Spark!Lab is hands-on science at Berkshire Museum

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Photo Gallery | Spark!Lab to open at the Berkshire Museum

PITTSFIELD -- The newest interactive exhibition space at the Berkshire Museum will literally help visitors' ideas swing into motion and take flight.

Note: This article has been updated from its original version to reflect a revised list of other existing Spark!Labs in the country

What's known as "Spark!Lab" will open Saturday, and will provide hands-on space for people to experiment with everything from building electrical circuits to box-car size vehicles.

The center is one of four Spark!Labs currently operating in the nation; the others include Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno, Nev.; Science City at Union Station in Kansas City, Mo., and the original Spark!Lab at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Two more sites will join the Spark!Lab National Network in 2015.

The original was developed and opened in 2008 by the Smithsonian Institution by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History.

Smithsonian staff members have visited the Berkshire Museum three times since the project began Labor Day, and have been working with a team of educators and hosts to help launch the latest lab. They'll be on hand for Friday's preview party and Saturday's official launch.

"We're really excited," said Maria Mingalone, the museum's director of interpretation. She leads the project with education and public program manager Craig Langlois.

"The Smithsonian has such a great brand and we'll be working to make [the exhibit] relevant to our community and our community needs," Mingalone said.

Spark!Lab will be located in the space formerly known as the Dino Dig area, in the Dinosaurs & Paleontology room, which will now be divided into three sections.

Visitors will first enter an area that will be turned into a multipurpose space, and will include exhibits by local artists and serve as a venue for meetings and receptions.

Patrons with children ages 5 and under will then find another space, near the entrance to the "Berkshire Backyard" exhibit, with colorful manipulatives, like lighted magnetic boards and blocks. Here, the museum will host its WeeMuse early childhood and STEM programs.

The remaining space adjacent to this will be the official Spark!Lab, and will have a rotating exhibit of six to 10 lab stations visitors of all ages can use. The museum has hired Spark!Lab hosts to help guide people through the activities.

Local contractors are working with architects Tessa Kelly and Chris Parkinson -- who currently have an exhibit at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts -- to create a brightly lit space with yellow walls and natural light, to further define the space.

"It's a creative laboratory to explore, to make inventions and creative prototypes and test it out," Mingalone said. "Here, you can make something that fails but it's not a failure; it's the next step of understanding."

Last week, the museum invited a group of local educators to test out the various stations.

On Tuesday, Mingalone showed The Eagle two lab stations, "Snap Circuits" and "Vertical Wind Tunnel." With the first, guests can explore trays of kid-safe electrical components to create electric-powered circuits with various end results, like powering an doorbell or launching a small propelled flying saucer disc. The second activity challenges users to design objects that will hover and float in a fan-powered wind tunnel.

Other activities seem to be influenced by Rube Goldberg-styles of engineering.

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Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields said, while tinkering on his own Snap Circuits project, that Spark!Lab will "stimulate the kind of creativity and innovative thinking that was the beginning of the journey" of bringing the museum into the 21st century.

Established in 1903, the museum's now focused on taking a strategic, interdisciplinary and interactive approach to educating and entertaining visitors.

Shields said the changes in the museum began with the opening of the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation in 2008, followed by the 2013 debut of "Objectify: A Look into the Permanent Collection." That same year, Berkshire Museum was named as a formal affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

While he said the museum staff has long been thinking and developing initiatives in this direction, Shields said the Smithsonian "gives us the capacity to do this in a highly refined manner. It's going to boost our capacity to everything we do on the ground floor [of the museum]."

He and Mingalone said that Spark!Lab will be the stepping stone to further renovating the museum's first floor and serve as an incubator for determining future exhibits.

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About Spark!Lab

Opens this Saturday. It's included with regular admission and operates during museum hours, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

The exhibit will feature a rotation of lab station activities, including:

- Towering Teeter Table

- Grab Bag Inventing

- Shaping Space

- Snap Circuits

- Soundscapes

- Cake Inventions

- Invent-A-Vehicle Challenge

- Recycled Percussion Sculpture

- Vertical Wind Tunnel

To learn more, read this blog post:


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