There are events and times in our lives that give us pause and time to reflect on the what, the how, and the why of life. Businesses and educational institutions also experience events that cause us to pause and even stop mid-process . With some inventive thinking, such times in our personal or corporate lives, though interruptions, can be launching points for something new or better.
Opportunities for reflection may not always be expected—and some are far from desirable. This was surely the case for the Lemelson Center’s educational programs, including Spark!Lab.
During the lengthy COVID pause, our Spark!Lab hands-on exhibit space and in-person programs were halted midstream. Our team immediately pressed on, exploring new modes of engagement like our digital offerings on the Tinkercad Lesson Plan site and Instructables. Members of our team also became proficient in online meeting platforms to shift our Innovative Lives programs to a digital format.
While taking on this digital shift, we made certain not to forget that physical programming will return. We would need to find ways to fit our new digital responsibilities into what was a full and challenging flow of physical responsibilities and programs. Throughout the shutdown of the Draper Spark!Lab exhibit space in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, we explored how we could tweak in-person programming when things returned to normal. Guiding this exploration was the desire to make room for continuing on the digital front and to give our team time to pursue even more invention education opportunities.
As I write this in late March 2022, much of the world has moved to its new normal, and we are poised to begin our new normal, too, in very short order. Through some inventive thinking, we are readying ourselves for the shift. We have laid out some plans and look forward to tweaking them as we move from ideas to reality. We surely don’t expect all of what is outlined here to work out when it is tested. We are comfortable that some of it may fail, and we are ready to make changes to those things that don’t fail but work in less than functional ways. The following is just some of the thinking by our team. It has been ideated, explored, and sketched out since June 2019, and we feel ready for a good testing and tweaking.
Some of our challenges
- At the Smithsonian’s Draper Spark!Lab, we used to change themes every four months. For example, in our last year before we closed for the pandemic, our themes were Build, Produce, and Perform. When the team investigated how changing themes effected our workflow, we saw a pattern of very sharp peaks and valleys. Just before a theme change, the whole team would be inundated with tasks and pressing deadlines. This happened on top of daily operations and any other projects that may have happened to pop up or be scheduled just before a theme changeover.
- Each new theme was represented in Spark!Lab’s “Object Wall,” featuring our hand-picked selections of relevant museum collection objects and props. Making annual themed object changes involved no fewer than a half a dozen museum staff outside of our center. The coordination of timelines and work has always been a bit challenging, but now, with changes triggered by COVID, the coordination has become even more challenging. This type of flow puts a strain not only on our team but on other teams at the museum.
- With each theme change, we would also create 6-8 new activities. Once the theme started, we would tweak those activities for a couple of weeks. After that brief tweaking cycle, we would begin the activity ideation and creation cycle for the next theme. This greatly reduced our ability to further tweak our existing work and hinders our ability to truly refine our activities.
- Given that our work in Draper Spark!Lab has the potential to be disseminated to other Spark!Labs in the Spark!Lab Network, we needed more time to tweak our activities and supporting content. Our model means that each network site, including ours at the Smithsonian, should be creating programs, content, and activities to share with the whole network. Due to our rotation cycle, we have not been able to share new activities to the degree we would like.
- Our workflow resulted in Draper Spark!Lab becoming moderately siloed from the rest of the Lemelson Center’s educational programming. Our responsiveness to other Lemelson Center invention education programs and our ability to cross pollinate ideas has been greatly reduced.
Some ways to turn challenges into opportunities
- Meld Spark!Lab operation and content creation with the whole of the Lemelson Center’s invention education programming.
- Streamline how we rotate content and activities in the Draper Spark!Lab space.
- Find ways to better connect with other Spark!Lab Network sites through a fuller sharing of activity ideas and content.
- Create time for our team to maintain and advance the digital offerings we have put in place.
- Open up time for our team to be involved in and responsive to opportunities in invention education. These opportunities may include applying for grants, setting up Spark!Lab activities at festivals or international sites, engaging in research related to our practice, taking part in or presenting at conferences, creating products for sale, and engaging with teachers. Our team has dreams we would like to pursue.
What’s the plan?
- Transition from a theme rotation format to an invention process and prototyping space format.
- Instead of themes on our “Object Wall,” focus on the steps of the invention process.
- Use our new format to create activities and content that can easily be shared with other members of the Spark!Lab Network.
- Use our new workflow to open up space and time for our team to prepare for Lemelson Center public programs including international setups, like the ones we did in London and Doha.
- Set in place a base of consistent and evergreen graphics, props, and activities.
- Leave space in the evergreen setup to change out graphics, props, and activities to better reflect the tide of public interest and knowledge.
- Use time gained for tweaking our work, so that we can create content that can be shared at conferences and in professional development sessions.
Sometimes bumps in the road or our day-to-day lives can be very unsettling. These bumps, if received as opportunities, can slow us down enough to provide time for reflection. If we embrace that reflection, we have the opportunity to totally reimagine the how, the what, and the why of our process and even the core structure of our working environment. May the bumps that you hit on your road bring you to a place of reflection and possibility just as they have for our team.