development of Spark!Lab 2.0!

One thought on “A Look Back at Spark!Lab

  1. This was a fantastic eiihbxt and a place enjoyed by young and old alike Loved the aerodynamics inter-activity (paper planes)Would recommend to all my friends & family as a must see when visiting the area.

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