Inspiring Visitors to Tinker, Create, and Innovate

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Dimensions magazine.

Science center and museum professionals from around the world share ways that they are engaging visitors in hands-on innovation.

In July 2012, the Exploratorium launched its Global Tinkering Studio Initiative at the Saudi Aramco Cultural Program, an annual science festival in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Informed by 10 years of educational research and development, the Tinkering Studio invited visitors to build, hack, invent, and “think with their hands” while working on individual creations that explore the natural world. As part of the festival, the Exploratorium’s master tinkerers held professional development workshops to immerse local educators in the Exploratorium’s approach to tinkering as a way of learning.

At the Exploratorium’s new home on the San Francisco waterfront in 2013, an even more expanded Tinkering Studio will be at the heart of the museum, directly across from the Machine Shop where all the museum’s exhibits are made.

Linda Dackman, public information director, Exploratorium, San Francisco

This spring, the Discovery Center of Idaho launched Family Science Adventures, a new program that gives visitors the space and equipment to experiment with a different theme every week. Each theme comes with three stations that are designed to give visitors a chance to explore with minimal instruction and discover, at varied depths, the science behind the theme. The program is run by volunteers who encourage experimentation rather than giving directions, so that all ages are engaged. This program brings many of our supplies and exhibits out of storage and into the hands of our visitors. We also link the program with our long-term exhibits, seasonal events, store items, and other programs.

Marci Neibaur, volunteer director, Discovery Center of Idaho, Boise

The Ingenuity Lab at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley, is a drop-in lab that seeks to inspire the next generation of inventors and engineers by engaging visitors of all ages in fun, hands-on engineering design challenges. The program serves 15,000 visitors annually and increases membership. It builds on the best of “tinkering” and “maker” content in science centers, but emphasizes the engineering design process and careers. Each month, the lab offers a different open-ended design challenge, providing visitors with assorted low-cost materials and reusable electronics to construct solutions through various approaches and levels of complexity. As visitors go through the stages of iterative prototyping, they work collaboratively to solve real-world challenges, guided by engineering students who volunteer their services and, in turn, increase their engineering skills. Examples are: Wind Turbines, Solar Energy, and Hydraulics. The most successful challenges in the lab have been turned into floor exhibits—hardened and scaffolded to require less facilitation.

Monika Mayer, science education specialist and manager of Ingenuity Lab, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California at Berkeley

Iridescent, an engineering education nonprofit, recently created a free online and mobile platform of hands-on, engineering design challenges for children. The Curiosity Machine challenges children to assume the role of engineers, tinkerers, and inventors as they make their way through an online curriculum of hands-on, kid-friendly engineering design projects. The projects use low-cost, easy to find materials. Through an interactive website and corresponding mobile phone apps, children can see videos for experiments and design projects, watch videos with prominent scientists discussing their research, build projects and submit videos and photographs of the process and results, receive feedback and reviews from professional volunteer engineers, earn badges and rewards as they master skills, and set up profiles so they can continue building and learning at home. The Curiosity Machine can be set up as a station at any science center or museum—all that’s needed are some computers and a table of supplies.

Dara Olmsted, ethnographer, formative evaluator and grantwriter, Iridescent, Los Angeles, California

Conner Prairie Interactive History Park will be celebrating the spirit of innovation in science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math (STEAM) during its first-ever STEAM! Innovation Week, to be held September 12–16, 2012. The week will feature innovations of the past, present, and future across all five historic outdoor areas of the park and culminate in a STEAM-themed fair on September 15 and 16. The fair will feature the region’s top scientists, artisans, and inventors as they demonstrate their creations. Visitors can test their own skills through hands-on activities and do-it-yourself exhibits. Families and children can also experience an interactive, innovation playground that will feature innovations in robotics, electronics, and the life sciences.

Lynelle Mellady, public relations manager, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, Fishers, Indiana

Open Exhibits is a (U.S.) National Science Foundation–funded initiative that looks to transform the way in which museums and other informal learning institutions produce and share computer-based exhibits. Open Exhibits is both a collection of software and a growing community of practice.

Open Exhibits has close to a dozen free software components, and just recently we added an Arduino software module. This module allows exhibit developers to quickly and easily develop applications that can take advantage of push buttons, lights, camera controls, sensors, and all of the interface and peripheral devices that Arduino supports. It can be used with existing Open Exhibits software components to rapidly create new exhibits.

An example application that uses a mechanical dial, a flip switch, and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags is available along with the source code, video demonstration, and documentation. Visit the Open Exhibits site to learn more.

Jim Spadaccini, founder/CEO, creative director, Ideum, Corrales, New Mexico

Ingenuity makes us human and drives our ability to solve problems. Lab technicians Tim Pula and Abigail Peltier of Discovery Place unleash the full power of collective human ingenuity every day by providing opportunities for guests to employ behaviors central to innovation. By continuously staging and switching out science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)–based activities in the public Explore More Stuff lab, Pula and Peltier afford guests of all ages the opportunity to “muck around,” tinker, collaborate, smash together, and celebrate new ideas to solve problems. This is how Discovery Place helps citizens to understand and imagine novel solutions to the most vexing STEM-based issues that society faces.

Gabor Zsuppan, ScienceReach coordinator, Discovery Place, Charlotte, North Carolina

Inspired by the Fukushima tragedy, a recent Inventors’ Challenge workshop at the Ontario Science Centre challenged students to use pneumatics and electromagnetism to build a robotic arm to prevent contamination in a nuclear plant. Time and hazard restrictions, the absence of computers, and limited electric supply were all factors that inspired collaboration and thinking outside the box. Instructions were available as needed, but only in da Vinci–style backwards script that required a mirror to read. With sweaty foreheads and busy hands, the teams managed to build, test, and use their robotic arms, and literally raised their arms to celebrate when they finally neutralized the nuclear material!

Rocio Navarro, science educator, bilingual, Ontario Science Centre, Toronto

Southeast Missouri Project Learning Experiences (SMPLE) is a partnership between Bootheel Youth Museum (BYM) and Lincoln University Cooperative Extension. AmeriCorps volunteers present BYM SMPLE traveling science and engineering programs in scout dens, community centers, church basements, outdoor carnivals, city parks, empty parking lots, summer camps, malls, state parks, school classrooms, and school gymnasiums. For example, in the low-budget, open-ended Balls and Tracks activity, teams receive a box full of materials and supplies that include foam tracks, masking tape, and marbles, and are asked to create a chaos contraption.

Patsy Reublin, executive director, Bootheel Youth Museum, Malden, Missouri

The Centre for Research and Applied Learning in Science (CRADLΣ) is a new facility at the Science Centre Singapore, launched at the beginning of 2012. Staffed by scientists and educators, CRADLΣ combines the concept of a specialized teaching lab with that of a hackerspace. Its facilities are well equipped to support student groups for science research, design, and innovation projects. A variety of workshops are offered, from modern physics experiments on metrology, to open-ended hacking sessions using the Arduino microcontroller platform and digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters and 3D printers. Another goal is to be a training and development platform for teachers who want to gain more confidence and skills in bringing hands-on science to the classroom and their school labs, and to further nurture a research and development culture with students.

Ei-Leen Tan, assistant director, Technology & Creativity Group, Science Centre Singapore

Building forts is a fundamental experience of childhood, universal across cultures, gender, and time. Much like engineers, children create structures from scratch, transforming natural and found materials into viable systems. At the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, children build forts with open-ended, repurposed materials, developing cognitive skills as they calculate loads, experiment with tension and compression, explore the structural integrity of spans, estimate the force of gravity, and create an ever-changing landscape reflecting color and artistic expression. Children use their minds, muscles, and imaginations to gain a better understanding of spatial awareness and how to move objects through space. They take risks and learn from trial and error. Whether working alone or in groups, problem-solving and negotiating skills are honed. Humming with purposeful activity, the exhibit is continually reconfigured throughout the day, guided by the wild imaginings of children at work.

Equally important, the social and emotional growth that occur during fort-building are key components of child development. Meeting their inherent drive to construct personal worlds, children create forts—worlds in which they can become themselves. Constructing meaningful worlds during childhood play fosters a sense of competency and confidence for shaping the big world tomorrow.

Nancy Stice, director of exhibits and facilities, Children’s Museum of Phoenix

In the Discovery Museums’ Inventor’s Workshop, visitors (ages 6 and older, younger with adults) tinker, invent, design, and construct innovative contraptions and imaginative sculptures with recycled materials, wood, and hand tools. The supportive environment encourages messing about, inspires out-of-the-box creations, and motivates visitors to learn new skills and techniques, from woodworking to creative folding, to make their ideas take shape. At the Woodworking table, children learn hand-tool skills from Explorers: proper grip on a hammer, safe techniques for sawing wood, and how to use hand-drills and screwdrivers. With low-tech materials, self-directed tinkering flourishes, and visitors develop the skills and confidence required to transform familiar materials into their own creations. The high impact is demonstrated by the popularity of Inventor’s Workshop with all visitors and members, long stay times, and visitors’ joy in the creative process. The creations the children proudly take home inspire further explorations at home. Woodworking requirements include trained Explorers, a workbench, vices, goggles, hammers, saws (regular and coping), hand drills, screwdrivers, C-clamps, sandpaper, pine scraps, nails, screws, and a wait list!

Denise LeBlanc, director of learning experiences, Discovery Museums, Acton, Massachusetts

In both 2010 and 2011, in recognition of America Recycles Day, Discovery Center of Springfield hosted a Build a Car gallery in which visitors were challenged to create a vehicle out of recycled materials, such as boxes, egg cartons, and oatmeal canisters. Wheels, axles, decorating resources, adhesives, rulers, and scissors were also on hand. They then used timers to test the speed of their vehicles as they traveled down a ramp. Visitors frequently worked together in family groups to construct their vehicles, and often stayed to make design revisions.

Laurie Duncan, education director, Discovery Center of Springfield, Missouri

Design Challenges is a hands-on, drop-in engineering program that occurs daily at the Museum of Science, Boston. The program, which has served over 350,000 visitors to date, invites guests to think like engineers as they design, build, and test a prototype solution to a challenge of the day. Participants tinker and construct their designs using everyday objects such as pipe cleaners, recycled pipette trays, straws, soap dishes, pool noodles, and popsicle sticks. Each activity is designed to have multiple goals and infinite solutions and can be completed in 20 minutes or less. The program aims to have visitors recognize that engineers design and create not just cars, planes, and bridges, but also technologies we use every day like sneakers, pens, and toys. The newest design challenge, Extreme Trampolines, asks visitors to construct a mini trampoline that can make a golf ball bounce very high or very low. Using hair ties, binder clips, and fabric scraps, visitors build and test their designs in a custom drop zone that drops golf balls and measures the peak height. Descriptions of activities and teacher resources are available online.

Lydia Beall, Design Challenges program manager, Museum of Science, Boston

The Questacon Smart Moves Invention Convention is an outreach program that tours regional and remote areas of Australia and targets high school students. Through a series of increasingly challenging engineering activities, students use low- and high-tech tools—ranging from simple gears to 3D printers—in ways that improve creative thinking and problem-solving skills. The three-day workshop focuses on the innovation process and its stages. In the first stage, Developing, students brainstorm ways to use new technologies to meet societal needs. Next, in Producing, engineering challenges allow students to prototype and construct. Students are then encouraged to test their ideas as part of the Applying stage. This program provides an opportunity to inspire, energize, and prepare young people to pursue careers in technology, engineering, and manufacturing, and address the national skills shortage.

Rachel Rayner, outreach presenter, Questacon—The National Science and Technology Centre, Canberra, Australia

The Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center engages young audiences through its Spark!Lab, which shows the real story behind an inventor’s work. It uses fun activities to help kids and families learn about the history and process of invention—from a creative idea to successful marketing. Spark!Lab illustrates key steps in the process with simple “it” phrases—Think It, Explore It, Sketch It, Create It, Try It, Tweak It, Sell It—and allows visitors to explore inventions of the past and create prototypes for their own inventions. Although Spark!Lab is currently closed due to renovations at the museum, the Lemelson team is working to open Spark!Lab satellites at children’s museums and science centers around the country.

Kate Wiley, public affairs specialist, Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Special thanks to Saint Louis Science Center’s Science Beyond the Boundaries network for its help with this article. For more information on the network, email Jennifer Jovanovic or stop by the GRANDSTAND booth in the Exhibit Hall at the 2012 ASTC Annual Conference.

About the image: The Exploratorium’s Global Tinkering Studio launched at the Saudi Aramco Cultural Program, an annual science festival in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in July 2012. Photo by the Tinkering Studio


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