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About SparkLabActivities and experimentsInventor profilesResources

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About Spark!Lab

Everybody can envision the “Eureka!” moment of invention, where the idea suddenly strikes and—BOOM—there’s a new product ready to change the world. Spark!Lab, the newest hands on space for families and others visiting the National Museum of American History, shows the real story behind an inventor’s work.

Invention is a process, from creative ideas all the way to successful marketing, and the Lemelson Center’s Spark!Lab uses fun activities to help kids and families learn about the history and process of invention. You can play games, conduct science experiments, explore inventors’ notebooks, and even invent! 

A place for families

Take a virtual tour of Spark!Lab:

Spark!Lab activities are targeted at families with children ages 6-12, though anyone is welcome.  Children under the age of five are encouraged to utilize the “under five zone,” though they are allowed to participate in any Spark!Lab activity with a parent or caregiver.  Anyone under the age of 12 must be accompanied by an adult.

Spark!Lab is designed as a free-flowing space.  Tickets are not required, and group reservations are not accepted.  Visitors may enter Spark!Lab on a space-available basis.  Spark!Lab’s maximum capacity is 45. 

Spark!Lab is staffed by full- and part-time Lemelson Center staff, volunteers, and student interns.  Spark!Lab is open every day except December 25 from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.

Lots of activities

Spark!Lab is organized around the process of invention.  The activities in the room are centered on key steps in the invention process.  The steps are illustrated by “it” phrases which appear in graphics around the room:

  • Identify a problem or need (Think it)
  • Conduct research (Explore it)
  • Make sketches  (Sketch it)
  • Build prototypes (Create it)
  • Test the invention (Try it)
  • Refine it (Tweak it)
  • Market the invention (Sell it)

Spark!Lab offers a range of different activities to illustrate the invention process:

Lab Bench
These staff-led science experiments integrate history and science.  Visitors can actively participate in the experiments, which include:

  • Conserving the Star-Spangled Banner
  • It’s a Gas (CO2)
  • Food Additives
  • Whatever Happened to Polio?
  • DNA extraction
  • The Experiments of Benjamin Franklin

Experiment topics and times vary.  Please stop by Spark!Lab when you visit to learn more.

Invention Corner
Visitors are given a challenge or problem that they must solve using simple household and craft materials.  The specific challenge will change on a monthly basis.  Visitors will be able to take home their inventions in Spark!Lab-branded plastic bags. (Please note, bags may not be available on Day 1.)

Curator's Collection
Invention- and technology-related items from the Museum’s teaching collection illustrate how technologies change (or don’t change) over time.  Each box includes three related objects, a ruler, a scale, and an activity booklet to help visitors explore and interpret the object.  At reopening, there will be just one kit (focused on the stethoscope), but others are planned.

Invention at Play Kits
Five bilingual invention education kits leverage the content of Invention at Play to engage visitors in the invention process.  Each kit focuses on a single theme and includes an instruction mat, activity supplies, and a brochure highlighting real world inventions related to the theme.  The kits are:

  • It’s a Material World (innovative materials)
  • Naturally Inspired (inventions inspired by the natural world)
  • Shaping Space (creating innovative spaces)
  • Soundscapes (finding inventive ways to make music and sound)
  • Now What? (solving problems with limited materials)

Inventors' Files
Invention-related archival collections tell the story of inventors and their inventions.  Each activity box includes reproductions of photos, inventors’ sketches, patent drawings, and marketing materials from a single collection, along with a related hands-on activity.  Inventor’s Files feature:

  • Charles F. Brannock (inventor of the Brannock foot-measuring device)
  • Joseph B. Friedman (inventor of the FlexStraw)
  • Charlotte Cramer Sachs (inventor of the boxed cake mix)
  • Orla Watson (inventor of the Telescoping Shopping Cart)

Science Stations
These simple interactives illustrate fundamental science concepts.  Instructions guide visitors through several different activities, which can be completed in any order.  Activities include:

  • Simple machines
  • Electric circuits
  • Radioactivity

Under 5 Zone
In this area designed for children under the age of five (and their parents or caregivers), visitors can explore activities that foster creativity and problem-solving skills.  Activities include building with different kinds of blocks, using simple scientific tools, solving puzzles, and exploring and using inventions of the past. Activity guides for parents/caregivers are available.

Inventor's Notebook
When children enter Spark!Lab, they receive an Inventor’s Notebook which includes worksheets to complete as they participate in different activities throughout Spark!Lab. Much like inventors document their work as they invent, children can document their time and experience in Spark!Lab.  The Notebook also includes simple at-home invention activities. Download the Inventor’s Notebook.

Contact Us
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
National Museum of American History
Smithsonian Institution
P.O. Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012