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.



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

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!

Igniting a Spark in the high desert of Nevada—sounds dangerous, right?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post written by Sarah Gobbs-Hill, an Education Program Coordinator at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno, Nevada. A member of our Spark!Lab National Network, The Discovery has been home to the first Spark!Lab off the National Mall for just over a year.

Here in Reno, Nevada we like to do things a little different. So when a group of people decided to bring a discovery museum to the downtown area just south of the casinos, critics were a bit skeptical. “Who’s going to bring their family down there?” they said. But after seven years of fundraising, planning and construction, the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum (The Discovery) was born. The Discovery boasts 26,000 square feet of gallery space including a two-story climbing structure, a glass wall for the ephemeral painting made by fingers, an 85 foot-long river, and a lab for sparking the innovation held within the minds of those living in, and visiting, Northern Nevada.

The Spark!Lab Smithsonian at The Discovery has had an estimated 115,000 visitors in the first year, which is a lot for a city of just under a quarter million residents. In the museum’s first year, 10,000 students visited Spark!Lab as part of a school fieldtrip; for those interested teachers we created a specific fieldtrip class focused on collaboration and the principles of invention. Children and parents have shrieked with delight at the most shocking of our exhibits in Spark!Lab—Ben Franklin is a popular person in our space. We have added circuitry dough to our collection of activities, which allows us to create electric sculptures. We have invited our visitors to invent or redesign shoes, housing, transportation, and toys. A few of the best inventions by visitors so far have been a fan extravaganza (15 fans running off of snap circuits!); bionic biology (a robotic horse game that can be used to teach about anatomy); and a  toy-suck-a-rooni (a vacuum cleaner that sucks up toys without damaging them to leave a clean room). We never cease to be amazed by the creativity of the members of our community.

As with all new organizations we are learning the best way to support and work with our community. With the Spark!Lab at The Discovery, we aim to support the creative minds living here who are pushing the boundaries and creating a different vision for our community. We have big plans for The Discovery’s Spark!Lab moving forward and we believe, by working with our community and providing experiences that make people say, ”what will they think of next?,” we can not only spark their interest in innovation, but ignite the fire that will lead to “Reno-vation” and contribute to continued changes in the cultural landscape here in Northern Nevada.

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.