New Science City attraction: Smithsonian’s Spark!Lab designed for inventive young minds

08/04/2014 7:48 PM

08/05/2014 2:11 AM

The rejuvenation of Science City at Union Station continues with the opening Tuesday of Spark!Lab, an interactive area intended to inspire kids to be inventive using simple materials.

The idea is the property of the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and is only the second one in the United States outside Washington, D.C.

Kids attending Science City summer camp on Monday got a preview of Spark!Lab by experimenting with wooden blocks, marbles and inclined planes. It looked as if they were just playing around, but their minds were working and their hands were experimenting.

“I call it a long set of stairs,” 10-year-old Luke Thomas of Lenexa said, demonstrating his creation in which marbles rolled down a ramp, plopped onto a series of xylophone tiles, continued through a chute and ran into a small bell, making music along the way. “The smaller marbles make more noise and they’re faster.”

The Smithsonian chose Science City for Spark!Lab because it emphasizes creativity as well as science, said Michelle DelCarlo, Spark!Lab’s national network manager. The project is underwritten for the Lemelson Center by the Ford Motor Co. Fund.

DelCarlo and Tricia Edwards, the head of education at the Lemelson Center, were at Science City on Monday, helping set up Spark!Lab for its 10:30 a.m. opening.

Other activities in Spark!Lab include hydroponics and inventing a vehicle. The common themes are collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving.

Most of the activity is self-directed — the campers on Monday needed no encouragement to get busy — but there will be a Science City staffer on hand to offer guidance.

Spark!Lab manager Luis Rodriguez said the activities are fairly simple but are meant to be “a jumping-off point” for young minds.

“It’s about not being afraid of failure,” he said as campers tried to balance blocks on a teetering platform. “The invention process is failure and risk.”

Spark!Lab is the latest addition to Science City, which has been renewing itself since 2008, when the Burns & McDonnell Foundation created the Engineerium robotics center. Since then, the engineering company has invested about $4.5 million in the science center.

An interactive exhibit about energy opened last year after the first Battle of the Brains competition among area schools, sponsored by the engineering company. Two more new exhibits, about genetics and water, came out of the second Battle of the Brains and are set to open by year’s end. Union Station spokesman Michael Tritt said those exhibits will be impressive on the scale of Science on a Sphere, which projects planetary images onto a 6-foot diameter globe.

Spokeswoman Christy Nitsche said it is an exciting time at Science City.

“You can feel it, not only among the guests but also the staff, supporters and funders,” she said.

To reach Matt Campbell call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/MattCampbellKC.

About Spark!Lab

Spark!Lab is intended for children ages 6-12 and their families, although there is an activity table for younger children.

Hours are 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. on weekends.

It is included with admission to Science City

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