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An Educational 'Spark' At Berkshire Museum

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
Spark!Lab, a Smithsonian Institution program, will be at the Berkshire Museum until October 2016.

If you think of museums as stuffy, static spaces trying to keep the past from slipping away, think again.

“Hands-on engagement is a really great way to foster creativity and innovative thinking,” says Maria Mingalone, the director of interpretation at the Berkshire Museum. “So that’s really the aim and the goal of our Spark!Lab.”

Developed at the Smithsonian Institution, the program features 10 hands-on laboratories for kids 5 or younger…but if you’re older, they’ll let you in. At least, Spark!Lab host Adrianna Fox will.

“The parents love doing it and sometimes they go branch off from what their kids are doing and start doing their own little thing,” Fox said. “That’s always nice to see.”

Among the challenges is a balancing act where people try to stack various-shaped wooden blocks on a platform without tipping it.

Although, seeing the blocks tumble still brought out laughter in Sarah Ward, who was there with her three kids.

“This is fantastic,” Ward said. “We’ve always come here because we loved the museum, but there were never hands-on activities for kids except for a couple little things in the upstairs. So it’s great to have a much more complex hands-on kids’ area because this has always been a kids’ museum in my mind.”

Some of the other activities include drumming on recycled materials like coffee cans and plastic bottles and running a marble down xylophone steps.

One of the more complicated stations allows you to create and test electric circuits powering light bulbs, fan motors and a radio.

Henry Woodward may only be 5, but he was a salty veteran of the electricity trade after a few successful connections. Father Nathaniel was there with encouragement…

“Every time you turn it off Henry it flies up,” Nathaniel said. “That’s wonderful.”

“I know,” replied the confident Henry.

“I have an idea,” Henry continued as he placed an order for parts with some codenames his father somehow understood. “I need a ‘one-oney’ and a light.”

“As long as he’s polite,” Nathaniel said. “He’s been pretty polite so far so I’m OK with that.”

But, as Henry attempted to launch multiple fans in the air, it quickly became a family affair with mom Emily giving some pointers.

“One works, but not the other,” said Emily.

“Wait, that was your special idea daddy,” said Henry as he figured out what needed to be changed to make his experiment succeed.

“Just trying to help,” chimed in Nathaniel.

“That’s it,” said Henry as the fans began to spin. “This is a big experiment.”

And as dad says, that’s what it’s all about.

“This is my third one I’m building right now while he’s building this one,” Nathaniel said. “So I’m glad we like to do the same stuff.”

“What one are you doing?” asked Henry.

“I want to do the alarm circuit that you and momma did earlier,” answered Nathaniel.

The Berkshire Museum’s Spark!Lab is the third in the country to open and will be developing additional programs to share with the Smithsonian. Mingalone says museums typically measure a visitor’s time at an exhibit in seconds, but with interactive opportunities for all ages throughout the Berkshire Museum, it’s not uncommon to see people spending hours inside.

“We don’t want people to be passive and looking, but to be actually hands-on and minds-on,” Mingalone said. “If you get engaged where families are working together, that’s how people learn in real life so we’re kind of modeling that and hoping that inspires our future inventors and innovators.”

Spark!Lab will be at the Berkshire Museum until October 2016. And as Sarah Ward explains while getting pulled toward another activity that’s piqued her 2-year-old’s interest, there’s plenty to check out.

“OK, what is that? What’s that over there?” asked Sarah to which her son responded with the pointing of a finger.

“You just go want to go play that? OK, let’s go play that,” Sarah said clearly understanding the signal. “We’re going to go play ‘that.’”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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