fall 2015 – 3 new projects completed

ALCHEMY studio is pleased to announce the opening of three new projects over the summer and early fall, developed and designed by our team. We want to congratulate the staff of these institutions for their community vision, hard work, and creativity.

The LAB, Children’s Science Center, Reston VA – June 2015













The LAB is the first public experience opened by the Children’s Science Center, which is the first interactive STEM destination in Northern Virginia.

The Lab is composed of four spaces which include the Experiment Bar programmatic space; a tinkering space known as the Tinker Shop; an exhibition space called the Inspiration Hub; and an early learner area called the Discovery Zone. All spaces are designed for changing exhibitry and are completely flexible while still being separately themed.

Unique project factors: The LAB is located in a family-friendly, upscale suburban mall. This context informed both the design standards as well as the operating planning. The LAB has been a great success since its launch over the summer.


 Science Basics and Our Bodies, Konya Science Center, Konya Turkey – July 2015







The Konya Science Center marks Turkey’s first truly large-scale interactive informal learning experience. As the first institution completed under the science center initiative being lead by Turkey’s national science research organization, TUBITAK, the new science center is intended to be a model for other municipalities in the country as they develop their own science centers.

Unique project factors: This science center needed to reflect its local community and regional needs, but, as a national model, it also needed to attract other municipalities to draw from its example. These factors impacted the overall design and led to a project with community-based and national outcomes.


CREATE!, Arizona Science Center, Phoenix, AZ – September 2015

CREATE! was designed to support local and regional communities of makers, designers, artists, and engineers. CREATE! provides safe starting points for new participants while also being a resource for established makers and designers who want to explore new ideas and share their knowledge with others.

Unique project factors: CREATE! is housed in an existing building adjacent to the Arizona Science Center, and though there is considerable overlap, CREATE! has its own identity and draws its own audience. In addition, with the space, the design and planning needed to consider the full novice-to-expert spectrum while also partnering deeply with like-minded community resources.





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maker museum/maker collection

Following last week’s thread about visitors experimenting and tinkering, we thought it would be interesting to discuss the idea of people making their own “exhibits” or even their own museums. This idea was sparked after we came across an interesting project called the MiniMusuem.




There’s something enchanting about this project, and here at the studio, it got us thinking about childhood memories like the little boxed rock collections from places like the Skyline Drive in Virginia



or old printing typeset drawers filled with well-organized marble collections, seed pods, or fishing lures.

The MiniMuseum also reminded us of the work of Theodore Gray who has developed The “Wooden Periodic Table” Table (yes, two “tables”).





An amazing piece of furniture (an actual, physical table) and celebration of chemistry (periodic table) – a homemade exhibit and maker exhibit.



Theodore Gray (who’s also a co-founder of Wolfram Research) has developed a rather extensive website not associated with his table.


These examples suggest another type of activity that could be included in the maker/tinkering spaces than are now springing up in many places. Certainly, there is the possibility of letting visitors “curate” or “categorize” samples, bring in their own collections, or work to find and organize samples.


All of these efforts invite visitors to explore and actually do some of the work that scientists and researchers do – as well as our fellow museum professionals.


We think this is a rather untapped area that could developed further. What examples like these have you come across? And, by the way, what did you collect when you were a kid?


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maker music

Recently, ALCHEMY studio was engaged to begin the design and implementation of a new space for an emerging science center in Virginia. As part of the Museum’s plan, they are being offered the opportunity to experiment and test program and exhibit ideas in a small space in a local shopping area. We call it The Lab – a space where visitors will get to experiment, experience and tinker while the emerging science center will do the same through prototypes.

As part of our work, we are exploring all kinds of new and different experiences that offer something unique but also meet the desired experiential and impact goals.  One interesting example that caught our eye is the OTOTO by Dentaku and developed with Near Now. Take a look.






This experience certainly shows promise as an activity that could be part of many tinkering and making spaces. This is certainly an opportunity to allow visitors to express creativity – one driver for these spaces. But, as importantly for us here at the studio,

it offers the opportunity to explore and provide interpretive scaffolding for visitors to learn about science concepts and technological operations – something sometimes lacking in maker space activities.

Meanwhile, music offers a wonderful way to engage audiences who might be disinclined to explore these subjects.

Another example to explore would be having visitors experiment with sampling and learn musical and sound concepts while creating. This idea came to us through this experience by johnnyrandom who created a musical symphony from bicycle components. Here it is.



We would love to “hear” your ideas on this (pardon the pun!) and learn about similar experiences you might have seen.

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SWOT Analysis for Institutions Who Follow the Maker/Tinkering Experience Trend

SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) Analysis for Institutions Who Follow the Maker/Tinkering Experience Trend

The analysis below was created by the 200+ audience and session instigators at the ASTC 2013 Conference Session, “Interactive, Touch Tables, Maker Spaces: Trends, Fads, What’s Next?” While we hope to put this on the CAISE website we are cross posting it here.



The session instigators were as follows:

  • Wayne LaBar – ALCHEMY studio (session leader)
  • Kirsten Ellenbogen – Great Lakes Science Center
  • Hooley McLaughlin – Ontario Science Center
  • Dana Schloss – TELUS Spark
  • Eric Siegel – New York Hall of Science

By way of background, here is a definition of “SWOT analysis” from Wikipedia:

SWOT analysis (alternatively SWOT Matrix) is a structured planning method used to evaluate the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats involved in a project or in a business venture. A SWOT analysis can be carried out for a product, place, industry or person. It involves specifying the objective of the business venture or project and identifying the internal and external factors that are favorable and unfavorable to achieving that objective. The technique is credited to Albert Humphrey, who led a convention at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) in the 1960s and 1970s using data from Fortune 500 companies. The degree to which the internal environment of the firm matches with the external environment is expressed by the concept of strategic fit.

Setting the objective should be done after the SWOT analysis has been performed. This would allow achievable goals or objectives to be set for the organization.

  • Strengths: characteristics of the business or project that give it an advantage over others
  • Weaknesses: characteristics that place the team at a disadvantage relative to others
  • Opportunities: elements the project could exploit to its advantage
  • Threats: elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the business or project

The recent ASTC session drew a large crowd and sparked a lot of follow-up discussions. Since the SWOT analysis was done live via computer during the session, participants had immediate access, and many expressed the feeling that it would be great to share this more broadly with the science center community. Both participants and instigators felt that reflecting upon and analyzing our practice was useful and that science centers ought to do more of this type of thinking. A summary/review of the session can be found on the ASTC blog at


One insight that comes out of the analysis is that, while there are certainly unique aspects to the Making/Tinkering movement, this exercise brought up some “universal” themes as well – good words of analytic wisdom applicable to any strong, impactful experience.

Of course, a possible conflating factor for any “conclusions” one might draw is the self-selection of the group for this particular conference session. We didn’t cross-correlate responses with participants’ museum affiliation, situational context, current programming, or prior experience with Maker/Tinkering spaces. Perhaps there will future opportunities to frame and explore the issues brought up during the discussion.

Without further ado… the SWOT analysis:



  • Funders love it
  • Get to partner with awesome people who are also known to the public
  • Bring in new audiences
  • Outcomes have personal connection
  • Leverage established festivals and event
  • NGSS are full of modeling – ISE is scared to death of this – but abstract representation etc. is strong in maker
  • Media love it
  • Unique opportunity to engage adults
  • It gets people to spend time thinking about something – move this to internal
  • Very easy to communicate
  • Lots of rhetoric around this – even Obama loves it – Silicon Valley believes it needs to create people who have the skills that maker spaces create
  • Opportunity to reuse materials
  • Really helps to build community – not just learning community but also gives people a brand to collect under – brings external communities together
  • Ties into the formal education sector
  • Opportunity to build on others ideas
  • People get it
  • Brings in outside expertise



  • People may do it without learning how
  • It’s overblown in the media and diluted
  • If it doesn’t fit your mission it can unintentionally change what people think of you
  • Science Centers are not uniquely positioned to do this
  • I can do this at the children’s museum, why is at a science center?
  • A lot of people don’t get it
  • It can be very wasteful of resources
  • Can alienate existing maker communities
  • External funders love it but it may not align with your mission – takes money from other important directions – their vision of making may not be the same as yours
  • Are we increasing inequality because only some people can afford coming to the science center?
  • You have to buy 3D printers
  • Environmental waste
  • Time waste – move this to internal – museum visitor time is precious – we try to create thoughtful things that they may never get to if they are caught up in maker space
  • Because the maker movement feels so new we are still developing a shared understanding – end up being unfocused
  • People feel that they can’t do it
  • Liability
  • Expectation by longtime visitors does not match this new effort



  • Allow you to bridge gap between education and exhibits
  • Comfortable space for strangers to interact
  • Most science centers bring in 7-14 year olds – a missing group
  • Build internal staff capacity – draw out the internal strengths that you may not have known about it
  • You can integrate hybrid maker into other exhibits and programs
  • Worth it just to give people a chance to slow down and try something in-depth using your hands
  • Gives people facility with tools
  • Super empowering for visitors
  • Shifts mindset of staff to do more prototyping
  • Problems are self-defined
  • Engages families together
  • NGSS talks about STEAM – brings in art
  • Creates meaningful and memorable experience
  • Instigates learning modality conversation
  • Gives laypeople control over production
  • Reinvigorate one’s floor
  • Opens up possibilities
  • I CAN do this
  • Encourages collaboration
  • Changes interpretive modality – for floor staff, not as much about explaining
  • Provides a space that’s not as static
  • Provides opportunity to learn from failure
  • Create a community of regulars – maker groupies
  • Makes your staff feel part of something bigger than your organization




  • Staff capacity
  • Potentially lose the wow factor in the science center
  • People fail if there is not enough facilitation
  • Looks messy
  • It is expensive to staff
  • Has to be authentic – this is not for everybody
  • Institutional resistance to change
  • No science center has spare space for this
  • Materials management
  • Ability to engage visitors for repeat visits
  • It can look cheap
  • Should not distract us from doing “science” – potential to be just arts and crafts
  • Easy to become whatever you want making factory
  • It is such a good idea – just get on with it – weaknesses will scare the management
  • Difficult to measure this kind of learning
  • Narrow definitions of making can exclude diverse audiences
  • We are always weakest at the beginnings of these efforts – how to we catapult our learning in the field
  • Not all sciences lend themselves to Maker experiences
  • Requires lots of iteration
  • It is uniquely dependent on the quality of the facilitation – therefore you have a big quality control issue – the cost of making sure that facilitators can participate effectively
  • Because it is hard to measure and articulate the learning outcomes, it is hard to train your facilitators
  • If we use traditional assessments then we will not measure maker learning
  • Investment required means you prioritize this kind of learning over other community engagement
  • If it is really authentic maker experience, there is more opportunity for failure and may decrease motivation to participate
  • If you are doing the Maker space you are not out ahead of the next trend – do we lose innovation?
  • Maker is a tool that can be applied depending on how it fits the topic
  • Maker space is not the point – it is incorporating – we want to make Maker spots or nodes

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Drawing Part Deux – Randomness

Last week our weekly inspiration looked at how a robot could translate one’s drawing into sound and music. This week we ran across an interesting drawing experience that made us think about riffing on more common drawing experiences found in science centers.

Below are images and a video of the Olafur Eliasson’s “connecting cross country with a line.” This is part of the project “Station to Station”








This experience of recording seemingly random movement along a train line using an ink ball reminded us here in the studio of the less random but similar in its “recording of forces” of a common science center exhibit the harmonograph. Here is a picture of one from Questacon in Canberra, Australia.




What this got us to thinking is what other common or perhaps not so common exhibits might we riff on and remove constraints to allow visitors to explore “randomness.” the idea of finding patterns in randomness is a key in the fields of science, engineering and math.

We believe that might make a wonderful direction to explore in a series of exhibits.

Of course we should mention that we also think it’s really cool to do exhibits on a train – that would be fun to do too!

What other “randomness” exhibits do you think might make up such an exhibition? Share them with us!

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Sound! Water! Camera! – Action!

There are often experiences or demonstrations that just cry out for someone to use them as an inspiration for an interactive exhibit. Here is one that we are experimenting with here At ALCHEMY studio for a local fabricator to bring to a science center near you.

This experiment/demonstration was done by Brusspup. It involves not only making sure the device is constructed correctly but also viewing it with a camera that is in sync with the sound. What is clear is that it’s possible to create a very interesting experience demonstrating several science principles in which one side of the exhibit seems like somewhat chaotic water movement but the other side seems to reveal a “frozen in time” moment.

If you are interested in our investigation of this phenomenon/experience and would like to explore what we are doing and perhaps acquiring some version of what we com up with drop us a line.

A special shout out!

And, as always, if you have something you think we should share, send it to us.We should mention we recently got several submittals from fans of inspiration weeklies. We’ll be rolling these out over the next few weeks with our own examples of things  that are inspiring us and making us think about the experiences we find in our informal learning lives.

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reshaping our planet

One of the projects we are working on here at the studio is a film that will explore engineering and the amazing achievements we can as a species succeed at, as well as the challenges that we face from what we do and the solutions engineering may provide. As part of our work we are always on the look for great ways to visualize what we now call the Anthropocene epoch. The geologic age of human influence. Here is a dramatic one  ’Welcome to the Anthropocene’

This is the work of Globaia, a organization that attempts to educate people on understanding the modern world and the issues our environment and planet faces. Here are some stills

An image dramatically showing how our civilization networks (transportaion, power, cities)  fade into the norther wilds of Canada.



The transportation, power and cities of Europe and Asia


Flight between North America and Europe


A map of energy: pipelines are orange, power lines are white, underwater cables are blue


These images present the yin and yang of our civilization.


The way we are becoming a networked planet and species and at the same time how we  are impacting every single square mile of the planet. Too often the conversations that seem to revolve around the issues we face are one sided. Rather we look at these amazing images and see on one hand the amazing achievement of how we can connect ourselves both physically and electronically sharing information and materials, building and creating incredible works. We also see the issues and impacts that this endeavor makes on our planet and realize that the price we are paying is at times too much for our world to sustain. Only together with our ingenuity and innovation can we improve on what will always be an eternal dilemma.

Feel free to send us any links that you know of or come across that depict the two sides of the coin that these images show.

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“Maker” Science Spaces

Recently, there has been intense interest in the idea of Tinkering Spaces or Maker Spaces in the museum filed, especially science centers. This interest stems from the success and undeniable energy and innovation occurring at such events as Maker Faires, which we have experienced and attest to from personal visits. These spaces in museums have some characteristics that we have described earlier as “evolving experiences” where activities and content change constantly.  These “maker” spaces often have a workshop-like environment, where the design aesthetic is thought about but intentionally does not looked over-designed. They must certainly be functional for the activities.  Finally, the content tends to focus on technology, engineering to some extent, and often also morphs into art and creative expression.

Recently we visited the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, in San Pedro California and fell in love with several of its spaces. The images below show what we saw there.




Immediately what leapt to mind was these were what we termed “Maker” Science spaces. A “Maker” Science space is focused more on science content than technology but has some of the same characteristics and attributes as the original. Here we were tinkering with biology and marine sciences. There was certainly an authenticity and a reflection of constantly changing content that marks an “evolving experience.”

The use of the dry erase boards, the real tanks, and full expression of operating life support systems to study the wildlife are all part of this approach. Certainly, white PVC piping never looked more purposeful and in keeping with the space’s intent.

This has inspired us here at ALCHEMY studio to wonder how we might create more and design more “Maker” Science spaces. Especially in museums and science centers where there is actual research occurring. We would love to work with institutions interested in “making” this happen. (Sorry for the pun!)

We would love to hear of any other spaces that you feel capture this same quality as a science space. Let us know.

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Children’s Science Center










ALCHEMY studio has recently begun early schematic design and visioning for the Children’s Science Center in Virginia. A science center/children/s museum hybrid, ALCHEMY studio has begun to provide the first look at what the experience will be like. The illustration here is of the Earth/Energy/Sustainability zone for the institution.

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Inspiration – Solace

As part of looking and thinking about bringing together different medium, one is always looking for things to inspire and spark imagination. To find people or ideas that are extraordinary in some way.

The latest is the work of Nicky Assmann who has created Solace – one might call it the the most iconic bubble exhibit we have seen! Wow !!

Watch the videos


And here is an interview with artist from Fast Company




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