Setting Up Spark!Lab India

It’s 11:45 p.m. local time when I land in Delhi, India. After nearly 20 hours of traveling, I’m happy to have arrived at my final destination. (I’m also jetlagged—there’s a nine and a half hour time difference and I’ve slept very little. And I’m hot—though it’s nearly midnight, it’s still about 90 degrees.) But mostly I’m excited since I’ve traveled all this way to help open our newest Spark!Lab.

For the past year, the Lemelson Center has been working with partners in India to establish a Spark!Lab in Gurgaon, a city about 30 minutes from Delhi. I’ve had several phone calls and traded lots of emails with Arti Agarwal, the leader of the Spark!Lab India project, but I’m anxious to meet her face-to-face.

The next day, Arti picked me up at my hoteI and took me to see the newest member of the Spark!Lab “family.” Unlike our U.S.-based labs and the temporary installation in Kyiv, Ukraine, this Spark!Lab is not in a museum. Instead, it’s an independent venue, housed on the sixth floor of a high-rise building. I was unsure how this set-up might affect the atmosphere of Spark!Lab, but once inside the doors, Spark!Lab India feels just like our other sites—fun, dynamic, and full of possibility.

Posters outlining the process of invention.

Posters outlining the process of invention.

View of Gurgaon from Spark!Lab India.

View of Gurgaon from Spark!Lab India.

Over the next week, I met with Arti and her team to train them on the Spark!Lab pedagogy and educational philosophy. They worked through invention challenges I posed for them, and became experts on each of the individual activities. We talked a lot about how to make the experience culturally relevant to the kids who would visit, and how to keep the Spark!Lab experience fresh for repeat visitors. As always, I feel like I learned as much from my Indian colleagues as I taught them. A favorite moment was learning how to make a traditional Indian kite, and then discussing how we could integrate this technique into an existing Spark!Lab activity that challenges kids to design their own kites.

Spark!Lab India staff teach me how to make a traditional Indian kite.

Spark!Lab India staff teach me how to make a traditional Indian kite.

Spark!Lab India staff invent a floating home to address the problem of flooding during monsoon season in Gurgaon.

Spark!Lab India staff invent a floating home to address the problem of flooding during monsoon season in Gurgaon.

Spark!Lab India staff invent a vehicle out of PVC pipe.

Spark!Lab India staff invent a vehicle out of PVC pipe.

The highlight of the trip came when we invited the first kids to visit Spark!Lab. While our team was excited and prepared, I sensed a little bit of uncertainty. Would people come? Would kids have fun? Would the activities really work as they are designed to? Yes, yes, and yes!

Spark!Lab visitors create flying inventions to test in the vertical wind tunnel.

Spark!Lab visitors create flying inventions to test in the vertical wind tunnel.

A young boy experiments with gyroscopes.

A young boy experiments with gyroscopes.

Spark!Lab visitors create their own version of the Taj Mahal.

Spark!Lab visitors create their own version of the Taj Mahal.

Our pilot group of Spark!Lab visitors had a great time exploring the different activity stations, creating, testing, and tweaking their inventions, and collaborating and problem-solving with one another. In many ways, it felt just like Spark!Lab at the Smithsonian or in Reno or Ukraine, and reminded me that no matter where we live, we are all inventive and creative.

With the Spark!Lab India team.

With the Spark!Lab India team.

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

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

An International Spark!Lab Workshop

We recently hosted colleagues for a two-week workshop on the process of developing and prototyping Spark!Lab activities. We also arranged trips to visit several other hands-on spaces at the Smithsonian, to show the breadth of ways to approach this sort of programming.

Our Ukrainian colleagues Nina and Zhenya.

Our Ukrainian colleagues Nina and Zhenya.

This was a really wonderful opportunity for the folks in the workshop, as it was a diverse crowd: staff from both Art Arsenal in Kyiv, Ukraine, and the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum in Winchester, Virginia, joined us. This may seem like an odd pairing, geographically, but both museums are in a crucial part of their strategic development, and so came to us at a good time for inspiration and learning.

Prototyping a music activity with visitors.

Prototyping a music activity with visitors.

I had two favorite moments over the course of our time together. The first was developing and prototyping an activity on the topic of contemporary art; this was an area of particular interest for our Ukrainian colleagues. Through brainstorming, we determined that contemporary art is based on emotion and beauty. We agreed on a handful of emotions, went shopping for random materials and gathered recyclables from our office, and put the activity together. It was quite a success with visitors!

Two pieces of contemporary art made by visitors  - ‘hunger’ and ‘sadness’, left to right.

Two pieces of contemporary art made by visitors – ‘hunger’ and ‘sadness’, left to right.

My second favorite part was our trip to ArtLab+ at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. ArtLab+ is a drop-in art space for teens, with opportunities for them to gain expertise in computer programs, technical equipment, and much more. It’s an inspiring space that really resonated with our colleagues.

ArtLab

I’m so glad we had the chance to share our expertise in developing Spark!Lab activities, prototyping, and much more. I know we also learned a great deal from our colleagues! We’re looking forward to seeing how they implement what they learned, and eager to see how it benefits their work.

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.

Visiting Spark!Lab in Reno

The Spark!Lab team recently traveled to Reno to visit our National Network partners at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum. We had a great time, learned a lot, and were impressed with the exciting projects staff members are working on. Here’s a little bit more about our adventure!

Touring the workshop.

The Spark!Lab team touring the workshop at The Discovery — we’re jealous of their tools!

Conversational Learning

Part of the goal of this visit was to be able to support our partners through further training. This included modeling behavior on Spark!Lab facilitation techniques, providing tips for success and sharing our experience. But we also wanted to do a lot of listening and so had some great conversations on the challenges and successes they’ve had. We really appreciate the perspectives people brought to the table, and are excited to move forward to make our partnership stronger.

Meeting with Discovery staff

Discussing Spark!Lab with The Discovery staff

Reno is Awesome

I don’t care what anyone says—I love Reno. I’ve travelled a lot, and I always know when I’ve found a true gem. Reno is one of those places. You can walk down the street and visit a world class museum, drop into a truly strange casino, take a fresh breath of air on the river walk, or hover over a cup of killer locally-roasted coffee. I’m really excited by the future of our Spark!Lab here, because I know Reno is a place where interesting ideas flourish.

Hub Coffee Roasters coffee shop

Drinking excellent coffee at local sensation Hub Coffee Roasters.

Invention is Present in Reno

Over a conversation with one of The Discovery’s staff, we found out that copper-riveted Levi’s jeans were invented in Reno. And that Reno is a major staging point for Burning Man, the annual inventive festival that is pretty hard to describe. It’s a place where a mundane invention—the neon light—has been lifted up as an art form and is being hailed as an important piece of Reno history.

From NevadaArt.org

From NevadaArt.org

Stay tuned for more exciting updates from our partnership in Reno and beyond!

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
http://mechanimal.com/.

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.

Girls Get Science (and Invention)

On Saturday, March 23, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a special evening program called “Girls Get Science,” which was sponsored by The Great Adventure Lab and took place at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland. The other panelists included my Smithsonian colleague Dr. Marguerite Toscano, a marine scientist and paleobiologist at the National Museum of Natural History, and Dr. Betsy Pugel, a physicist and electrical engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The audience consisted of about 40 parents (some of whom are also teachers) from the DC metro area with about 40 of their daughters who are in grades 2-6.

Girls participating in nanotech activities.

Participating in nanotechnology activities in Spark!Lab.

The panelists and parents participated in a lively and thought-provoking 75-minute Q&A session facilitated by Great Adventure Lab president Joan Rigdon about how to support and encourage girls’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) activities and possibly inspire them to pursue related careers. We talked a lot about the importance of having female role models (such as my fellow panelists!) from science, invention, and related fields. We also discussed ways to make STEM experiences more fun, social, interdisciplinary (including art, which makes it STEAM), and relevant to the “real world” to keep girls engaged through their teen years when typically their enthusiasm and participation wanes due to social and cultural pressures. While parents were discussing their potential futures, the daughters were in nearby classrooms totally engrossed in hands-on activities about basic robotics, video game programming, and engineering.

Girls inventing robots in Spark!Lab.

Inventing robots in Spark!Lab.

After the official Q&A, the panelists and parents joined the girls to see their inventive creations and talk more on-one for about 45 minutes. Several parents told me they had loved spending time previously with their children in the Lemelson Center’s Spark!Lab and asked eagerly when it would reopen [answer: late spring 2015 when the National Museum of American History’s west wing first floor reopens]. A girl, about 7-8 years old I’d bet (a key age for budding inventors), came up to me and quietly shared that she had been working on an invention at home but it had failed. I explained to her that failure is an important, in fact essential, part of the invention process and all inventors have to fail in order to learn. Indeed Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Then I asked if she would go back to her invention and keep tinkering, and she said she would, she had a couple of ideas to try to make it work. While we were talking she was sticking a Spark!Lab pin onto her shirt very intently.

Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, portraying in "Invention at Play."

Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, portrayed in “Invention at Play.”

Since the Lemelson Center was founded in 1995, we’ve had the great fortune of researching, documenting, and highlighting an array of amazing historic and contemporary women inventors. One woman at the “Girls Get Science” event came up to tell me she was proud to know already about Kevlar® inventor Stephanie Kwolek, who I mentioned during the Q&A as one of my favorite women inventors I had the opportunity to meet. It turned out she learned about Kwolek while visiting the Center’s Invention at Play exhibition that I worked on as the project historian and later project director. Kwolek is one of 6 featured case studies in the exhibition, along with stories of other women inventors including Marjorie Stewart Joyner, Sally Fox, and Gertrude Elion, Patsy Sherman, Ruth Foster, Krysta Morlan, Ann Moore, and Lydia O’Leary, and Annetta Papadopoulos of the IDEO team.

Inventor Patricia Bath meets with female students.

Patricia Bath, inventor of the Laserphaco Probe, talks with female students during an Innovative Lives presentation.

Some of the women inventors above were participants in the Center’s Innovative Lives program series. You can read more about them there along with: Patricia Bath, inventor of the Laserphaco Probe for the treatment of cataracts; astronaut and electrical engineer Ellen Ochoa; and GirlTech founder Janese Swanson. For a sampling of additional stories, please read my colleagues’ thoughtful “Bright Ideas” blogs about Fresh Paper inventor Kavita Shukla and “Boater” diaper cover inventor Marion O’Brien Donovan, and referring to actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr at the end of a recent blog about Michael Jackson (yes, he was an inventor too!). Also, listen to some fascinating Inventive Voices podcasts both with women such as POPVOX.com co-founder Rachna Choudhry, NASA food scientist Vicki Kloeris, and neonatal products inventor Sharon Rogone, and about women like industrial psychologist Lillian Gilbreth, computer programmer Grace Hopper, and hair care products entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker. Finally, for more historical perspective, check out a 1999 article by Center senior historian Joyce Bedi titled “Exploring the History of Women Inventors.”

The Lemelson Center is always looking for more and different stories from and about women inventors and is interested in documenting them throughout American history. If you have stories to share, let us know. Happy women’s history month!

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!

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.