mother and daughter exploring electricity in sparklab

Building SparkLab: How have Science Centre’s changed?

We may be biased, but at Queensland Museum we reckon we’ve got one of the best science centre’s in Australia! SparkLab, Sciencentre at Queensland Museum, has awesome interactive exhibits, live science experiments and investigations and a maker space – but perhaps best of all, learning officers who have science and education expertise and make it their mission to get you playing, questioning and testing your ideas while having the most fun possible. Rebekah Collins is one of the creators of SparkLab and there is no-one better to give you and me – Laura Cantrell, museum graphic designer and part-time podcast host – the inside word on our SparkLab experience.

Meet our guest

Rebekah Collins is the Learning Manager of SparkLab, Sciencentre and is a member of the Queensland Museum’s Lifelong Learning team. Rebekah was one of two curators who developed SparkLab at Queensland Museum.

Over the years, Rebekah has worked on exhibition projects such as Wild State and Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb, developed and delivered holiday programs, teacher programs, night events such as After Dark and museum sleepover events through to appearing on children’s television programs.

In case you prefer to read

Kylie Hay: Thanks for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast, this episode was recorded using Skype, so you may hear a bit of background noise, which we like to call atmosphere. We hope you enjoy this episode, too. So let’s get started.

LC: We may be biased, but at Queensland Museum, we reckon we’ve got one of the best science centres in Australia. SparkLab at Queensland Museum has awesome interactive exhibits, live science experiments and investigations and a makerspace, but perhaps best of all, learning offices who have science and education expertise, who make it their mission to get you playing, questioning and testing your ideas while having the most fun possible. Rebekah Collins (RC) is one of the creators of SparkLab, so there’s no one better to give you and me, Laura Cantrell, museum graphic designer and part time podcast host the inside word on our SparkLab experience.

LC: Thanks for joining us today Bek.

RC: Thank you.

LC: Firstly, tell us what is SparkLab.

RC: Well SparkLab is Queensland Museum’s premier STEM Interactive experience where we invite children aged six to 13 year olds and their carers to be as scientist. And through play, our visitors are free to be curious. Ask questions make observations about their world and they can also test out their own ideas, design solutions to problems and share their thinking. And we’re hoping that those STEM skills that they use in SparkLab can be applied in the everyday world long after they leave the museum.

LC: SparkLab opened in September 2018, how does one go about developing a new science centre exhibition? Where do you even start?

RC: That’s a great question, Laura, and it actually took us a while to answer. So before SparkLab we had the science centre and it was at Queensland Museum since 2004 and before that it was in George Street and I’ve been with the Science Centre since 1995. And I’ve loved the entire experience, but this was a rare opportunity for us to start from scratch, to reimagine the purpose of the science centre and to truly aim to create a learner centred STEM experience, a space where the learner is central to the whole experience. And for us, we wanted to put ourselves in the perspective of the learner. And from their point of view, we wanted them to feel things like my curiosity is sparked and I feel wonder of the world around me. My experiences are supported by real world examples. I feel supported to think outside the box and take a risk with my thinking or doing. I can choose my experiences and can learn in different ways. And I’m the scientist. I’m the engineer, the designer. I can create solutions to problems by drawing on my STEM skills and knowledge. So with that is our base for underpinning the whole of the new SparkLab. We worked with industry partners and designers around the world to build exhibits where visitors could play, ask questions, make lots of choices and test out their ideas, make observations and then share that learning and talk to their family and friends about what is happening.

LC: And what role do the SparkLab staff play in this learning centred experience?

RC: While the SparkLab learning officers, they’re an amazing team, huge, diverse experience. We’ve got science research, science communication, STEM programming and education and they’re there to facilitate the visitor experience. They encourage play and enquiry. They make connections to real world examples. I support design thinking and creative problem solving and also to challenge and extend visitor thinking. But the learning officers also develop and deliver all the programs within SparkLab. So at the science bar they set up a key enquiry and facilitate children to lead the investigation, encouraging questions, ideas for testing comparisons and real world links. And when we go to science on a sphere explorations, learning officers and visitors go on a journey around Earth or even into our solar system, looking at data patterns and changes over time and at the makerspace learning officers create a real world design challenge and support children to create prototypes and test and improve on their designs. So they’re really busy in the space engaging with all of our visitors.

LC: You mentioned that the Science on a Sphere exhibition or exhibit. What is it?

RC: Well, it’s a huge 1.8 metre diameter sphere suspended in the centre of SparkLab. It’s the first thing you see when you come in. And it uses the latest digital technology to project global, environmental and planetary datasets onto the surface. And all of this information is gathered from satellites and ground based instruments, as well as computer modelling so similar to a giant animated globe. These datasets include anything from like real time clouds, animal migration, Jupiter’s moon, real time earthquakes, plate tectonics, ocean currents and much more. There’s over 500 different data sets that our visitors can interact with.

LC: That sounds amazingly cool. Now, you’ve worked in the Science Centre industry for 26 years. What changes have you seen during that time?

RC: It is a long time and I need to think back. But my first informal science education gig was towing a greenhouse education caravan around to school fetes and other outdoor events for the Faculty of Science Education at Griffith Uni, so we would hook in visitors by cooking sausages in solar ovens and then have great conversations about greenhouse gases and global warming. And so after completing my Bachelor of Education, I then started working for the Queensland Science Centre. Now the museum opened the Queensland Science Centre in 1989 and fully interactive science museums, science centres. They started appearing in the late 1960s, even some earlier ones. But the sorts of ones like the Queensland Science Centre and these second generation science museums all used interactives to explore natural phenomena. So people had free choice about what they were going to play with. There were lots of buttons, levers, moving parts, sometimes whole body experiences, and there was a lot of focus on developing your understanding of concepts and facts about the world. And so the science centre experience for me really resonated. I went in my first year at uni and I loved it and I decided that’s where I wanted to move into in formal science education. But nowadays, science centres that play in a different space. So there’s a lot more focus on what skills and behaviours the next generation will need. Things such as creative problem solving, design thinking, science, enquiry skills, as well as building confidence in participating in STEM and persistence and resilience when tackling challenges. So we tend to find there’s a lot more choice in the types of experiences being offered, different science centres are going in different directions, including things like co-creation of programs and experiences with our audience, and a lot of focus on real world examples and real world challenges.

LC: What have been some of the highlights of your career?

RC: Working for Queensland Museum for this long, there’s been so many great experiences. Professionally, I would have to say it’s been the chance to work as part of the learning team to create spaces and experiences where visitors can play, learn, create, connect, share. And certainly it would have to be a high point in my career to be engaged in the development of SparkLab and the creation of the SparkLab team and the program. But I’ve also been really privileged to work on a number of great exhibitions at Queensland Museum, including the development of the Wild State exhibition, working with Queensland Museum scientists and focussing on why Queensland has such unique biodiversity. On a personal note, working in museums means you get to get up close and personal to amazing objects from all over the world and from different times and places. So to have that opportunity to connect with people stories from all over the world is such an incredible thing.

LC: Well, we’re going to wrap up now with our Rapid Fire Museum in a minute.

LC: Are you ready?

RC: Yeah, I’m a little nervous, actually.

LC: Let’s see how we go. OK, what did you want to be when you grew up.

RC: A primary teacher.

LC: Favourite museum memory?

RC: It would be seen the Silk Road treasures from Afghanistan. They were hidden from the Taliban by Afghanis. And that was an absolute pleasure when the museum had that.

LC: Which is more iconic, Muttaburrasaurus or Mephisto?

RC: Well they are quite different. So I wouldn’t compare them. I think they’re both unique and important stories.

LC: If you could do another job in the museum for a day, what would it be?

RC: I would like to go on a field trip out with the biodiversity scientists or with the palaeontologists.

LC: What do people think you do at work?

RC: Friends of my parents always think that I run the museum. I think they think my job is bigger than it is or that I work with dinosaurs and I don’t actually do either of those things.

LC: Do you prefer contemporary or historic old style museum displays?

RC: I prefer contemporary because I think they cater for more different types of visitors. But I love objects and stories, so I think that’s the fusion.

LC: Well, that’s our minute up. You didn’t do too badly there Bek.

RC: Thank you. I’m glad I passed.

LC: Well, thanks for joining us today and sharing insights into your experience working in Science Centres over such a long time.

RC: Thank you so much for having me, Laura. It’s been a pleasure.

LC: SparkLab is Queensland Museum’s premier STEM Interactive Space, where you can follow your curiosity and bring out your inner scientist as you question, investigate and wonder about the world around you. SparkLab is proudly supported by academic partner University of Queensland.

LC: Thanks for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast. Interested in uncovering more stories? Click the follow button to be notified of the latest podcast episodes. You can follow Queensland Museum on social media @qldmuseum or head to our website and while you’re there sign up to our e-news list to be the first to know what’s on at our museums. Until next time, stay curious.

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