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.

Introducing…More Summer Camps!

Here in the Education office, we’re excited about our new camp offerings for this coming season. We’re going to kick off the summer series with a unique educational camp geared toward older kids called “Science Safari”. Using the creatures and critters from our Ranger Station (like our new turtles), our Tidepool Touch Tank, and our animal rehabilitator friend, David Sparks, we’ll be learning all about animal adaptations, environments and lifestyle.

"Science Safari" campers will get to know the turtles in our Ranger Station!

Our second new camp for the season is called “Around the World.” We’ll meet a variety of people from far away places, read stories that will take us there, and create some cultural crafts!

These half day camps are packed with educational activities but there’s still time for free exploration. In addition, this year we’ll provide a healthy snack.

Summer camp registrations have been rolling in and slots are filling fast. Are you on the ball with your summer planning? There are only a few weeks left of our early bird discount-that’s 50% off your 2nd camp! This is a deal siblings can take advantage of, too. Click here for more camps and to register. We hope to see your registration soon!

Introducing…Science Camps!

Campers in "Slimy, Squishy, Slick, and Slippery" will spend lots of time visiting creatures in our Tidepool Touch Tank.

This August we will be offering two science camps for kids ages 4 to 5.  I’m having so much fun planning “Slimy, Squishy, Slick, and Slippery,” which is a week of experiencing textures.  Every day, we’ll make a new type of clay or slime from scratch using simple ingredients, making and then testing predictions about the textures we’ll create.  Throughout the week, we’ll also meet, touch, and study some real, live animals with wet, slippery skins.  This includes studying earthworms, and visiting the residents of the Tidepool Touch Tank.

Two weeks later is “Amazing Animal Journeys,” also for ages 4 to 5, where we’ll learn about a different migratory animal each day, acting out its yearly travels.  Three of these animals will be the hummingbird, the humpback whale, and the fascinating American eel!  Each child will also have a chance to do a week-long project creating his or her own animal puppet, adding pieces to it each day as we learn about different adaptations that help creatures migrate.

Both camps are designed to encourage campers to use their imaginations and to engage in the process of science in a fun, playful way.  I think these week-long half day camps could provide a great way to transition back into the school year!  Also, don’t forget that if you sign up for two camps by May 1st, you’ll get one for half price. Click here for more information and to register for any of our 11 amazing summer camps.

Introducing… New Camps!

Garden campers
Jamie's campers show off their freshly planted seeds at last year's Garden Camp. (We'd show you a picture of Magical Myths or Ready, Set, Play camp... but they haven't happened yet!)

Spring in Maine can be tough. As my umbrella turned inside-out on my walk to work the other day, I wistfully remembered the flip-flop weather bestowed upon us just a week ago. But April showers bring May flowers, and here at the Museum & Theatre, May flowers bring… Summer Camps!

Our Education team is so excited about all the programs we do that we can’t help but plan things months and months in advance. In fact, that’s what gets us through the icy winter months: thoughts of camp — exploring new ideas, projects and activities during the most energetic time of year. Every one of us has some pretty thrilling projects up our sleeves, but I’m just going to talk about mine.

Magical Myths: Fairies, Gnomes and Creatures is a morning camp just for 4 and 5 year olds. Knowing that this is a group with limitless imagination, I decided to create a week-long camp catering to storytelling, costume creation, and lots of time to pretend. I remember spending countless hours as a six-year-old living in a “fox den” with my best buddy, Alex – or maybe building fairy houses in the woods, knowing that when I left, there would be a veritable fairy fiesta in my absence. We’re going to learn about mythological creatures from all over the world – from imagining the perspective of the world from the Zulu abatwa (tiny people who ride on the backs of ants) to watching an ancient Chinese star show featuring the Azure Dragon of the East. We’ll explore our imaginations with masks, wings, wands and just about anything in-between – and even have a chance to try dancing with the Blue Fairy from our summer Theatre production, Pinocchio! I’m so excited, I can hardly stand it.

For preschoolers who can’t keep from wiggling, I’ve created Ready, Set, Play: Rock and Romp! In my time working at the Museum & Theatre, I’ve noticed something about preschoolers: they like to move around. (Have you noticed this?) We’ll learn all kinds of games kids play in other countries – from Japanese Tag to Hide-and-Seek from Saudi Arabia. We’ll also experiment with music making in relation to play – and play in relation to music making! Anyone who has taken up an instrument knows that the fun lies in seeing where the music takes you – and in playing with others. We’ll do all of this and more as we hear from guest musicians, learn songs, and play games all week long.

So, um, is it summer yet?

One more thing! Did you know that we have a special “BOGO” special on camps through May 1st? You can buy one camp at regular price, and get a second (for the same child or a sibling) for half price. You can click here to get all the details, or get in touch with Shana (828-1234 x232 or shana@kitetails.org), who can help you find the best camps for your kids:  www.kitetails.org/camps

February Vacation Week Tips

If you’re planning a trip to Portland during February vacation week or just looking for some fun things to do, I’ve got some useful tips!

When you’re walking around Portland and you suddenly wish you had a map or directions, stop into the Portland information center in Deering Oaks Park, which is open 7 days a week from 10am-3pm (see map for location).

Note: the Visitors Center located in Ocean Gateway terminal will reopen in March so if you find yourself walking or driving towards the building with the giant clock, it won’t be open!

Parking in Portland doesn’t have to be an obstacle course if you plan ahead! Click here for a useful map of all the parking garages in the city and learn how you can get discounted parking with a visit to the Museum & Theatre. Portland Downtown District offers additional parking discounts here.

If you want a planned activity or itineraries of “must see places,” a really great website I used when I first moved to Portland is www.visitportland.com or you can check the daily events on www.mainetoday.com.

Of course, we have lots of programs for families during February vacation week at the Museum & Theatre, including a special puppet show about Custard the Dragon!   Keep an eye on our calendar of events and stay tuned for an upcoming post with more information about our schedule. Happy vacation planning!

Activity Day in Lobsterman Park

Caps for Sale! Fifty cents a cap! Everyone knows the classic favorite by Esphyr Slobdkina and today we spent the morning making our own paper hats to wear on this hot summer day. Did you know that Caps for Sale was first published in 1940? Many parents remembered reading this book as children themselves, and everyone gathered around to hear it read aloud. This was part of the Portland Downtown series, and took place most Wednesdays in July. Check out the fun!

-Jamie Andrew

Maine African Film Festival

Saturday, April 18-Friday, April 24

Please join us at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine for the first Maine African Film Festival. We will be screening films throughout April school vacation week and will also be offering related cultural programming.

The Magic Lion
The Magic Lion is a short animated film about an African boy who goes on a quest to save the life of his gravely ill grandfather. He is in search of a mysterious village where there are healers who can make a special medicine. On the way he encounters a strange lion, caught in a trap, that takes him on an adventure.
Age recommendation: 6+
Length: 7 minutes
Screening Time: 11 am*, Saturday April 18-Friday April 24
Location: We Are Maine exhibit

Christopher Changes His Name
Christopher doesn’t like his name-it’s just too common! When Aunt Gail from Trinidad tells him a story about a larger-than-life character called Tiger, Christopher changes his name to Tiger. But then he finds a better name…When he has trouble cashing Aunt Gail’s birthday check made out to Christopher Mulamba, he realizes how special his real name truly is. Maybe he could stick with it…or maybe not!
Age recommendation: 5-9
Length: 6 minutes
Screening Time: 11:15 am*, Saturday April 18-Friday April 24
Location: We Are Maine exhibit


Ousmane

In the streets of Dakar, little Ousmane charms people with his promise: whoever gives him money will have their dreams come true. But how will he do this?
Age recommendation: 6+
Length: 15 minutes
Screening Time: 11:30 am*, Saturday April 18-Friday April 24
Location: We Are Maine exhibit


The Tree of Spirits

Playing in the bush, Tano and Koudou meet Ayoka, the guardian of an ancient baobab tree. West African and North American meet in this exciting animation.
Age recommendation: 11 +
Length: 45 minutes
Screening Time: 2 pm, Saturday April 18-Friday April 24
Location: Camera Obscura

*No early shows on Sundays