A group of Riverside High School 10th graders clusters around what appears to be several scraps of paper. On closer examination, the materials include conductive tape, a small battery and a tiny light on a thin metal strand. By taping the battery from two sides, and running it up to the light, the students create electricity. This is the OMSI tech lab, one of three “Maker” labs that include physics and chemistry labs, as well as a giant turbine hall where kids (and adults) can make and fly paper airplanes over wind turbines, step into a hut that simulates an earthquake, and more. During their hour-long class, the 10th graders will add to their systems and learn about electricity.

The OMSI Maker Initiative was funded by the Cultural Trust in FY14. But what on earth does making electricity or flying paper airplanes have to do with culture?

The answer lies in the nature of science itself and also in the humanities. Where traditional education models teach students to learn the right answers, says Andrew Haight, OMSI’s director of guest engagement, “OMSI is using maker activities to help kids understand that they may not have the right answers, but if they keep trying, honing in on the right answers, that is success.” And, of course, he qualifies, teaching a 4-year- old to ask a question is very different than teaching a high school student or an adult.

The purpose of education, and specifically maker education, is to “teach people to ask a really good question,” says Haight. “It is formulating an idea, collecting information, testing it.”  

The Trust grant funded an educational outreach program and the Maker’s Fair in September of 2013, including ESCO, which set up a mini forging station in their booth.  The fair  drew more than 6,000 attendees and 110 vendors, up from 80 the previous year.“The Maker’s Fair was a tremendous success,” says Foundation Relations Coordinator Scott McEachern, “and the outreach program is in full development.” During the last academic year, maker activities were test-piloted in certain schools across Oregon. “Testing ideas – getting feedback from teachers and students, connecting it back to what’s happening at OMSI. That’s an important part of the process,” says McEachern.

The STEM to STEAM conversation is one that OMSI embraces. “STEAM is the opportunity for more ways to create access to innovation and critical thinking,” says Haight, who reminds visitors that every invention was created to solve a problem or fill a need, even the ones people didn’t previously know that they needed. Again, with roots in the humanities, the OMSI staff notes that such inventions as electricity, the airplane and the internal combustion engine have influenced history and modern culture – in Oregon, America and the world –more than humans may ever grasp. 

The Cultural Trust grant, among others, was deeply appreciated by OMSI. “The grant, our funders, are giving us the opportunity to see the big picture of maker activities and how they fit into the larger culture.” In the end, says McEachern, “The imagination is so important. And this is about ‘inspiring our populace.’”