Impact Spotlights

The Lemelson Center’s Spark!Lab

June 12, 2013

Spark!Lab reveals the real story behind inventors’ work through hands-on activities that help kids and families learn about the history and process of invention. Opened by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on November 21, 2008, Spark!Lab welcomed more than 600,000 visitors, introduced more than 100 activities to our visitors, and held more than 20 special programs before closing for renovations in October 2011. A revamped Spark!Lab will open at the Museum in 2015 following the completion of renovations.

Spark!Lab is the centerpiece of the Lemelson Center’s educational efforts. Infused with historical content, Spark!Lab’s interdisciplinary activities are especially planned for families with children ages six to twelve and appeal to varied learning styles, ages, and abilities.

Visitors freely participate in a variety of floor and table activities, where they touch, manipSpulate, and create. Signature activities include Soundscapes, where visitors use instrumental pieces to invent new ways of making music and sound, and Now What?, where visitors are asked to solve a problem using an invention they create from a limited set of materials.

All activities are designed to inspire visitors to carry out the essential steps of the invention process:

  • 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)

The success of the Spark!Lab philosophy has led to the Lemelson Center taking bold steps towards bringing the Spark!Lab experience to other institutions. In 2010, a grant from the LEGO Children’s Fund allowed the Lemelson Center to develop the Spark!Lab Outreach Kit project. A pilot program for the Spark!Lab National Network, the project distributed kits replicating some of the most popular Spark!Lab activities to six museums across the country. In 2011, the Lemelson Center established its first satellite Spark!Lab at the Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno, Nevada, and, with the U.S. State Department, implemented a temporary Spark!Lab installation in Kyiv, Ukraine, in September 2012. A recent donation from the Ford Motor Company Fund will allow the Lemelson Center to expand the Spark!Lab National Network to three additional sites in 2013-2014.

The Lemelson Center is endowed through a gift from The Lemelson Foundation, and was established by Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in 1995 as a means of exploring the role of invention in history and encouraging inventive creativity in young people.