About Tricia Edwards

Tricia is the Lemelson Center's Education Specialist.

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.

Try It: Fresh Paper

Note: “Try It” refers to a step in the invention process – testing your product. This post is not an endorsement of any product.

A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and saw a post about a new product that promised to keep fruits and vegetables fresher longer. Since I do a good part of my food shopping in the summer at farmer’s markets or in the produce section of my local grocery store, I was intrigued.  I love all the fresh produce of summer but I get frustrated when I buy things only to have them go off a few days later. Curious (but skeptical), I clicked on the link and was introduced to Fresh Paper, marketed as “a dryer sheet for produce.” Basically, it’s a small paper towel-like square made of edible, organic, and compostable ingredients that inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi that make produce rot. According to the article I was reading, you simply place fruits and vegetables on or near the square of Fresh Paper and your produce will stay fresh 2-4 times longer.

Kavita Shukla. Image from Cartier Womens Initiative.

I loved the sound of this and decided to do a little more research, not only on the product but about who was behind it. I learned that Fresh Paper was invented by Kavita Shukla, a young woman who first had the idea for her invention when she was a middle school student. She was visiting her grandmother in India and accidentally swallowed some water while brushing her teeth. Concerned that the water would make her sick, her grandmother mixed together a tea with the Indian herb fenugreek. Shukla drank the tea and didn’t get sick, and thinking like a true inventor, began to wonder about what else this traditional spice could be used for.

Skukla in high school. Images from Lemelson-MIT.

Shukla hit upon a possible use when she was grocery shopping with her mother and noticed that nearly every package of strawberries contained a berry or two that was already rotten. Could her grandmother’s herbal mixture help solve this problem? Shukla began working on her idea and in 2002, after a summer as the Lemelson-MIT High School Invention Apprentice, was awarded patent number 6,372,220 for her “Fenugreek Impregnated Material for the Preservation of Perishable Substances.” (This was actually Shukla’s second patent. Her first, received in 2001, was for a “Smart Lid” which has a built-in device that alerts users when the container is opened or leaking.)

As I learned more about Shukla I was struck by the similarities between her story and that of other inventors the Lemelson Center has studied over the years:

  • She began inventing and exploring the world around her at a young age. She didn’t become an inventor as an adult; she has practiced inventive thinking and ‘doing’ skills throughout her life.
  • The invention wasn’t the result of a single “Eureka” moment. The incident in India inspired her, but it took years of study, experimentation, and scientific understanding to take Fresh Paper from idea to market.
  • There were setbacks along the way. Shukla first wanted to start a non-profit to distribute Fresh Paper but with few resources, it was challenging. It wasn’t until years later that the opportunity to work with a partner came along and she was able to take the idea to market.

My package of Fresh Paper.

Today, through her company Fenugreen, Shukla sells Fresh Paper to individual consumers and at grocery stores and farmer’s markets throughout the U.S. But she is also thinking about how Fresh Paper can be used to keep produce fresh in food banks and how farmers in the developing world might use the product to extend the life of their crops once picked. As much as 25% of the world’s food supply is lost to spoilage, and Shukla hopes to use Fresh Paper to address this problem.

A tomato on Fresh Paper. So far it has lasted a week!

A week ago I received my order of Fresh Paper in the mail. I have been using the sheets with my produce at home and they seem to be working. But more than being satisfied with the product, I am impressed by the young inventor who created it and her vision for using invention to impact and improve the lives of people around the world.

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!