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.

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.