Meet Sandy, Our Town’s Child Inventor

coming soonA new exhibit is opening in Our Town this spring, but plans have been underway for more than a year. Get the inside scoop on how an idea becomes an exhibit from Chris Sullivan, our Director of Exhibits and Operations.

Fairchild Semiconductor dedicates its philanthropic efforts to early childhood science education for many reasons, one of them very practical: they need engineers! They are eager to hire Maine engineers, which means they need Maine kids to get excited about math and science early so they’ll pursue higher education and careers in the field of engineering. They have supported the Museum & Theatre’s science programming for years. In November 2010, we began discussions with their philanthropy committee regarding a new exhibit: a hands-on engineering exhibit that would reach children outside of the classroom, placing engineering in the context of imaginative play.

fairchildarticlequote-jimPhase One: Engineering Crash Course

Before we could find a way to introduce engineering concepts to children, we had to understand them ourselves. When our work began, we had no idea what semiconductors are, how integrated circuits work or why there are eight bits in a byte. A committee of Fairchild staff members – volunteers from departments across the company – was assembled to help us. With their guidance, we toured of Fairchild’s testing, development and fabrication facilities, engaged in hands-on experimentation, saw how silicone is grown, and learned about the chemical and physical processes that transform it into a chip. We learned that even one task requires the work of many different types of engineers. For example, if Fairchild is creating a chip that allows high definition movies to play from a cell phone without increasing the phone’s size, someone will need to design a new chemical process to create the smaller chip, and someone else will coordinate where the new machines will be placed for smooth production. Then, even after the chip is made, other engineers will continue to test and experiment with it to see what other uses it might have. Soon we had a new appreciation for the cutting edge work these individuals are doing and how many different types of thinkers are required to do it effectively: electrical engineers, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, machine operators and technicians.

Our own understanding of engineering grew quickly, but our ultimate goal still seemed daunting: how could we make this comprehensible and interesting for children? The answer came from the engineers themselves. When asked what had interested them as children, they had all loved solving problems. Whether they were solving equations or dismantling the family television set, they’d been curious about how things worked. Now, as engineers (whether they use a computer or a wrench), they apply that natural curiosity and creativity, along with math and science skills, to discover and define how things work.

Our staff attended a demonstration by the South Portland Robotics Team and left amazed and inspired. The final exhibit will have a robotics component.

Our staff attended a demonstration by the South Portland Robotics Team and left amazed and inspired. The final exhibit will have a robotics component.

We had found our starting point, the essence of engineering itself: problem-solving. When presented as an opportunity to experiment, rather than a science test, engineering naturally appeals to children’s creativity.

Phase Two: Causing Problems

Sparking children’s curiosity is a natural fit for our work, so we were excited to get started. The challenge: today’s technology is so pervasive and integral to daily life that children may be less likely to question or investigate it than they were in decades past. More sophisticated technology also presents fewer opportunities for experimentation. (How would you go about taking apart an iPod, or a DVD player mounted in the back of a car seat?)

We were determined to create opportunities for experimentation – to give children problems to solve. To make these problems inviting and integrate them into Our Town (itself a well-used, curiosity-inspiring area), we created Sandy Fairchild, Child Inventer. Her laboratory, which will be installed in the former vet clinic space, will feature several hands-on experiments designed to assist Sandy’s Our Town neighbors with practical problems. Children will apply science, math, spatial reasoning and technology skills to devise creative, open-ended solutions. Our collaboration with Fairchild gives us a team of engineers who are ready to help us implement the technological aspects of the exhibit.

Before going forward with fabrication plans for a circuit board (top), we try out a low-tech prototype (bottom).

Before going forward with fabrication plans for a circuit board (top), we try out a low-tech prototype (bottom).

We’re now in the midst of designing interactive components to fill the space. We start with intensive prototyping work. These prototypes are low-tech and designed to gauge children’s response to the component’s concept. Have you ever been to Museum and seen a staff member inside a cardboard box, acting like a computer? Were there others nearby, jotting down notes? You helped us develop an exhibit! Observing your child at play helps us determine our next steps. Prototyping involves a lot of research, brainstorming, false starts, critical dialogue and plenty of trial and error. These prototypes are rough, but they help us anticipate and resolve some technical kinks and discover the concepts and challenges that keep young visitors engaged.

Phase Three: Nuts & Bolts & Beyond

As our prototyping phase draws to a close, we enter the fabrication stage when we create and install the pieces that will become Sandy’s laboratory. Informed by our prototype observations, we’ll finalize our design plans, keeping in mind factors like visual appeal, safety and durability. We determine which pieces can be fabricated by our own staff and work with external designers and fabricators for some of our more complex components. For Sandy’s experiments, we’ll be working closely with engineers at Fairchild to ensure that the technology we use is safe and will stand up to heavy use from visitors of all ages. We also spend this time researching and writing text for the exhibit signs that will enhance the visitor experience. Soon, Sandy’s lab will be open for hands-on exploration of robotics, communications technology, circuitry and more.

fairchildarticlequote-jennThe exhibit is expected to open in late spring of 2012, nearly 18 months after our process began. (Stay subscribed to our email list for the opening announcement.) Sandy is an active inventor, so we’ll continue to work with Fairchild to develop and introduce new experiments periodically. We’re excited to offer our visitors a new way to play and explore, and we’re even more excited to think about the bigger implications of Sandy’s arrival. How many bright engineering minds will this exhibit inspire? What technologies will they invent? How will those inventions change the world? How big an impact can one small exhibit have? We can’t wait to find out!

Questions? Feedback? Contact Chris Sullivan at chris@kitetails.org.