Natalia Kolnik with students at the Montana Science Center.
Natalia Kolnik with students at the Montana Science Center.

Natalia Kolnik, Director of Education at the Montana Science Center, reflects on the innovative STEAMlab, which offers high-tech experiences for learners of all ages - but still finds a huge role for hands-on play and modelling.

Nestled high in the northwest of the United States, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains’ snowy Bridger Range, sits the town of Bozeman. At nearly 50,000 residents, Bozeman is considered one of the state of Montana’s larger ‘cities’.  

Known for its beautiful natural surroundings, Bozeman also contains a uniquely high density of small, world-class tech companies. The LED displays in New York City’s Times Square? AED, located in Bozeman, designed most of them. The high-power laser diodes on the Mars Rover? Bozeman’s Quantel Laser created those. FLIR’s thermal imaging cameras, Blackmore Analytics’ lidar for autonomous vehicles, and many more examples of high-tech research began with start-up companies here, in an area the local Native American tribes affectionately named the ‘Valley of Flowers’.  

A community that understands the importance of science

The Montana Science Center (MSC) sits in an unassuming 4,000-square-foot building near Main Street. It was founded as Children’s Museum of Bozeman, by a group of parents eager to bring experiential, informal learning opportunities to the community. The professional experience of members of the community meant that they were aware of the importance of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and creative play. 

As the centre grew, staff began to design, create and integrate more hands-on, tech-focused educational experiences for its visitors, including adding the STEAMlab, a high-tech makerspace-styled area. MSC designs exhibits and programmes that encourage creative play. This takes its strong STEAM focus a step further and teaches digital concepts, deepening visitors’ understanding of science and technology in the world around them.

A space for all ages to interact, experiment and play

Initially, the STEAMlab was designed for ages seven and above, but it has evolved into an exploratory space for all ages to creatively interact, experiment, (re)build, tinker and play with high-tech tools and resources. 

Tools include 3D CAD (computer-aided design) software such as Tinkercad, 3D printers, micro:bits, mBots, Arduinos, and soldering iron sets. STEAMlab staff are trained not only in using the technology in the lab safely, but also in encouraging visitors to try out new ideas, troubleshoot problems and approach a ‘failed’ 3D print or experiment as a unique and valuable learning opportunity, not a discouraging stopping point. 

Local industry professionals also volunteer their expertise in STEAMlab programs, allowing children and young people to hear about different people’s work interests and ask them questions, and to model the spirit of adventure and imagination that facilitates technological progress and innovation.

Using analogue experiences to create inclusive digital learning environments 

Designing a three-dimensional object on a flat computer screen, writing lines of code and engineering the movement of electrical current are fundamentally abstract processes. Fostering and facilitating creativity through brick play can draw in children and adults of all ages who might otherwise be hesitant. Approachable, tangible objects like LEGO, Lincoln Logs, and KEVA Planks are both fun and appealing. These objects can be easily stacked, connected, and manipulated as people build and rebuild their imagined designs.  

Since these objects are ‘toys’, being used in ‘play’, the experience of creating something with them is seen to be low stress, and to have low stakes. Starting a learner with these familiar resources can serve as a tool to transition them into 3D design, allowing them to construct an idea with familiar tools and build their confidence to then conceptualise and produce it digitally. 

While the majority of the digital technology tools and resources are located in the STEAMlab, many of the analogue ‘toys’ are located in a nearby space. When learners are able to move freely between the spaces, they often flow between the two. When struggling with a 3D design, occasionally students will take a break by working out elements of their design with tangible objects, and then return to wrestle with the digital version.  

The Rigamajig is another constructive play item that is immensely popular with MSC visitors, bringing together whole-family groups to design and build a large, mobile structure. Different ages interact with the Rigamajig materials based on their abilities and creative bent, bound only by the limits of their imagination.  

A small set of siblings built a car with their dad; they were so pleased with the outcome that they announced they wanted their dad to help them ‘do whatever it takes’ to convert that structure into a house. A group of 12-year-old boys, in contrast, imagined the materials into a zip line, working together to experiment and solve complex calculations of velocity and weight distribution through trial and error. This amounted to switching which boy tried out the rope, which one helped weigh down the lowest point, and how the others could create more tension. They traveled the path of the scientific method several times, without realising it, and spent the next week talking to each other about how to improve their design for the next time. This creative play served them well when they later approached formal school robotic design and programming.

A Rigamajig at MSC.
A Rigamajig at MSC.
Natalia working with a student at MSC.
Natalia working with a student at MSC.
Students’ work at MSC.
Students’ work at MSC.
Students at MSC.
Students at MSC.

A bridge from the tangible to the digital world

As these examples show, brick play can serve as a conceptual bridge from the manipulation of tangible items in creative play into designing in the digital world. Learners can first build a house from LEGO and then build one in Minecraft or in a 3D CAD program to be printed into existence. Brick play can also function as a trampoline, allowing learners to jump back and forth between worlds as multiple possibilities for their digital projects sprout in their imaginations.  

During an MSC camp focused on building and using circuits, participants were taught how to make a hexbug (also known as bristlebots), using an old toothbrush head, a small vibration motor and a coin cell battery. When offered craft items like pipe cleaners, feather, and googly eyes to decorate their hexbug, the children, aged seven to 12, responded with minimal enthusiasm. However, when offered the chance to use some leftover cardboard garden boxes to create a house (or prison, depending on the child) in which their hexbug could live, an excitement filled the room. For the next 90 minutes, students intensely engineered obstacle courses. Armed with hot glue, paint and several empty thread spools, students imagined elaborate stories for their hexbugs. These toothbrush heads with taped-on tech were suddenly imbued with animation and purpose of movement.  

It was only after crafting tangible obstacles for the bugs that students were interested in testing, modifying and redesigning the tech elements of their bug. A ramp of popsicle sticks, for example, started a discussion on battery voltage and hypotheses about incorporating multiple motors for a single bug, which led to more experimentation, impromptu group reflections and redesigns.

Beyond brick play 

As learner's’ understanding and ability change, new tools and resources become relevant and useful. A simple articulated slug design printed in UV reactive PLA filament has led to imaginative conversations. Allowing students to see this toy being 3D printed, letting them touch and play and animate it on their fingers, illustrating the exciting geometry involved in engineering its articulated design, and eliciting excited gasps from students when a UV light is shone upon the slug and it immediately changes color - all this serves to engage their interest. Instruction flows naturally towards intent examination of diffraction grating paper, the building of spectroscopes, and using those spectroscopes to analyse different light sources’ spectra. Finally, students read about exciting new research, like diffractive lightsails and the solar-induced fluorescence of plants.

Becoming a creator, not just a consumer

The machine take-apart area of the lab is another excellent way of allowing students to literally - and playfully - dig into the technology they see around them. Learners as young as three and four years old are thrilled to wear safety goggles and eagerly match up the shape of a Phillips screwdriver to correlating screws. An older sibling can join in, approaching with the same curiosity but with a different level of examination, noticing perhaps the dust build-up on the fan or the circuit intricacies of the CPU.  

Both child and youth are giving the broken computer considerable thought and scrutiny, related to their age and interest differences; each may ask to take home a piece they found interesting, but for different reasons. This interest and encouragement paves the way for their future involvement in the digital world, but from the standpoint of a creator and not just a consumer. The more students see themselves as imaginative creators of technology, the more they will be able and willing to critically examine their usage of the technology around them, rather than simply (possibly blindly) accepting and using it the way it is marketed and presented to them.  

Innovation occurs when a person begins to wonder and explore how to modify, rebuild or redesign an item to create a significantly different thing than the original, even though the original might be what sparked the inspiration in the first place.

Other flexible tools that foster creative play and an easy transition into digital resources include e-sewing with conductive thread and mBots. Although there are several different robotic options out there, I find the task of assembling the mBots to be a stimulating way of helping students understand how to design and write a programme for animating the mBot.  

Interactive science for everyone

The success of the STEAMlab, which saw a doubling of participation numbers in 2018, has led MSC to develop more interactive science and technology exhibitions that allow for a scaffolded approach, ensuring that all learners - no matter their age or ability - can access the opportunities.  

Gender equality is also a priority for the STEAMlab. Our data show a 47 per cent female student involvement, with similar equality in the gender of parents and carers. 

The diverse workstations available in the STEAMlab are key to ensuring that the atmosphere is as inclusive as possible. A shy six year-old girl might not be willing to sit down at a computer station and start learning how to use a mouse to begin designing in 3D, but she probably does already feel comfortable playing with the LEGOs on the table and observing what others around her are doing. Playing with the LEGO pieces is a gateway of courage to transition into nearby projects like machine take-apart. Sometimes visitors enjoy playing with an Etch a Sketch while they watch someone else’s design being built, layer by layer, on one of the 3D printers. By the time the print is finished, this observer will have felt just as welcome and a part of playing in the space as the one who designed the newly manufactured item.  

Awakening adults’ sense of wonder

A wide range of creative options allows for a fluid movement of learners throughout the space, regardless of age, ability, background, personality or gender. If space, time, options, freedom to explore and experiment, and a friendly atmosphere are provided, it is not the young people’s creativity and entrance into the digital world that needs encouragement. It is the adults’ sense of wonder and play that must be reawakened. Adults are rushed and distracted, and don’t always play well in groups. If a child’s carers are not interested in their own creative play, they tend to hurry the children, robbing the child of the important steps of wrestling with a design, building and failing, reflecting, and trying it again.

To draw adults into the environment and encourage their interaction with digital resources, I myself must be more creative. I set out curious oddities and items that they will recognise and instinctively pick up and play with, often in an absent-minded, fidgety way. So far, a slinky, a 3D-printed T-Rex dinosaur shower head and a rubix cube (which I unsolve in advance) seem to work well. If I have designs printing on some of the 3D printers, the openness of their display in the space attracts and maintains the interest of adults.

Moving forward 

There are many other incredible tools and resources out there. I’ve listed just a few of those available at the Montana Science Center, which we’ve found to be useful in sparking the imagination and creativity of our visitors as they approach and engage with technology.  

It’s a learning process, for us and the visitors, but the experience is that much more enjoyable and sustainable because of the friendly, supportive community in which it takes place. It is precisely because so many different people, of so many ages, in the community volunteer their time, expertise and financial support that we’ve experienced such rapid growth.  

Moving forward, MSC is looking for a larger space, to expand the Center and allow for even more unique, innovative programming and technological explorations.