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Making & Tinkering Spaces in Museums Hangout: Spotlight on the Children's Museum of Houston - Your Questions

By Mary Mathias posted 05-27-2014 11:58




Making & Tinkering Spaces in Museums Hangout -

Spotlight on a Space: Children's Museum of Houston 


Your Questions from the Hangout


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These questions were asked by attendees of the Making & Tinkering Spaces in Museums Community of Practice hangout that took place on May 1, 2014. The panelists, Keith Ostfeld, Carmen Cruz, Vanessa Chenault, and Brent Richardson from the Children's Museum of Houston, have provide the answers below. You can view the recording of the webinar here:

Q: How do you come up with new activity/exhibit ideas?
A: Brent Richardson - The activities in Inventors’ Workshop and the Maker Annex usually begin with a question or challenge. These prompts are designed to teach engineering concepts.

Carmen Cruz - The process for developing activities for our program is first begun by evaluating preexisting activities already in place here within the museum. We then reference our state standards and find ways in which we can adopt them within our outreach sites. Strips are then taken to insure that students are receiving curriculum that both supports the classroom while simultaneously arming their minds with the knowledge and confidence to make real world STEM connections. We place high emphasis on fun, physically engaging tasks that will seed the growth for bolstering participant critical thinking and analytical skills. Ultimately, our goal is to insure that students are engaged, learning, and excited to build their scientific knowledge and build inquiry. All of our activities consist of units that begin by building background knowledge followed by steps that increase in rigor, but still culminate with the prior lesson. 

Vanessa Chenault - We use a variety of resources for ideas. Sometimes we find great ideas on the internet that we adapt. We have a variety of DIY project books but also some older books that have great hands-on projects from the 70’s & 80’s. Sometimes we see something neat in a magazine or on TV and we try to find ways to see if it would fit with our audience. We try to keep in mind pop-culture but also have an eye on our state standards and gaps that exist within students’ achievement. 

Keith Ostfeld - Often, my ideas come from my own interests or a question I have. Sometimes I’ll just dive in and try to figure it out myself and other times I research how others have approached the problem. In either case, as I explore solutions, I identify the variables in the solutions that could result in interesting further explorations, which often becomes a great leaping-off point into tinkering and making, esp. around creative use of low-cost materials. I also look for ways to incorporate skill-building into the activities (ex. measurement, simple machines, ways to work with materials, etc.) 

Q: What are the limitations you see using making activities in each of your different programs?
A: B.R. - There is never a shortage of people wanting to participate in maker activities however being able to provide the space to accommodate larger groups proves to be a challenge. Space is a limitation I am always trying to conquer. Besides having space for visitors to work on projects, making requires a large variety of supplies and with supplies comes the need for storage. I am constantly fighting the urge to horde materials. I have found that it is important to think about what supplies are realistically going to be used in projects so that the work area can stay clutter free, organized and easily accessible.

C.C. - Limitations that we often have to consider are as follows:
  1. Budget: Does the activity have the added value associated with the cost that will be incurred.
  2. Implementation: Is the activity rigorous and complex, but also can our facilitators carry out the activity in the intended way.
  3. Storage Space: Do we have enough storage space to house the supplies needed to complete the activity.
  4. Delivery: All of our activities must be able to fit into a container between the size of 27-56 quarts for all students, and many of our sites have as many as 73 students.
  5. Weight: Kits must not be excessively heavy; therefore chemistry and bigger projects are often limited because both our staff and facilitators must be able to carry the weight associated with the kit.
  6. Adaptations: Our activities and curriculum is for grades K-5, therefore we must be able to adapt the activity to younger students, while insuring that our activities also have the depth and complexity for all grade levels.

V.C. - Regarding budget, we try to consider more affordable ways of creating popular items so that families can replicate activities in the home. Science Workshop repurposes a lot of items in unusual way and receives donations from a variety of sources. For example, we recently acquired some old wheelchairs and we used the wheels on some go-carts that the kids wanted to make. 

K.O. - I think I have many of the same struggles as everyone. With making and tinkering, there comes a desire to provide the ultimate utilitarian space with every tool and material possible to provide an optimal environment for exploration. But, sadly, that is very difficult to pull off. I think the most important thing to keep in mind, whether you use the term engineering, tinkering, making, etc., is that the key is to provide a creative outlet for exploration. Sometimes we are at our most creative when we are forced to work inside constraints. I’m often reminded of the Apollo 13 situation where engineers were forced to think creatively given limited supplies and tools to save lives. And, to borrow from the fictional world, there is one of my favorite TV shows MacGyver. While many of his creations would never work without a special effects crew, the idea of “MacGyvering” - working with limited supplies to create fantastic things - is hardwired into the maker mindset. So, work with what you have, don’t stress over what you don’t, and encourage visitors to think creatively with what is present. 

Q: Do you utilize volunteers or teens to staff your programs/spaces? 
A: B.R. - No.

V.C. - At our Science Workshop location, we have previous students that come back from high school to volunteer. We have 2-3 volunteers that come back from the high school to help students on projects throughout the year. 

Q: How do you train staff to work in these programs? How is that training different from other programs you offer? Is it different? 
A: B.R. - In Inventor’s Workshop we are always working to introduce new weekly activities. These activities are designed to allow visitors the freedom to prototype and test with only a small amount of facilitation. For this reason, staff are trained on the policies and procedures of the space and provided with a new lesson plan each week with every new activity. The lesson plan breaks the activity down so staff members can learn a new program quickly and efficiently without the need of extra time being spent on the training for each new project. We encourage facilitators to work alongside visitors when the exhibit is less crowded.

The Maker Annex is staffed by Maker Corps Members. Due to the more involved nature of the activities in this space, there is training specifically for each workshop and all the tools. The adult to child ratio in this space is always 1:1 and at least two facilitators are present at all times.

C.C. - Our motivated staff is trained every 30 days for each four activity unit. They receive a 30 minute training per lesson, making it a total of 2 hours of monthly training. We also provide all of our staff with a training video to support the lesson and reinforce the skills and concepts. We also supply additional on-site training for all that request it. This training is different in that we provide our staff with video support, onsite support and most importantly, a detailed lesson plan for each activity. We also provide activity sheets for our students that guide them throughout the entire duration of the lesson, while reinforcing core skills and concepts. 

V.C. - At Science Workshop, we have 2 part-time employees (that were previous students) and 2 part-time staff that are museum-floor facilitation trained. All staff (and students) have to pass a tool-safety and use training. We also cover appropriate classroom management techniques such as always approaching students with a calm, respectful attitude regardless of the situation (and other strategies like how to prevent bullying). In this environment, we are looking for staff to support students (not necessarily facilitate) so you need the right kind of person that can promote critical thinking skills through questioning (without outright taking over their projects lol). You have to be able to maintain a respect for each individual’s project. 

Q: What tips do you have for working with Maker Corps? 
A: B.R. - I believe focusing the Maker Corps members’ energy to further the goals of your institution without stifling their creativity leads to a positive and beneficial experience for everyone involved. One way I am approaching this is by creating a list of projects and workshops the museum would like to develop and then allowing them to be free to create and innovate based on their interests. It is also a good idea to provide official outlets for the Maker Corps members to document their work. Allowing them to display their work with a clear connection to your institution is a huge motivation to produce original work. I am striving this year to have them generate documentation they will be excited to show future employers.

K.O. - Last year, I worked with the Maker Corps and I found them to be highly creative, talented individuals. I suggest four things that worked well for me:
  1. Let them work on side projects that interest them. Have them propose an idea (ideally, it should be of benefit to your institution, even if just as a research tool) and provide regular updates on their work. Encourage, ask questions, and gently push them as they explore.
  2. Have them work with visitors on making activities. They are great for helping to teach visitors how to think through a problem and rapidly prototype potential solutions. They also are great at helping visitors develop skills and providing them with hints and clues to help them progress on their projects.
  3. Challenge them – I often went to them with an idea or a problem and asked them to help find a solution for the problem. They could often do the rapid prototyping that I would have had to do on my own time and sometimes had very interesting solutions I hadn’t even considered.
  4. Listen to them – I really enjoyed just chatting with them about what interested them and sometimes we used that as a platform to start a side project or as a start for my own project or activity ideas.