Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Big Science in Little Haiti

A few weeks ago, I was in Miami working with students at the Little Haiti Cultural Center creating energy exhibit prototypes in a week-long program called "Energy Jam."

We started the week on Monday with around 20 young people from around the neighborhood between the ages of 10 and 15.  The first day was about setting up the context and challenges of creating energy exhibit prototypes. (The ultimate context was that the host institution, the Miami Science Museum had received a grant for a program involving renewable energy.)

Since most of the students had a direct connection with Haiti, our context was "What basics would you need after a natural disaster, like an earthquake or hurricane, and how could you make renewable energy devices to provide those basics?"  This allowed us to launch into practical discussions about post-disaster needs (Food, Water, Communication, etc.) as well as renewable energy sources (Solar, Wind, Hydro, etc.)

A flexible challenge like this was a great place to start the prototyping process, since it gave each group a chance to start "solving problems with materials" --- which to me is a great way to describe the prototyping/tinkering process.

My great team-teacher, Audrey Golaub

You need lots of materials and "junk" to prototype of course!  We had lots of "general" supplies (paper, tape, markers, etc.) as well as "energy specific" supplies (wires, solar panels, generators, etc.)  A great supplier of some of the energy materials as mentioned in a previous post was KidWind.  (A special thanks to Ed Sobey for letting me know about KidWind's materials!)

Although we focused on lots of practical engineering and iterative testing of the energy prototypes, we also wanted the students to focus on the creative/artistic aspects of design as well.  Fortunately, the studio of the amazing Haitian artist, Edouard Duval Carrie, was right next store.  Edouard graciously gave us a tour of his workspaces and described his artistic process, as well as providing input and advice during the week as the prototypes came together.

Finally, on Friday each group was able to show off the results of their labors in a sort of "Prototype Fair" where friends, family, and local community members (and the Miami Herald!) were able to learn about and try out the exhibit prototypes.  Even the students who were not "science fans" at the beginning of the week, grudgingly admitted that "science was pretty cool" after a week of hands-on prototyping.

Ultimately, all the prototypes will be put on display at the Miami Science Museum, and all the Energy Jam participants and their families will be invited for a free trip and celebration at the museum to recognize their work.  In addition, the Museum plans to utilize the prototypes and student ideas into future energy exhibit ideas.

The biggest take-away for me when I work on a project like this (I've done similar things in the UK and Chattanooga, for example) is the range of wonderful ideas (and functional end products!) that come through in a 5 day prototyping push.  It is well worth it to make the time to include more early prototyping into your exhibit development schedules --- who knows how much it will "energize" your exhibit team?

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