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.

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

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, 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, or at