by Sarah Mackey
Five years ago, TELUS Spark re-opened its doors to the Calgary public. In addition to breaking ground on a new building, the science centre was introducing Southern Alberta, Canada to a radical new institutional philosophy that incorporated play and risk into formal education practices.
This method of teaching takes a huge amount of courage from both facilitators and visitors. Both parties have to have the courage to try new things, the courage to epically fail at a project, and most importantly, the courage to work as team.
For my summer 2016 internship I am working with both the facilitation and public programming teams. In my brief time at the centre, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with some of the most incredible museum professionals. The culture of play and risk permeates to the highest levels at TELUS Spark, and nothing makes this clearer than the organization’s recent emphasis on strategic planning.
Alberta’s economy is based heavily around natural resources. The recent drop in oil prices has been very tough for the province as a whole. In response to these difficult times, Spark has responded by developing programming that directly relates to energy production and use. All of these decisions have been made in an effort to engage with their community around an issue which is so fundamentally important to both contemporary lives and humanity’s collective future.
A project I have been directly involved in centers around developing visitor engagement strategies for the atrium space. Currently, the atrium is a big white box that isn’t being used to its potential. The public programming teams as come up with the term “good show,” and we are currently working on defining what that looks like on the floor. Essentially, we are trying to figure out how can we make every visitor’s experience at TELUS Spark awesome, and more importantly, how do we educate and involve the front-line staff in this process.
This project has been really interesting not only because it has allowed me to explore how things, like lighting or seating arrangements, impact a visitor’s experience, but also because of what it says about the organizational structure of TELUS Spark. Every decision being made with regards to changes in the atrium is based upon user stories and the feedback we get from facilitators. The stakeholder’s voices are ever present in this new initiative. Furthermore, this style of programming isn’t limited to this one project. The spirit of collaboration is a fundamental piece of the ‘Sparkian’ work style.
I have also been involved in the piloting and facilitating of two evening programs – Adults Only Nights, and Maker’s Night Out. The challenge we’ve been facing in these programs is that adults tend to crave “hard science.” One of the biggest comments TELUS Spark gets is that their inquiry-based programming doesn’t always lend itself to the communication of science concepts in a traditional way. This month the public programmers and I have been working on experiments exploring the science behind food, and molecular gastronomy. As a part of this piloting process, I tried to put together a battery using things you would find in your kitchen – specifically lemons, potatoes, and pickles – with the ultimate goal of lighting an LED bulb. Full disclosure, I abandoned all pretense of science proficiency after I left high school, so I was a little nervous about trouble-shooting vegetable circuitry. Initially I was unable to get even a little flicker out of my tiny LED bulb. However, with some research, access to better quality electrodes, and the help of my coworkers, I was eventually able to create a series circuit and type up some facilitation tips. The whole exercise was a really interesting process to go through – not only because I have a cool new party trick up my sleeve. It showed me how to program in safeguards against visitor frustration during an experiment, and how simple it can be to create an activity that encourages social engagement.
In all of the meetings I’ve been a part of, and all of the programs I’ve helped pilot, it’s clear that TELUS Spark has found a way to encourage risk and play both at the visitor experience level and throughout their staff. By building in mechanisms that give programmers the confidence to try new things, and to nimbly adapt their projects, the administration has created an environment in which change is something to be celebrated. I know my museum practice has been bettered by working here!
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.