About Tricia Edwards

Tricia is the Lemelson Center's Education Specialist.

Sparking Young Minds with the Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge

On January 17—which happens to be Kid Inventors’ Day—the Lemelson Center launched the 3rd Annual Global Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge. Hosted in collaboration with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access and ePals, the contest challenges children ages  five to 18 to create an invention that solves a real-world problem. Alone or in groups, kids must work through the invention process, identifying a problem, researching possible solutions, sketching designs, building and testing prototypes, and creating ads to sell their ideas.

Though this may sound a little daunting, young inventors have access to lots of support on the Challenge website as they tackle their projects. Past winners, including Chase Lewis, are serving as Student Ambassadors, answering questions and offering tips to their fellow inventors. Questions like “Where did you get your idea from?” and “How do you know if other people have done your invention?” have generated great advice from the Ambassadors already. Other message boards allow kids to share invention-related books and websites with one another, and even share their invention ideas to get feedback from their peers. (That board doesn’t have any traffic yet, though. I wonder if kids are fearful of their great ideas being stolen…)

As we await this year’s entries (the contest closes on April 11, 2014), here’s a look back at some of the most memorable inventions from the first two years. If these are any indication, this year’s Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge will generate a collection of inventions that are creative, innovative, fun, and inspiring.

The Solbrite


The Cycle Umbrella

The Cycle Umbrella

The Hands-Free Safety Straw

The Hands-free Safety Straw


The Heating Bathing Suit

The Heating Bathing Suit

The Rescue Travois

The Rescue Travois

The Sports Storing Device

The Sports Storing Device

The Sunshine Hat

The Sunshine Hat

The Turbo Scraper

The Turbo Skraper

The Vacuduster

The Vacuduster

Innovating to Avoid Turkey Trauma

On Thanksgiving, Americans consume about 46 million turkeys. The key to serving a perfect bird is getting the interior to just the right temperature. Too low and you risk getting sick from the undercooked meat. Too high and it’s likely to be dry.

About 30 million turkeys are sold each year with built-in pop-up timers designed to tell cooks when the bird has reached that magic temperature. Today, the pop-up timer market is dominated by Volk Enterprises, founded in the 1950’s by Anthony Volk. When he returned from serving in World War II, Volk began working in a turkey processing plant, which led him to invent a variety of turkey-related products, and ultimately, to start his eponymous company.

Before he invented his pop-up timer, Volk worked with his brother Henry to create a device called the Hok-Lok, which helps to bind the turkey together. The wire contraption, which is meant to be left on the turkey even during cooking, keeps the drumsticks right alongside the turkey breast, and helps make the breast look plumper. Basically, it keeps the whole bird together and looking nice. Though the company has since innovated on the design and created new binding products out of different materials, the Hok-Lok is still used today.

Patent drawing for the Hok-Lok, a Poultry Trussing Device

Patent drawing for the Hok-Lok, a Poultry Trussing Device

After the Hok-Lok, Volk went on to develop a turkey thermometer, but he wasn’t the first to do so. In the 1960’s, a group from the California Turkey Producers Advisory Board began thinking about how to gauge when a turkey was done—but not overdone. The Board was receiving complaints about turkeys being too dry, which they attributed to overcooking. The group began brainstorming ways to combat this, and came up with the idea of an insertable thermometer.

Diagram of a pop-up turkey timer

How a pop-up timer works (via How Stuff Works)

In 1971, after prototyping various solutions, the group filed a patent for a Thermal Indicator “particularly suited for use in indicating temperatures attained by a heated body such as an article of food….” The Indicator was inspired by ceiling sprinklers that activate when they reach a certain temperature. The turkey thermometer consists of four parts: an outer tubular casing, an inner piece that pops up when the appropriate temperature is reached, a spring, and a small amount of metal at the bottom of the tube. The inner pop-up piece is situated in the metal, which is solid before cooking. The metal melts as the turkey cooks, releasing the inner piece and allowing it to pop up.

Patent drawing for the first pop-up turkey timer

Patent drawing for the first pop-up turkey timer

The group established the Dun-Rite Manufacturing Company to make the devices, but in 1973, sold it to 3M. 3M refined the design and continued to make the timers until 1991, when it sold that part of its business to none other than Volk Enterprises.

In the 1970s, Anthony Volk invented his own turkey thermometer. A reverse of the pop-up timer, Volk’s Vue-Temp thermometer was designed to stick out when the turkey was raw and to sink into the bird as it cooked. The design seemed to confuse consumers, however, and Volk soon abandoned that design to develop his own pop-up timer, which was similar to the Dun-Rite/3M device. (It was so similar, in fact, that 3M sued Volk Enterprises in the 1980s for patent infringement. The suit was ultimately settled, however, and both companies continued to produce the timers.)

Patent drawing for Volk’s first Disposable Cooking Thermometer, the Vue-Temp

Patent drawing for Volk’s first Disposable Cooking Thermometer, the Vue-Temp

Though Volk Enterprises dominates the built-in turkey timer market today, there are also pop-up thermometers that can be purchased independently of a bird. The most innovative (at least aesthetically)? This thermometer that is actually shaped like a turkey. Its drumsticks pop up when the meat is done.

Pop-up turkey thermometer shaped like a turkey.

Via Food Beast

Inventing for Man’s Best Friend

My dog Crazy Legs with an assortment of his (destructible) toys

My dog Crazy Legs with an assortment of his (destructible) toys

As anyone with a dog knows, finding an indestructible toy for your pooch can be nearly impossible. After coming home from work last week to find that my dog, Crazy Legs, had destroyed three of his toys in one day, however, I decided it was time to renew my quest for the perfect toy. An online search for “indestructible dog toys” yielded more than 150,000 results. I found toys of every material, shape, size, and flavor (yes, flavor) imaginable. But none of them really looked indestructible, and reviews of many of the products confirmed my suspicions. After a little more digging, however, I came across inventor Amy Rockwood who has created a toy she describes as “nearly indestructible” with the patent-pending “Chew Toy Safety Indicator.” Rockwood’s line of toys is made of rubber: green (for “go”) on the outside and red (“stop”) on the inside. As the patent application describes, “If the green layer is compromised to where the red can be seen from the outside of the chew toy…the toy design is no longer safe for the pet to use.” Once the dog chews through to the red, the toy becomes vulnerable and can be chewed into smaller pieces, which a dog can easily swallow. While Rockwood intends for the toys to be indestructible, she has designed them with a safety net of sorts that alerts the dog owner that the toy is no longer safe, thus reducing the risk of choking or digestive complications.

Patent drawing for the “Chew Toy Safety Indicator”

Patent drawing for the “Chew Toy Safety Indicator”

According to the American Pet Products Association, Rockwood’s invention is just one of a growing market of pet products. The APPA estimates that Americans will spend more than $55 billion on their pets this year alone. Pet owners are spending more on everything from toys, beds, and specialty foods, to clothing, seat belts, and designer accessories (think collars and pet carriers from Barney’s and Burberry). Increasingly, Americans view their pets as family members and are willing to purchase supplies and accessories for their pets like those they would buy for themselves.

One inventor trying to capture a piece of this growing—and ever-more-sophisticated market—is 15-year-old Brooke Martin of Spokane, WA. Brooke has invented a contraption that uses an Internet-enabled device, such as a smart phone or tablet, to allow dog owners to talk to their pets via video, and even remotely deliver dog treats!

A dog videochatting with its owner.

You can video chat with your dog using Brooke Martin’s invention (image courtesy of GeekWire)

So-called “smart collars” are also taking the pet market by storm. Dog owners can outfit their canine friends with collars that track location and activity level. (Cat owners, don’t despair; feline models are said to be coming soon!) Data from the collars are then synced to the owner’s smart phone, allowing them to assess the health and fitness of their dog and even share the information with their veterinarians. By tracking the exercise and rest patterns of our pets, we can learn more about how they spend their days (particularly when we’re not around), and ideally, spot behavioral changes quickly. Developers of these new collars believe that with the help of technology, we can help our pets can live longer, healthier lives.

A smart phone app showing data collected by smart collars.

Smart collars allow pet owners to track their dogs’ activity levels (image courtesy of gizmag.com)

Roy Eng, Michael McGuire, and Mark Robinson are another team of inventors working to extend the length and quality of our pets’ lives. Their “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets” helps animals who have lost use of their rear legs as a result of injury or paralysis. While wheelchairs for pets are not new, they have traditionally been custom-built for each pet, which has meant long wait times and expensive price tags. The adjustable model, however, allows pet owners to purchase the assistive devices off-the-shelf and easily adjust them for their own pets. Once equipped with the chair, pets can resume their regular activities and lead relatively normal lives.

Patent drawing for the “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets”

Patent drawing for the “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets”

A 2013 report on pet health in the United States shows that cats are living 10% and dogs 4% longer than they did just a little over a decade ago. The study cites a variety of reasons, including better preventive care and higher spay and neuter rates. While it does not examine the influence that new technologies and tools are having on the life expectancy rates of our pets, I like to think that inventors—and their inventions—are contributing to the extended health and well-being of our animal companions.

(Though it’s true that Americans spend more on their pets now than ever before, creating specialty pet products is not a new idea:  In the 1980s, Ruth Foster invented the Gentle Leader® dog collar, and in the 1950s, Charlotte Cramer Sachs developed her own line of dog accessories including the Watch Dog, a dog collar with a built-in watch. Now those are some smart collars!)

Inventor Ruth Foster and a dog wearing the Gentle Leader® collar (image courtesy of Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments, University of Minnesota)

Inventor Ruth Foster and a dog wearing the Gentle Leader® collar (image courtesy of Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments, University of Minnesota)

An ad for Charlotte Cramer Sachs’ dog products, including the Watch Dog

Pet Accessories advertising sheet for “Watch-Dog,” “Lead-o-Matic,” and “Guidog,” 1953. (AC0878-0000007)

Reinventing Spark!Lab

Since my June 2012 blog, we have been hard at work planning for a new Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History. I have formed a great team of colleagues from around the Museum to help develop a space that meets the needs of our (very diverse) visitors, ties Spark!Lab to the expertise and collections of the Lemelson Center and NMAH, and offers a truly innovative experience. Our planning team is made up of curators, educators, and historians; fundraising professionals; a public affairs specialist; and an accessibility expert—not to mention the all-important project manager who keeps us on schedule and within budget. It’s great to have a team with such wide-ranging knowledge and experience, as each member brings his or her own perspective to the planning process.

As we plan the space, we are using the Spark!Lab mission to provide a guiding framework:

In Spark!Lab, we help visitors connect invention to their own lives and to the American narrative, and offer opportunities for visitors to engage in the invention process and recognize their own inventive creativity.

Three core educational messages are also helping to shape the Spark!Lab 2.0 experience:

  • Invention is a process. 
  • Everyone is inventive.
  • Invention and innovation have been—and continue to be—an important part of the American Experience.

As we think about the visitor experience, we’ve been working to develop a new thematic structure for Spark!Lab so that all of the activities will tie to a common theme. Our idea is that themes will change throughout the year and will reflect the vast collections held by NMAH. To get inspiration for themes and related activities, our team has been taking “field trips” to different collections areas in the Museum. These visits are seeding great discussions among our group as we think about how to incorporate history into hands-on, invention-based activities for kids and their families. (This is also one of the great perks of working for the Smithsonian. Where else can you see such cool stuff?)

To date, the team has visited the Physical Sciences and Medical Sciences collections—or, really, parts of them. Most collections at NMAH are enormous and many are stored in multiple locations, some on- and some off-site. But we’ve been lucky to see collections items—many of which have never been or are rarely on display—that reflect various aspects of invention and innovation throughout American history.

Here are a few highlights from our visits:

Inside the Physical Sciences collections storage area

Inside the Physical Sciences collections storage area

Curator Steve Turner holds a 19th century “Tellurian.” This teaching device was used to show how the Earth’s movement on its axis and its orbit around the sun causes day, night, and the seasons.]

Curator Steve Turner holds a 19th century “Tellurian.” This teaching device was used to show how the Earth’s movement on its axis and its orbit around the sun causes day, night, and the seasons.

The National Tuning Fork Collection.

The National Tuning Fork Collection. The tuning fork, invented in the early 1700s by a British trumpeter, is an acoustic resonator. When struck, it will vibrate and resonate at a constant pitch. The specific pitch depends on the length of the two prongs or tines of the fork. Tuning forks have a wide range of scientific, medical, and technological applications.

In the Medical Sciences collections, we looked at a large collection of eyeglasses to learn about the changes in the shape, size, and materials of which glasses were made. Early glasses, like those on the right (1750-1800), were small as the capability to grind lenses was limited. The circles on the ear pieces would have fit over the user’s ears to keep them in place.

In the Medical Sciences collections, we looked at a large collection of eyeglasses to learn about the changes in the shape, size, and materials of which glasses were made. Early glasses, like those on the bottom (1750-1800), were small as the capability to grind lenses was limited. The circles on the ear pieces would have fit over the user’s ears to keep them in place.

A prototype of an early defibrillator. The device was controlled by a simple on/off switch, and had a single knob to increase or decrease power.

A prototype of an early defibrillator. The device was controlled by a simple on/off switch, and had a single knob to increase or decrease power.

We also viewed the toothbrush collection and saw a range of innovative solutions to keeping teeth clean, including a sort of “Swiss Army” toothbrush (1908) which was made of ivory and incorporated other tooth- and gum-cleaning implements, and the Spongo (1940s-1950s) featuring a “sanitary” and “replaceable” sponge head instead of bristles.

We also viewed the toothbrush collection and saw a range of innovative solutions to keeping teeth clean, including a sort of “Swiss Army” toothbrush (1908) which was made of ivory and incorporated other tooth- and gum-cleaning implements, and the Spongo (1940s-1950s) featuring a “sanitary” and “replaceable” sponge head instead of bristles.

Our team has had a great time visiting these and other treasures at NMAH and, in the coming months, looks forward to visiting more collections. Next on our list are Photographic History to see cameras, lenses, and all things photography, and Work and Industry where we’ll get a chance to see the wide range of robots in NMAH’s collection!

Just this week we also kicked off the exhibition design process for Spark!Lab, so we’re not only thinking about the activities visitors will do but what the environment will look like and how the space will really function. So expect more (and more frequent) updates as we further develop and design Spark!Lab 2.0. Though we won’t reopen our doors until 2015, we’re already excited about welcoming visitors back to Spark!Lab and seeing them create, collaborate, innovate, problem-solve, and of course, invent.

Chase Lewis: Kid Inventor

One of the best parts of working for the Lemelson Center is having the opportunity to meet so many cool inventors. In recent years, I’ve met NASA food scientist Vicki Kloeris, roboticist Jason Bannister, skateboarding pioneer Rodney Mullen, and perhaps one of my favorites, Ralph Baer, inventor of the home video game.  I am always inspired by these women and men, and love to hear them talk about how they work, who encouraged them as kids or mentored them as adults, what kinds of challenges they’ve faced and overcome, and what their next big thing might be.

Kid inventor Chase Lewis.

Photo courtesy of Chase Lewis.

Last month, I had the opportunity to meet Chase Lewis, another amazing inventor. Part of what’s so impressive about Chase is the fact that he’s just 13. But perhaps more notable is his invention, the Rescue Travois. Chase describes the inspiration for his invention on his website:

“During the 2011 Somali famine, hundreds of children who were too weak to walk were left by the roadside to die when their parents could no longer carry them on the two to three week trek to a refugee center.  When…Chase Lewis read this in the newspaper, he thought no parent should have to do this. He wondered why they did not have a simple transportation device, like a little wagon, to help them carry the children. After speaking with experts, Chase learned that there is a dearth of simple, wheeled transportation in Africa. Most of the simple transportation people had, if any, were wheelbarrows.  Yet most of the Somalis who had to make the treks to the refugee centers were too poor to even have wheelbarrows.”

So Chase set out to invent a new kind of vehicle that would be inexpensive, simple to put together, and easy to operate. He was initially inspired by travois used by Native Americans, but like any good inventor, he thought about how he could improve upon the existing technology and make it even more effective for the people he hoped to help.

Native American Travois

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

When we met, Chase talked about how his idea evolved from initial concept to end product. He described testing different designs for load-bearing capabilities and exploring various materials from which to build the travois. While he initially considered a wooden frame, he eventually settled on bamboo: it’s lightweight, readily available, sturdy, and sustainable. He also modified the existing travois design by adding wheels to make it easier to pull and a “belt” that can be worn around the operator’s waist, leaving arms free to carry a child. Finally, Chase tested his idea by having both children and adults pull the travois to ensure ease of use. Hearing Chase talk about his work really underscored one of the Lemelson Center’s main educational messages—that invention is a process. He conceived an idea, researched possible solutions, and created, tested, and tweaked a prototype until he came up with a workable design.

Testing the invention.

Testing the travois. Photo courtesy of Chase Lewis.

I first learned about Chase and his invention through the Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, which the Lemelson Center has hosted the past two years in conjunction with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access and ePals, an online global community for teachers and students.  Chase’s was one of 300 entries in the 2012 contest and garnered the top prize for his age group, including the services of a patent attorney. (Chase doesn’t want to profit from the Rescue Travois, but wants to patent it so that no one else can make money from the design either. He hopes to make the design of the vehicle free and available to all.) But Chase’s work didn’t stop when he entered the contest. He continues to work on the travois, and is currently trying to identify suppliers and manufacturers. He has also met with government and non-profit leaders who he hopes can help him make the travois available to those who need it most.

Lemelson Center Art Molella meets with kid inventor Chase Lewis.

Chase with Lemelson Center Director Art Molella, his friend Janvier, and his mother Michelle Lewis.

As my Smithsonian and ePals colleagues begin to plan the next Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, scheduled to launch in early 2014, I am already looking forward to seeing the next round of inventions. I know there are other young inventors out there who, like Chase, have great invention ideas that can make the world a better place.

Inventor Required: Home Renovations

When I was a child, my father was nearly always working on a home improvement project of some kind. My dad refinished basements, renovated bathrooms, erected walls, and once even put in a new staircase where one hadn’t been before. I liked to help him with these projects (though, truth be told, I’m not sure if I was a help or hindrance in those years), and often took on the role of “scribe,” taking notes for my dad, writing down measurements, making shopping lists. Growing up in this kind of DIY household engendered a definite “can do” attitude in me, so when I bought my first home, it seemed normal to take on projects myself.

Every spring I tackle a different home improvement project. To date, I’ve repainted the entire interior of my house, replaced all the closet doors, refurbished a fence, installed new light fixtures inside and out, and renovated two bathrooms. Some of these projects (the bathrooms) have been more challenging than others (the painting), but all of them have required more creativity and innovative thinking than I would have imagined at the outset—something I didn’t really take away from the home projects of my childhood. My father is very analytical and logical, and from my perspective, his home improvement projects were too—well planned, well organized, and completed without a hitch. It was only when I started my own projects that I realized that for all the logic and thought these things require; they need an equal amount of creative thinking and problem-solving.

When I decided to renovate a bathroom last year, I was pretty confident I knew what to expect since I’d redone the master bath two years before. But, the project didn’t go quite as I planned: I discovered moldy drywall, a hole, and a bare, concrete floor when I removed the old vanity. I also found out that most contemporary vanities don’t work with my 1984 plumbing. So I put my inventive thinking cap on and got to work.

bathroom moldPatching the hole

I eradicated the mold, replaced the drywall, and patched the bare hole. Those were pretty basic repairs. The bigger challenge came when I had to figure out how to cover the concrete floor so that it would match (or at least blend with) the existing tile. After scouring every home improvement store and flooring outlet for a match—and coming up empty—I decided I’d have to come up with my own solution. Using a combination of paint and tile I was able to create a patch of flooring that blends beautifully with what was already there. My most creative solution, though, came when I crafted my own flexible, leak-proof plumbing contraption to make the new sink and vanity work with the old pipes. I felt a little like MacGyver, using traditional plumbing supplies, hardware, auto supplies, and some super strength putty.

new tile floorThough I thought this renovation project would take just a weekend, it took nearly a month, and was by far the most frustrating of all my home improvement projects (so far, anyway). But it’s also been the most satisfying and most creative. I encountered unexpected problems and developed innovative solutions, bounced back from what I originally thought might be insurmountable challenges, and ultimately came up with a beautiful end result. Since I’ve become my own contractor, I’ve realized that the projects I witnessed as a child weren’t perfect. Like me, my dad surely encountered problems and came up with solutions, switched gears, and found creative ways to use materials and tools.  And though I’m not inventing something when I take on a new project at home, I often follow a process similar to that of an inventor—coming up with a new idea, sketching out a plan, creating or building something, and then tweaking it make it better before arriving at the final product. (My projects seem to be especially heavy on the “tweaking” part of the process.) Though sometimes lengthy and frustrating, it’s exactly this creative and innovative—and messy—process that I find so rewarding about working on my home.

Finished bathroom

Creating the Spark!Lab National Network

Shortly after the Lemelson Center opened Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History in November 2008, we started receiving inquiries from museums, libraries, community centers, and individuals from across the country. Most had visited Spark!Lab with their family or had heard of it from a friend or colleague and wanted to know how they could get a Spark!Lab in their city or town. The reasons varied—from declining schools to museums in need of fresh programming to community centers wanting quality after-school programs for young students—but the message was clear: Spark!Lab offered a fun and innovative educational approach to STEM and creative learning, and offered opportunities for kids and their families to engage in the invention process.

Hands-on invention activities in Spark!Lab

Hands-on invention activities at The Discovery.

I’ll admit, the first few phone calls were pretty flattering and more than a little exciting. But when the calls continued and our floor staff began to relay similar messages from Spark!Lab visitors, I realized that we were onto something. It seemed that Spark!Lab might be able to fill the needs of institutions beyond the Smithsonian. So we began to develop plans to take Spark!Lab outside of Washington, DC, and to create the Spark!Lab National Network.

Like many ambitious projects, the Spark!Lab National Network didn’t take shape overnight (despite my sincere wishes otherwise). First, we had to figure out if we could even lend our content and the Smithsonian and Spark!Lab names to a non-Smithsonian entity. (According to the Smithsonian’s Office of General Counsel: yes!) Then we had to consider how we would run a project like this while still maintaining our presence at the Museum. How would we ensure quality and consistency of experience at labs we didn’t directly manage? How would we select locations for Spark!Labs? How much would a Spark!Lab cost and what would that fee include for our collaborators?  Perhaps the most important question, how could we work with staff at our satellite locations to build their capacity for developing their own Spark!Lab activities and, collectively, become better at encouraging inventive creativity in all of our respective visitors?

The Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum.

The first Spark!Lab off the National Mall opened in September 2011 at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum.

Fast forward to September 2011, and we celebrated the opening or our first Spark!Lab National Network site—a prototype of sorts—at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno. Spark!Lab at The Discovery has provided incredible learning opportunities for everyone involved. For the Lemelson Center, it has helped shape our thinking about all sorts of things, from training to activity development to communication strategies to marketing opportunities. It has really laid the groundwork for the expansion and development of the Network. And thanks to a generous gift from the Ford Motor Company Fund, this expansion is in the works! Their gift, announced at the Washington Auto Show in late January, will provide funding for us to expand to three additional U.S. museums. It will also provide much-needed support for the design of the new Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History, which will open in 2015.

Ford Donates $500,000 to the Smithsonian -- Edsel Ford II (standing center), great-grandson of Henry Ford, announces a $500,000 contribution to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Lemelson Center for the Study of Innovation for its educational Spark!Lab program at the 2013 Washington Auto Show. Edsel Ford pictured here with Ford Motor Company Group Vice President of Government and Community Relations Ziad Ojakli (standing third from right), Vice President of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering Robert Brown (standing between Ford and Ojakli), representatives of the Smithsonian, and fourth grade students from Cornerstone Schools of Washington D.C.  Photo by Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.

Ford Donates $500,000 to the Smithsonian — Edsel Ford II (standing center), great-grandson of Henry Ford, announces a $500,000 contribution to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and Lemelson Center for the Study of Innovation for its educational Spark!Lab program at the 2013 Washington Auto Show. Edsel Ford pictured here with Ford Motor Company Group Vice President of Government and Community Relations Ziad Ojakli (standing third from right), Vice President of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering Robert Brown (standing between Ford and Ojakli), representatives of the Smithsonian, and fourth grade students from Cornerstone Schools of Washington D.C. Photo by Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.

Edsel Ford II joins fourth grade students Miniyah Peterson (center) and Raeanna Nelson (right) from the Cornerstone Schools of Washington D.C , in a Smithsonian Spark!Lab activity creating a sound pathway for marbles, one of the Spark!Lab activities. Photo by Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.

Edsel Ford II joins fourth grade students Miniyah Peterson (center) and Raeanna Nelson (right) from the Cornerstone Schools of Washington D.C , in a Smithsonian Spark!Lab activity creating a sound pathway for marbles, one of the Spark!Lab activities. Photo by Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.

We’re now starting to come off cloud nine and begin the real work of identifying potential partner museums and developing content and activities for these new sites. We are thrilled to be able to take Spark!Lab to other communities, and to start to create a true network and community of educational practice around invention and innovation. We’re also excited to be talking about the Spark!Lab National Network to museum colleagues at two upcoming conferences—the Association of Children’s Museums InterActivity event in Pittsburgh in April and the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting in Baltimore in May.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Spark!Lab National Network or bringing Spark!Lab to your community, let us know in the comments or email us at sparklab@si.edu!

Running: A High Tech Sport

I’m a runner. I started running in late 2000, and in June the next year I ran the Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska—my very first race ever. Since then, I’ve run seven other marathons, a dozen or more half marathons, countless 10 milers, 10Ks, and 5Ks, and even a couple triathlons. In the last 10+ years, I‘ve logged thousands on miles on the road and running has become a big part of my life.

The other night I was suiting up for a run and realized that it was 12 years ago to the day that I had started training for my first race. (I have a weird thing for dates and seem to remember a whole host of odd-yet-significant occasions like this one.) I was new to running then, of course, and didn’t know the first thing about what to wear (other than running shoes and even those turned out not to be the right ones for my pronating feet). I can remember wearing cotton sweat pants, long sleeve cotton t-shirts, and fleece jackets to train that winter. When spring came, it was gym shorts, cotton socks, and more cotton t-shirts. I thought back on that—as I pulled on my compression tights and layers of Under Armour—and wondered how in the world I ran mile after mile in cotton. It sticks, it gets heavy, it chafes, and it surely doesn’t breathe when you sweat or, worse, get caught in the rain. Thank goodness I eventually discovered technical clothing that can wick, warm, cool, breathe, or do pretty much anything else the weather and my workout demand!

Since I’m not only a runner but also someone who’s interested in innovation, I started thinking more about the gear I wear and use now, and how invention and innovation have impacted the sport of running. There are innovations in shoes, clothing, technology (think GPSs and apps that help us map and track runs), even the food and drink we consume before, during, and after a run.  Races themselves have become hot spots of innovation, with new timing systems that are built right into the bibs (race numbers), solar powered generators that are used to provide electricity at start and finish lines, and race premiums (like t-shirts) made from recycled and/or sustainable materials.

Race number with built-in timing chip. Photo courtesy of MI Sport Online.

I polled some friends and members of my local running group to find out what others thought about innovation in running gear and, specifically, what their favorite innovations are (or have been). I received a wide range of responses: tech fabrics like Dri-Fit and Mizuno Breath Thermo, GPS devices, tracking apps, heart rate monitors, shoes (including running sandals and “barefoot” models), special lights for running in the dark, and foods like gels and gummies formulated especially for endurance athletes.

At the Lemelson Center, we’re always interested in the people and process behind invention, so I decided to take a closer look at some of these innovations to learn more about who created them, why, and how. I uncovered a lot of great stories. Some, like the invention of the first Nike shoe by college track coach Bill Bowerman, were familiar. But I found some new stories, too, including two female entrepreneurs who have designed a GPS specifically for women athletes, a runner in Oregon who developed a hand-held lighting system for running in the dark, and a former chef who created a plant-based energy bar made of whole, raw ingredients.

Nike running shoes with patented waffle sole, about 1979. Smithsonian photo.

What I love about all of these stories, both old and new, is that they are wonderful examples of the independent American inventor. These are inventors who began working not in a research lab or a corporation with a big R&D budget (although lots of great innovation takes place there, too), but in their garages, basements, kitchens, and workshops. They were fueled by their own interests, needs, and motivations, and at least initially, all set out simply to solve a problem and to make running easier, more efficient, better. The United States has a rich history of independent invention, and it is great to see this spirit reflected in the running community.

Old (left) and new (right) running shoes.

As part of my New Year’s resolution to get more organized at home, I was cleaning out my closet the other day and came across the shoes I wore in that first race in Alaska. They’re beaten up and not suitable for running (or really anything) anymore, but I’ve kept them all these years for sentimental reasons. Just pulling them out of the box brought back memories of the training I endured, the anxiety in the days leading up to the race, and most vividly, the elation I felt at crossing the finish line after 26.2 hard miles. They also reminded how far running gear has come: They are so heavy and clunky compared to the shoes I wear now, which—thanks to all the inventors and innovators out there—will probably feel bulky and out-of-date, too, in another 10 years!

Sourcing Materials in Kyiv

In the months leading up to our trip to Ukraine, my colleague Steve Madewell and I stockpiled the materials and equipment we would need to operate Spark!Lab for a month. Using an Excel spreadsheet as our guide, we placed orders with school, office, and craft supply companies; we collected tools and materials from the hardware store; and made more than one visit to Target. In May, we shipped 13 crates of materials to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, but we knew there would be a few things we’d want to get “on the ground” in Ukraine—either because they were difficult to ship or simply to provide some local flavor to Spark!Lab.

When we arrived in Kyiv in late August, our shopping list looked like this:
On our second full day there, Serhiy, a member of the U.S. Embassy staff (and a purported DIY-er), collected us from our hotel in a State Department van and off we went.  The main focus of our trip was finding supplies to build our Spark!Lab Percussion Sculpture. We needed lumber, buckets of different sizes, rope and string, nails and screws, and a cordless drill that could be charged in Ukraine’s 220-volt outlets. Our first stop on this adventure was Epicenter, a giant Home Depot-Walmart hybrid that’s two stories high and nearly 100 aisles long. Described as a “hypermarket,” Epicenter can be a little overwhelming. Thankfully, Serhiy was there to guide us, interpret for us, and help us navigate the checkout process.

To complete the drum sculpture, we really wanted to add some locally sourced (and surprising) elements. The sculpture we had in Spark!Lab in DC included old reel-to-reel film canisters from the Archives Center, a colleague’s retired briefcase, and a large tin can that once held peaches (donated by the cafeteria workers at NMAH). We wanted to add similar elements to the sculpture at Art Arsenale—items that would reflect the culture and that could be repurposed to make sound. Where better to find some local flavor than a Ukrainian flea market?

Here, we found (and successfully haggled for) an old fishing buoy, the side mirror from a Russian car, metal disks from an old meat grinder, and a small cast iron “door” from a stove. All of these items made interesting (and surprising) noises and found their way onto the percussion sculpture in Spark!Lab, much to the delight of our visitors!      

Once Spark!Lab opened, it became clear pretty quickly that we would need to replenish certain supplies on a regular basis. Construction paper, craft sticks, tape, straws, rubber bands, marbles, yarn, and plastic cups were all hot commodities. I made one other trip to Epicenter, but because it was far from the museum and my hotel (and I needed a State Department escort to get there), I had to find other places to buy supplies. My go-to spots became places that were within walking distance: the local pharmacy, Billa (the grocery store), and a stationary supply store in one of Kyiv’s many underground malls.

I managed to find most things I needed, but some items eluded me. While it was frustrating at first, I soon realized that I needed to start thinking more like an inventor. Most inventors don’t have every single supply available to them in their workshop or lab. Instead, they think creatively about how to use materials and are often inspired by what’s around them. As I spent more and more time in Ukraine, I began to be less driven by a specific list of supplies and more inspired by what was easily accessible to me. When we ran out of the gravel we were using to make maracas, for example, I went out and collected chestnuts that had fallen from the trees surrounding the museum. When I couldn’t find craft sticks and rubber bands to make kazoo-like instruments called Sound Sandwiches, I challenged visitors to create different musical instruments from materials we had in large quantity. And when we began to run low on marbles for the Soundscapes activity, one of my Ukrainian colleagues had the idea to use large, round beads instead.

All of these were great alternatives to the original materials and, importantly, allowed our visitors to successfully create, invent, test, and tweak their ideas. The simple challenge of having to find alternative materials for Spark!Lab also made me realize that inventive thinking isn’t just something to encourage in our visitors; it’s something to encourage in myself, as well. If I truly want to “live the mission,” as we often say in the Lemelson Center, I need to think like an inventor. I need to be flexible, creative, and collaborative in my work, and willing to try new ways of doing things. Whether it’s trying out new supplies in Kyiv or developing a whole new Spark!Lab here in DC, there are great benefits and rewards that can come from inventive thinking—for me and for our visitors.

Dispatch from Kyiv

On August 25, I left Washington, DC, for Kyiv, Ukraine. Through a grant from the U.S. State Department, the Lemelson Center has collaborated with Art Arsenale, one of Kyiv’s leading contemporary art museums, to bring Spark!Lab to Ukraine for the month of September. After an initial planning visit in October 2011, I had spent most of this year planning for Spark!Lab’s arrival in Kyiv. As I boarded my plane bound for Ukraine, I could hardly believe that our newest Spark!Lab outpost would be opening in a matter of weeks.

I traveled to Ukraine with Steve Madewell, Spark!Lab’s Resident Eccentric. Steve and I spent our first week on the ground setting up the Spark!Lab space, which is housed in a huge, old building that was originally built as an arsenal. When we arrived in Kyiv, the 4,000 square-foot space had concrete floors, bare walls, no furniture, and a single flood light illuminating the interior, which was full of the various crates and boxes we had shipped to Kyiv in advance of our arrival. On that first day, it was hard to imagine that the space would become a vibrant hub of invention and creativity. But over the next week, the arsenal was transformed: carpet was installed, giant banners with the Spark!Lab logo and graphics were hung, lighting was added, and tables and stools were delivered. As we began unpacking our boxes and installing the activities we’d brought with us to Kyiv, Spark!Lab came to life.

A volunteer facilitates a gyroscope activity.

But what we needed were volunteers to facilitate the activities, engage visitors in the invention process, and help children to recognize their own inventive creativity. (We also needed visitors, of course, but we didn’t have many doubts that Spark!Lab would be a popular destination for kids, parents, students, and teachers from Kyiv and beyond!) Since June, Art Arsenale had been recruiting students from local universities to serve as volunteer facilitators. The majority of those who signed up were students at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, one of Ukraine’s top universities and a chief collaborator with Art Arsenale on the Spark!Lab project.

All of our supplies, shipped over from the US

Though I was bolstered by the news that nearly 100 students would be attending our Spark!Lab training sessions, I greeted the first day of training with a bit of trepidation. Volunteerism is not a part of Ukrainian culture in the same way it is in the United States. Further, the idea of hands-on learning in a museum setting is just gaining popularity in Ukraine. Would the Spark!Lab philosophy and educational approach translate to a different culture? Would the students be interested in Spark!Lab?  Would they stay excited and committed for the entire month that Spark!Lab would be open?

The volunteers, in training, with the vehicle they invented. Complete with a Ukrainian flag!

The volunteers I met over the next four days of training quickly allayed my concerns. They were engaged, focused, enthusiastic, inquisitive—and, best of all, innovative. They were attentive at each step of the training and genuinely seemed to embrace the Spark!Lab philosophy: “Everyone is inventive.” As Steve and I trained them on each of the ten activities, the students showed creativity not only in the inventions they created (we had them participate in each activity as if they were visitors), but also in the strategies they developed for engaging visitors who would come to Spark!Lab. They embraced the inquiry learning approach to which we introduced them, developed questions to engage children in the different activities, and even discussed ways to work with over-anxious parents and teachers!

As we make our way through the last week of Spark!Lab here in Kyiv, the volunteers continue to impress me. They have shown up for each shift as expected, many of them working multiple shifts per week. But more than that, they have done an impressive job facilitating the activities and never seem to tire of encouraging inventive creativity in the more than 30,000 young people who have visited Spark!Lab since it opened on September 6. At times, the crowds of visitors have been daunting even for the most seasoned Spark!Lab facilitator, but each time I check in with the students to see how they’re doing, they smile and tell me they’re having fun. Many of them have told me they wish Spark!Lab had existed when they were children, and though they will be glad to have extra time in their schedules when we close, they will miss the energy and dynamism of the space.

Facilitiating the Soundscapes activity.

As Spark!Lab was filled with a near-capacity crowd last Saturday, one volunteer rushed up to me. I thought she needed supplies for her activity or, worse, that there had been an accident or emergency. Instead, she told me, “I never get tired of seeing the faces of the children when they realize they can invent. Their smiles make my heart sing!” And that makes my heart sing, as I realize that the spirit of Spark!Lab is not confined to our museum in Washington, DC, or even to our own country. Thanks in large part to the commitment and energy of our dedicated volunteers in Kyiv, Spark!Lab has crossed institutional, language, and cultural barriers, and continued the Lemelson Center’s important work to inspire inventive creativity in young people.