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.

The International Symposium of Science Museums

“Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you
Mamma mia, does it show again
My my, just how much I’ve missed you…”

To ABBA’s surprise, I’m sure, as well as mine, their song “Mamma Mia” will always remind me of my September trip to South Korea. Yes, you read that correctly. The disco classic was sung by an all-girls pop group during a special banquet honoring the participants, organizers, and VIPs involved in the 2012 International Symposium of Science Museums in Busan. This entertainment offering was a most unexpected conference experience, especially while jet lagged.

I had arrived late the previous night after a 14+ hour flight from Washington, D.C., to Seoul, a four-hour layover, and then another flight to Busan, the country’s second largest city on the southern coast. Thanks to melatonin and a comfortable hotel bed, I managed to sleep normal hours, and awoke to the morning sunshine feeling relatively energetic. So I took a nice long stroll along neighboring Haeundae beach, a popular spot with Korean vacationers during the summer.

Courtesy of ISSM.

I felt very fortunate to be among a small group of mostly European and American museum professionals invited to speak at the symposium. At the Bexco convention center we were led through a large meeting room to our name-tagged seats at the front tables and provided with headsets for simultaneous Korean-English translations. I imagined this must be a taste of what it is like to attend United Nations meetings.

Official welcomes included remarks by Hang Sik Park, president of the National Science Museum of Korea, which was hosting the conference. Then we heard an interesting keynote address by Sarah George, the director of Utah’s Natural History Museum. After that, we beheld another surprising performance—a musical theater piece by a Korean group called Vollklang Solisten about the connections between Western classical music and Pythagorean math. I cannot begin to describe it adequately here.

Photo by Ellen Wetmore.

During the first session I was one of five panelists discussing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education at science museums and informal learning organizations. It is a strange experience to speak to about 200 people listening to translations, so they would nod, smile, or chuckle in response to things I said about a minute after I said them. I shared stories about a broad range of Lemelson Center projects supporting STEAM education and 21st Century Skills. Overall, even in my jet lagged haze, I think my presentation went well and audience members posed some thoughtful questions during the Q&A section at the end of the session.

That evening the presenters were bused to Nurimaru, a spaceship-like building in Dongbaek Park, for the aforementioned banquet hosted by the Federation of Busan Science and Technology. The event began with individual introductions of Korean VIPs who stood and bowed. Then each of the invited foreign speakers were also introduced in Korean, so we had to listen carefully for our names, then stand and bow too. After that there were several official speeches in Korean for which we received English translation handouts.

Courtesy of ISSM.

We savored a delicious, seven course, very continental-style dinner accompanied by Bordeaux wine. I was seated with, among others, YP Kim, the director of the Busan Aquarium, which we had a chance to visit the following day. Mr. Kim is from Seoul originally but has lived in both the U.S. and Canada and actually did some translation work at the Smithsonian around 1982. My tablemates were interesting to converse with despite my hitting a wall around 8:30 p.m. and barely being able to think straight.

Now back to my reference about the night’s entertainment. The pop quintet danced about the stage playing traditional Korean instruments while singing ABBA with an electronic beat pounding in the background. My Swedish colleague Ann Follin, director of the Tekniska Museet (National Museum of Science and Technology) in Stockholm, was even more surprised than I. We shared a good chuckle about the experience two days later when we traveled via train to Daejeon with a Korean colleague, Hannah Lee, of 4D Frame.

The ABBA Performance.

In Daejeon, Ann, Hannah, and I enjoyed visiting the National Science Museum where we met up with Min-Jung Kim, who I had worked with when she was a visiting professional at the Smithsonian last year. Min-Jung and her associate Suk Yeong Lee gave us a wonderful tour of the Museum’s complex of buildings with exhibits covering the history, present, and future of Korean science and technology. I took lots of photos to show my colleagues.

National Science Museum's Discovery Center.

Thanks to Ann, I was invited to join her meeting at nearby KAIST, the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology. We spoke with research assistant professor Namyoung Heo and senior researcher Young Ju Lee about KAIST’s new Center for Entrepreneurship as well as their Global Institute for Talented Education. The meeting content was right up my proverbial alley professionally, as Ann had surmised, and she and I had lots to talk about afterwards as we taxied back to the train station and then traveled on to Seoul.

Monica and Min-Jung Kim. Photo by Ann Follin.

It was a whirlwind business trip, with three days of international travel for four days in South Korea. My heartfelt thanks to the organizers of the International Symposium of Science Museums, my fellow presenters, and all of the people who hosted me in Busan and Seoul. It is an experience I will never forget.

What do you want to make today?

I held a soldering iron for the first time in my life a few weeks ago. It was exciting and frustrating at the same time. Trying to melt a bead of solder to connect two parts proved more difficult than I expected it to be. But after several attempts, I finally managed to complete my little project (you can see it in action in the video). Those weren’t the most beautiful joins, but they worked. And the sense of accomplishment I felt as I proudly wore my little blinking robot pin the rest of the day far exceeded the actual amount of work I had done. That simple act of making something, of using a new tool, even if I weren’t particularly good at it, is something I will remember for a long time.

So why was I soldering in the first place? I was at a “Mini Maker Faire” at the conclusion of a workshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Makeshop. A group of us from museums around the country were there to learn about Makeshop and the maker movement, and to think about ways to incorporate that philosophy into our own work. And why was a historian involved in this?

I had a few reasons for wanting to attend. First, I’m a historian of technology and it’s important to me to understand how the stuff I study and write about works. And I like tools, so getting to try out some new ones is just plain fun. But I’m also the historian on the planning team for the new Spark!Lab that will open after the renovation of the Museum’s West Exhibition Wing, so it’s my job to think about ways to infuse hands-on activities with history. And while I don’t yet have a lot of answers about how we will do that, I did get some ideas from the workshop and my personal experience with that soldering iron.

Throughout the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, art and technology meet in whimsical ways, as this sculpture of "King Steel and Queen Iron" by Devon Smith (2001) illustrates. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

One of the workshop participants pointed out that kids are good at making the connection between the “do” and the “happen.” She suggested that, rather than just give kids tools, we could first ask what they want the tool to do, and then ask what they might invent that would do that. It seems to me that making a connection to history as the next question—how do you think people used to do this?—might work. We have actually been trying something like this in our Spark!Lab prototyping sessions. Kids and their families can pick up and examine an ice skate from about 100 years ago, look at sketches and patents for other types of ice skates invented over time, and then use the materials we provide to either invent the ice skate of the future or create something new that could move them across the ice. Spark!Lab emphasizes that invention is a process; incorporating stories from the past reveals that it is a continuum as well.

Another Makeshop project---"squishy" circuits made of boots (feet?) of clay carry electricity from the batteries to the LED lamps. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Perhaps the one thing that surprised me most about Makeshop, though, was how much it reinforces the research we are doing for our Places of Invention exhibition. In places as different as Hollywood in the 1930s and the Bronx in the ’70s, we have identified some common threads that tend to run through creative places. Rather than a recipe, we see these characteristics as ingredients of a strategy that helps people do their best work. Many of these elements are reflected in the 21st Century Skills framework as well.

For example, flexibility is important to fostering critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Not only do minds need to be open to new connections and opportunities, but spaces need to be adaptable to new directions in work. Makeshop is a great example of this. Although the space is divided into three distinct areas—one for electrical projects, a woodshop, and a sewing area—everything in those spaces can be reconfigured quickly and easily. Tables and cabinets are modular and on wheels. Pegboards are metal so they can be used in the standard fashion and also with magnetic items. In short, the space is designed to suit the work, whatever it may be.

Makeshop's movable, reconfigurable tables, pegboards, and cabinets create the ultimate flexible environment. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

That flexibility also makes the space conducive to collaboration, another characteristic of places of invention. Whether it’s one-on-one work with a Makeshop facilitator (like the student volunteer who, with enormous patience, helped me wield my soldering iron) or for family groups to work together on a project, the opportunity to work with someone else and learn from each other makes for a very fulfilling experience.

But don’t take my word for it. Find a buddy, some tools, and come up with a project. Create your own place of invention. As they say at Makeshop, “What do you want to make today?”