Deconstruction Derby

Mid-America's TinkerFest encourages kids to take things apart

By David Showers, photos courtesy of Mid-America Science Museum

By David Showers, photos courtesy of Mid-America Science Museum

Glitzy product launches and unveilings showcase the end of a process that began with a curious mind daring to divine the mysteries of what makes something work, a celebration of success that overshadows the failures that preceded it. Instructions have been followed when something works as it’s intended, but innovation happens when that something has been improved or adapted for a purpose only the curious could envision. Animating an existing product with new life or conjuring something from whole cloth isn’t an exercise in the clean and clinical. It’s often messy and fraught with failure.

At Mid-America Science Museum’s TinkerFest, failure isn’t an option, it’s a must. The June 18 extravaganza featuring 50 tinkering stations winding through the 65,000 square feet of the museum and extending outside to the 20-acre campus will engage the curious mind, focusing the attention at a time when it’s never been more fragmented.

“It goes back to the idea of putting your cellphone down, and maybe even taking your cellphone apart,” said Jim Miller, the museum’s marketing director.

Miller was only kidding about violating the sacrosanctity of the cellphone, but he isn’t glib when talking about tinkering’s indispensability to innovation and exploration.

“It’s about becoming lost in an activity and actually having to use problem solving skills to figure out how something works,” he said.

Taking things apart and putting them back together is a harbinger of discovery, one often frustrated by setbacks and false approaches. Those failures can stifle innovation in the wrong environment. But in a supportive one, the inquisitive are undaunted by the fits and starts of the creative process.IMGP0189 copy2

“We’ve all been the kid who gets frustrated when he can’t put his toy back together,” Miller said. “At TinkerFest, we foster the idea of taking your time and having fun. It’s an atmosphere of understanding and patience, and really just having fun.

“It’s all about the process of failing and learning. It’s OK if it didn’t get put back together right or doesn’t work perfectly.”

Presenting sponsor KYE-YAC embodies the self-starter spirit behind TinkerFest. High school students man its board of directors, empowering the organization focused on charitable giving to Arkansas youths with the same verve that pervades TinkerFest. The group has raised almost $500,000 for 100 causes. TinkerFest proceeds will support the museum’s education program.

“Each of my board members and I grew up going to Mid-America Science Museum,” said Kye Masino, KYE-YAC president, in a news release. “The museum’s interactive and experiential learning were formative experiences in each of our young lives.”

IMGP0520Museum Director of Development Harmony Morrissey said the partnership owes to Mid-America and KYE-YAC’s like-minded missions. Alliance Rubber Inc., the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts, and the Elks Lodge are also sponsors.

“We are proud to be working with a local community nonprofit to present this year’s TinkerFest,” she said in the release. “By contributing to this year’s TinkerFest, they are helping to shape a path of learning and collaboration for the future of youth in the community.”

This year’s headliners include recent Henderson State University graduate Shane Light and Piano Man, a piano playing robot Light built with a 3D printer. The robot’s steep learning curve, enabled by the artificial intelligence Light endowed with it, can intuit from its programmed play list how to add songs to its repertoire.

“He’s merging creativity with 3D printing, programming and tech stuff,” Miller said of Light. “He’s setting the bar for people who are interested in getting involved with science.”

As drones buzz overhead, professional dirt biking brothers James and Scott King will careen around the short track hare scramble course set up on the grounds. In between passes, they’ll demonstrate the engineering behind their machines.

“They’ll be doing demo bike riding but will also have an area where kids can come and learn about mechanics and engineering,” Miller said. “They’ll learn where the throttle is, where the brakes are and how to change the oil.

“The engineering aspect is just as important as every other part of TinkerFest.”IMGP0307

Multiple scientific disciplines will be on display, but Miller said their intersection with art is what distinguishes Mid-America’s TinkerFest from other exhibitions.
“There’s a huge arts focus,” he said. “Introducing science ideas through art is the best way to reach kids. We have so many artists in the community that it corresponds well with TinkerFest. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) is in the forefront of everyone’s mind.”

Last year’s event drew more than 1,400 guests. The normal $10 admittance for adults and $8 for children applies. Museum members will be admitted for free.

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