Here’s the misunderstood thing about engineering, says Discovery Place’s Joanie Philipp, and it’s something parents should know, especially as they eye what the museum is offering right now:
People think it’s just for people good at math. But “math is really secondary.”
“An engineer is a problem solver,” says the museum’s chief operating officer. Which requires creativity, which requires an open and curious mind, which hit Philipp hard when she was asked to consult on an IMAX film about engineering feats all over the world: “Dream Big: Engineering Our World.”
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The film, she says, “was a very emotional experience. I thought, instead of (showing) a film for a couple of months, we really need to make this a year of engineering.”
So they did.
And who better to play a starring role in the museum’s Year of the Engineer, demonstrating more global, crossover thinking, than Leonardo da Vinci?
Da Vinci’s machines
“His thought process was, ‘All things are one,’ ” explains Christopher Emerson, a Discovery Place Science volunteer who plays a role in the current exhibition called “Da Vinci’s Machines.” (Literally, that is: Emerson plays the Pope at the time da Vinci was alive, pondering to museum-goers whether to let da Vinci visit the Vatican.)
You must study; you must practice. A masterpiece is the result of technique, not passion.
Da Vinci (well, Discovery Place’s Douglas Coler as Da Vinci)
The machines on display were built by artisans in Italy, using only materials da Vinci would have had access to in his time. Many of the things he designed never came to fruition in his era, but, as Emerson tells museum-goers, da Vinci knew many of his ideas wouldn’t work in practice – like his famous sketch of the Aerial Screw, which many liken to an early helicopter.
The point isn’t that his designs would work, but that the principles behind the designs were correct, and could be applied to a wide range of machines in the future.
Some of da Vinci’s art is displayed, too (showing how he used engineering principles to create its depths and levels), along with copies of his codices (say co-de-sees), which is the plural of codex, which refers to pages and pages of handwritten notes, sketches and illustrations. These have given new insight into the breadth of da Vinci’s genius – and offer a number of lessons for young minds.
As children and adults make their way through the exhibition, they’ll see with each item an explanation of the principle da Vinci was exploring, behind the machine.
Other actors also help. Douglas Coler, coordinator for shows and floor programming at Discovery Place Science and president of the International Museum Theatre Alliance, plays da Vinci.
“You must study; you must practice,” Coler tells attentive students sitting around him one day. “A masterpiece is the result of technique, not passion.”
Coler says these performances help keep kids interested, and help the information stick with them.
“The stories characters tell prompt them to ask questions,” Coler says. “People can get overwhelmed with how much is in the exhibition, feeling they have to read every bit of text. (The performances) are a marvelous way in for some people.”
Another key takeaway: Many of the things people consider da Vinci’s “inventions” weren’t actually his at all. Instead, he was often improving on someone else’s thoughts or ideas.
“Leonardo stood on the shoulders of other great people,” Emerson says. “He was simply drawing what he was seeing in his world. What he did was imitate, improve and innovate.”
Which is much of what engineering is.
A gap in interest?
“I’ve been in this business 33 years, but I had the same misconceptions (about engineering) as many others,” says Discovery Place’s Philipp.
One misconception is that kids who are good at math or science should be steered toward STEM-related fields (that’s science/technology/engineering/math), while readers, artists and writers should be aimed at “softer” sciences.
I couldn’t figure out how to interact with (part of one exhibit). My daughter had to teach it to me ... I had to learn it from an 8-year-old. And she will never forget she was able to be a teacher.
Charla Fields of Discovery Place
But the brilliant minds who end up changing the world are hardly experts in one area. And inspiring creative thinkers is in the interest of employers, too.
The U.S. Department of Labor projects the engineering industry will grow by 65,000 jobs, or 4 percent, by 2024 – and several specialties within it are expected to grow faster: 23 percent for biomedical engineers, for instance.
Sandra Holub is executive director of the Albemarle Foundation, a nonprofit organization linked with the specialty chemicals company Albemarle Corporation, which moved its headquarters from Baton Rouge to Charlotte last year. Holub said the company isn’t seeing less qualified applicants – but anticipates it.
“We see that need growing, and we want to make sure we have the ability of sourcing it in 10 to 20 years.”
When Albemarle Corporation moved, Holub and the foundation began looking for ways to foster young people’s interest in STEM. They eventually linked up with Discovery Place Science. Now, Albemarle is the lead sponsor of Year of the Engineer.
Year of the Engineer has four major parts: First is the “Dream Big” movie, which has been showing at Discovery Place since the Year of the Engineer launched, in August. Second are the Thinker Space lab and Think It Up exhibition, on the museum’s third floor. Third is “Da Vinci’s Machines.” Finally, on special Saturdays each month, local engineers and industry experts come in to share what they know and challenge visitors to come up with their own ideas.
What really inspired Albemarle to become lead sponsor, Holub says, was the idea of reaching a range of ages.
“I love to go and play,” she says. “It’s about that hands-on innovation – no matter if you’re 3 or 30 or 60 – to be able to touch it, feel it, smell it… It’s a great family place. You can bring your kids there and you can say, ‘Go play, Mom wants to play with this laser thing.’ ”
Think it Up/Thinker Space
In the Thinker Space lab, children and adults are encouraged to create whatever comes to mind, with tools they might otherwise never learn to use: Lasers, plus hacksaws, 3D printers, sewing machines and more are available, with facilitators on hand to teach, but not direct.
Prompts are similarly gentle: Monitors around the room might encourage visitors, for example, to make a “holiday item” – but “we don’t even want to tell them to make a wreath. That’s too specific!” says Charla Fields, a senior director at Discovery Place Science. The possibilities are endless when there’s no defined goal.
And the Think It Up exhibition pieces are highly interactive – yet come with no instructions.
“One problem I think this generation has is they aren’t encouraged to creatively think,” Fields says. “Before we can challenge someone to think critically, we have to challenge them to just think.”
Children and adults get to explore the spaces and try anything, to learn and get interactives to work.
One example: Fields’ favorite, “The Line Wobbler.” We won’t print the game’s secret here, but Fields has found it’s tough for many older people to grasp. Even she had trouble.
“I couldn’t figure out how to interact with it. My daughter had to teach it to me,” Fields remembered. “I like that experience, because I had to learn it from an 8-year-old. And she will never forget she was able to be a teacher in that instance.”
Both spaces also encourage people to jump off from the ideas of others. When you create things in the Thinker Space, for instance, you can leave them behind, and newcomers are allowed to pick them up and build off of them – much as da Vinci did.
Though the Thinker Space lab and Think It Up exhibition opened during the Year of the Engineer, they’ll remain in the museum for the foreseeable future.
Both spaces, says Fields, spark intergenerational collaboration. She notices parents and grandparents playing with their young ones, she says, and teens participate enthusiastically.
Adults are often the most reluctant to think creatively, she says, because they’ve rarely practiced doing it. During many exercises, Fields says, she’ll see adults give up if there’s no defined goal – but barriers often melt away in the innocence of playing with children or grandchildren.
“We want to focus on the process,” says Fields, “rather than the end product.”
‘Machines’ and ‘Year of the Engineer’
“Da Vinci’s Machines” runs through May 6, 2018, while “Year of the Engineer” goes through June 1.
Saturday explorations include “Engineer in Residence Workshops” each first Saturday (next up: Jan. 6), in which a local engineer hosts a 60-minute challenge; “Engineering Takeovers” each second Saturday (next up: Jan. 13), in which Carolinas engineering gets showcased and experiences shared; and “Think It Up Challenges” each third Saturday (next up: Dec. 16), three-hour design challenges in which visitors get to engage in real-world engineering, from aerospace to mechanical.
301 N. Tryon St.; science.discoveryplace.org.