About Steve Madewell

Steve Madewell is Spark!Lab's "Resident Eccentric," coming up with all kinds of cool, inventive activities for our visitors.

Invention Activity: Robotic Gardening

One of the coolest inventions I have seen recently is an adorable little robot named PLANTANIMAL. This autonomous garden-robot prototype was created by Pittsburgh-based inventor/artist/scientist, Jason Bannister. PLANTANIMAL is designed to wheel around its home seeking a warm sunny spot to soak up some rays. This ensures the plants living in PLANTANIMAL get plenty of sunlight.

Plantanimal, a robot gardner

PLANTANIMAL by Jason Bannister. Courtesy of Mechanimal

Inspired by PLANTANIMAL, I decided to create my own robotic garden using items already in my office workshop. After several versions were created, tested, and tweaked, I came up with a robotic garden made from two broken RC cars, miscellaneous craft supplies, and a small Spark!Lab hydroponic garden.

Robot materials

A random sampling of “potential robot treasures” collected from my office/workshop for this project.

My robotic garden, named GROWBOT, finds sunny spots via radio control, attracting a lot of attention at the museum.

GROWBOT, Spark!Lab’s Robotic Garden Prototype

GROWBOT, Spark!Lab’s Robotic Garden Prototype.

Tips for inventing your own robotic garden:  

  1. Take a trip to the local garden center! Decide what types of plants you want to grow. How about a robo-veggie garden, or an herb-bot for your kitchen?
  2. Consider the possibilities! Sketching ideas on paper may help or let your ideas be inspired by the “trash-ures” gathered from around your house.
  3. Get to work! Let the potential robot gardens take shape—build and then tweak your design.
  4. Share! Don’t leave the robotic gardening community waiting! Share a photo or video with us at sparklab@si.edu, or on Facebook.

Invention Activity: Pasta Concept Cars

Inventors often build models or prototypes of their inventions. These prototypes allow inventors to test their ideas, and may show them where improvements are needed. The ongoing cycle of testing, tweaking, and testing again is an important part of the invention process.

Gather some friends or family members, a few rolls of tape, and whatever types of pasta you can find in the pantry and spontaneously engage in the invention process first-hand by building a prototype car! When your prototype is ready, take it for a test drive down a cardboard ramp, set-up an improvised track, or race your cars across the kitchen floor. If your prototype crashes or breaks, rebuild it in a different way to improve the design.

This pasta car was made by our senior historian, Joyce Bedi. Thanks for the photo, Joyce!

By creating a prototype, testing it, possibly failing, and then tweaking it to make it better, you will actively and quickly play through the invention process.

When you are finished with your prototype, email a photo or video to us at sparklab@si.edu, or at https://www.facebook.com/smithsoniansparklab.

Reflections Going Forward

After returning from an incredible, fun-filled trip to set-up and help kick off the first international Spark!Lab in Kyiv, Ukraine, I returned to Washington, D.C., just in time to pack up and move the last boxes of Spark!Lab supplies and equipment. We had to clear out before demolition crews arrived to tear down the original  exhibition to make way for the new one. Part of me was ready to celebrate. The other part…the sentimental part…wondered if I would be able to survive without Spark!Lab until the opening of Spark!Lab 2.0 in 2015. I decided to take one last contemplative stroll through the old exhibition. As I surveyed the space formerly known as Spark!Lab, devoid of its brightly colored purple, green, and orange-hued optimism, it occurred to me that the thing I will miss most is the steady flow of inspiration, creative uses of materials, hilarious kid logic, and out-of-the-box ideas the staff and I received from visitors on a daily basis. While I thought some quiet time without Spark!Lab might make it easier to think, I’m actually finding it harder to be creative without the 110-decibel swarm of enthusiastic young inventors busy sketching, creating, trying, and tweaking their inventions around me. At some point, Spark!Lab transitioned from innovative museum exhibition into a real community of invention.

As we move forward developing and prototyping Spark!Lab 2.0, I realize that one of the most important concepts to carry over from the original Spark!Lab can’t be found in a box in storage. It is the simultaneous exchange of inspiration between and among Spark!Lab visitors and staff, the freedom to fail gloriously before reaching success, and the sense of community unique to the Spark!Lab experience. While this magical Spark!Lab experience is not something that can easily be replicated by a formula or recipe, we’ll make sure to bring it to Spark!Lab 2.0. Prepare to inspire, and prepare to be inspired.