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Scientific "Stay Time" at the Maine Children's Museum

Maine Children's Museum

“In-state hires” is a phrase everybody can get behind, and it’s something that’s become a key philosophical practice for South Portland’s Fairchild Semiconductor. The trouble is, as everyone who’s seen Waiting for Superman knows, this country’s education system is facing a dire engineering crisis--Maine (and the country as a whole) simply isn’t producing the sort of science-savvy graduates that Fairchild is looking for. The reasons for the scarcity of qualified American engineers are systemic and complex and far too involved to get into in any sort of meaningful way in this frothy little blog post; suffice it to say that Fairchild and The Children’s Museum of Maine have partnered up with hopes of nurturing the science bug of Maine’s youth. They plan to get ‘em early with a new exhibit, the Child Inventor Service.

Maine Children's Museum

I stopped by the museum on a rainy afternoon earlier this week to see the fruits of their combined labors. For children’s museums, rainy days are like chum in the water of a shark tank — kids can smell the place a mile away through the wet summer air. Wading past the glut of SUV-sized strollers in the lobby, I was met with the happy buzz of high-octane children that you witness only in the best sort of playgrounds--no tantrums, just running children and assorted murmurs of delight.

Maine Children's Museum — Digital Microscope

The Child Inventor Service occupies a cozy corner of the museum's Our Town play area — a sort of hands-on village kids can explore (with a nary a Wilder-esque Stage Manager to be seen). Staff Educator Louisa Donelson explained that what they’re hoping to achieve with the new exhibit (as with any installation) is “stay time,” that intangible interactive quality that produces an end result of a child lingering, exploring, and delving deep into their own favorite corner of an exhibit. For Donelson and Chris Sullivan, the museum’s Director of Exhibits and Operations, the most challenging aspect of the Inventor Service was figuring out how to translate the tenets of engineering into a hands-on array of stations that children would both understand and enjoy. In the early stages of planning (it’s been a fourteen month-operation to get the service up and running) it became clear to Sullivan the best way to do so was to boil those tenets down to their core — what he was left with was the simple notion that engineering is nothing more than informed problem solving.

So therein is the crux of the Child Inventor Service. Kids pop into the service via a hollow tree slide (which frankly is the preferred method of child-entry to any environment) and check the wall phone for voicemails about a series of varying problems a’brewing in Our Town (a lobster boat needs an underwater robot, for instance). And then, the kids get to work. The hope is that children will see engineering as a living thing--it’s not a dusty dinosaur bone in a museum, it’s evolving and growing and changing. Consider the exhibit’s robotic arm: notes from Fairchild’s engineers are pinned over it, and eventually those notes will be replaced by notes from children, working in tandem to make the robot better.

Watching children poke around the Inventor Service, I was reminded that every human being alive is essentially a craftsman — we are at our happiest and our best when we are producing something. And of course, doing what we can to marry that impulse to the promise of a steady paycheck is just one part of a solution to a big, messy, and growing problem, but it’s one that is elegant, and fun, and features a tree slide —a step in the right direction.

Robotic arm prototype

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