Article: Creating a Nation of Innovators :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Tricia Edwards, Lemelson Center Education Specialist
Visitors to Spark!Lab explore materials from the Museum's archives to learn the story of Orla Watson's invention of the familiar telescoping shopping cart. (c) 2010 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Richard Strauss

"We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world," President Obama told us in his recent State of the Union address. If we are to "win the future," he said, we must encourage and support innovation, especially in young people. The president went on to outline his Race to the Top initiative for our nation's K-12 schools, and his intent to replace the No Child Left Behind law with one that is "more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids." 

The conversation about how to improve the nation's schools in order to better prepare our students to compete in a global economy isn't new. Since the State of the Union address, though, I've noticed that a different question is being asked in both the formal and informal learning communities: How do we create a nation of innovators? 

Part of the Lemelson Center's mission is to encourage inventive creativity in young people, so this is something we've been thinking about since we were founded in 1995. Through hands-on activities, programs with inventors, exhibitions, and other public offerings, we provide meaningful opportunities for visitors to explore the history and process of invention, while also developing an awareness of and appreciation for their own problem-solving skills. 

Spark!Lab, our hands-on invention center at the National Museum of American History, provides an opportunity for our youngest visitors--children 6 to 12 years old (and their families)--to experience invention and, ultimately, to identify themselves as creative and inventive thinkers.  

The Soundscapes activity encourages Spark!Lab visitors of all ages to work together. (c) 2010 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Harold Dorwin

The activities in Spark!Lab are closely tied to the 21st Century Skills Framework, which the Lemelson Center uses as the pedagogical basis for all of its educational activities and exhibitions. As described by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the Framework outlines "the skills, knowledge, and expertise students must master to succeed in work and life; it is a blend of content knowledge, specific skills, expertise, and literacies." So while kids are learning core subjects like history, science, language arts, and math, they are also learning to problem-solve, act on creative ideas, view failure as an opportunity (rather than a roadblock), take initiative, and communicate and collaborate with others. By using the 21st Century Skills Framework as a platform for learning, children can apply both knowledge and skills to a project or problem.  

Spark!Lab (and other Lemelson Center programs and exhibitions) helps visitors practice and hone today's skills while they explore the invention process in accessible and fun ways. For example, Soundscapes challenges kids to create a musical marble run and encourages them to think of a goal (e.g., the marble rings a bell at the end), create a marble run to reach that goal, test it, and then refine the design (since it almost never works the first time). Through this simple activity, children define their own problem and, through experimentation and collaboration, find a creative way to meet their goal. At the same time, they apply science concepts related to weight, gravity, and sound. 

Similarly, kids can explore the Charlotte Cramer Sachs Inventor's File which highlights Sachs's invention of instant foods. The activity includes reproductions of archival documents that trace her invention process: notes from an early taste-testing session, a letter asking a New York homemaker to test the final product, marketing materials, and packaging for her popover mix. As kids explore the documents and discover Sachs's story, they are learning history and using reading skills. But the activity also helps hone creative thinking as it challenges kids to redesign the popover packaging and think about how they would sell this product in a contemporary marketplace. 

Activities like these help children understand the invention process both intellectually and practically and reinforce Spark!Lab's key messages: invention is a process, and everyone is inventive. Kids begin to see how an idea can go from concept to market, and how core subjects like science, history, and math can inform the development of an invention.  

Engaging in creative behavior like this can quite possibly encourage our next generation of innovators. I recently had the opportunity to work with a group of Boy Scouts in Spark!Lab. They participated in a staff-led demonstration on Benjamin Franklin's electricity experiments and explored Soundscapes and several other activities. At the end of the visit, I asked the group if they had learned about a new inventor. Several hands went up and I called on a boy in the back. "Which inventor did you discover today?" His reply: "Me."

From Prototype, February 2011

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