We welcome this guest blog from one of our Spark!Lab Network sites. Spark!Lab staff at the Springfield Museums in Massachusetts innovated during the pandemic to create a safe and welcoming invention experience for visitors and community members.
It was all about experimentation.
Spark!Lab at the Springfield Museums in Massachusetts was the first of the Smithsonian Lemelson Center invention spaces to reopen to the public during the pandemic. The Museums, like most other institutions, closed in March 2020 to help stem the spread of COVID-19. We re-opened three months later and SarahRose Adan and Ross Moller—who facilitate Spark!Lab—had a problem they needed to solve.
Their prompt: How do you safely share space and materials during a pandemic? And, like the great tinkerers they are, they explored it, sketched it, created it, tried it, tweaked it, and shared it with their public.
Adan explained: “Our first thought for reopening was to make everything single use with a variety of prompts for what to create.” The idea was to reduce touch points and increase social distancing.
They added single-use protocols, buckets for materials that needed to be cleaned, extra hand sanitizer, and special areas where people could socially distance while still having access to lots of innovation supplies. They chose which prompts would be most conducive to protecting against an airborne virus.
This strategy meant that everyone would have a different experience and something different to create with their own materials. It sounded perfect, but through observation, they realized that it really didn't work out.
Visitors were not satisfied with the materials they received. They would search through the other baskets for more. Instead of going to a table, or a separate area, they would just start working on the activity at the counter itself. Eventually it became clear that our visitors wanted the flexibility and opportunity of our pre-COVID model of Spark!Lab when they were working in the building.
“No one was really interested in their choice, or they didn't find the prompt slip, or due to randomness, they didn't get materials that worked for them,” Adan said. “Really, setting up individual baskets or bags of materials at a counter and telling visitors to take them to another table was the least successful thing we tried.”
What the staff found was that having reusable materials already on the table, even if those were separated for individual use, with the prompt in front of them, meant that visitors were able to start right away. Most visitors understood that they should bring their used materials to a central location to be cleaned. This visitor-aided step cut down the need for staff to clean every piece and surface or to quarantine materials. Just a quick spray of disinfectant meant that materials were ready when needed.
Because the Museums always had a facilitator in Spark!Lab, staff were able to watch how everyone was interacting with the space. And through frequent check-ins with each other, our Spark!Lab facilitators (as well as other drop-in facilitators in the Museums) were able to talk about what was and wasn't working.
“We spent a lot of time thinking and rethinking based on our visitors’ feedback and what we observed,” Moller said.
And, they did not limit themselves to one way to meet visitors’ needs. A few weeks into the reopening process, the Spark!Lab staff offered activities in bags to take away. “These were highly successful, judging by the over 4,000 Grab-and-Go Bags that were taken by visitors!” Adan said.
They also distributed 500 larger kits to local organizations for kids. These kits provided children with their own set of inventing materials that they could use at school or at home.
The Spark!Lab staff tinkered with ideas and found more than one solution—they also gathered intel.
“When we were first reopening, we took a lot of cues from similar institutions, mostly schools,” Adan said. “Through research and exploration, we realized that not many places were open in the same way that we wanted to be. We were seeking a solution that combined the best of our pre-COVID operations with what we understood to be the safest way to give a drop-in experience.” It took many little changes over time—trying something for a few days to see how visitors interacted with it, and how it affected the facilitators, before making another change.
“Each week as we learned something new about the virus, or how our own community was behaving, we had to research new best practices, or look at what other institutions were doing,” Adan added. And the staff wanted to capture what made the work in the invention space fun—an abundance of choice. In the end it was the visitors’ help with bringing materials to the cleaning table that really made the difference.
“Our visitors were the best!” said Moller. “They patiently stuck with us as we tried different iterations. And they shared feedback in constructive ways.”
“They were wonderfully positive,” Adan agreed.
Adan and Moller continue to experiment, not only with the pandemic in mind. Their time innovating how to present their materials also led to new prompts, new methods, and exciting successes that they continue to tweak to make the Spark!Lab experience even better.
Would they have done anything differently? They looked at each other and shook their heads. “Maybe we could have skipped the whole pandemic thing!”