Smithsonian official praises educational efforts at ScienceWorks

While working recently on a project to illustrate the innovative evolution of skateboards, Jeffrey Brodie discussed the sport with professional skateboarders from the 1970s and '80s.

"I had to explain to them why a center interested in innovation and invention was interested in what they did," said Brodie, 43, deputy director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Innovation and Invention at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

That's when world-renowned skater Christian Hosoi, who developed a board resembling a hammerhead shark, described how he cut notches in it to allow him to grab the board in mid-air.

"He said, 'The problem was I kept reaching under there to grab the trucks and would cut my hand so I invented this thing,' " Brodie said. "I said, 'Ah ha!' And he went, 'OK, I get it.' "

What he got was that he was an inventor who solved a problem with his own ingenuity and through trial and error, said Brodie, who visited the Rogue Valley this week as the keynote speaker for an annual fundraiser for the nonprofit ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum in Ashland.

Although the innovation center and ScienceWorks are nearly 3,000 miles apart, they share the mission of inspiring youngsters when it comes to science, he noted.

In fact, the staff at the Lemelson Center and ScienceWorks are looking at ways to collaborate to enhance each other's mission, Brodie said. Chip Lindsey, ScienceWorks' executive director, is a member of the Lemelson Center Advisory Committee.

The center, which was founded in 1995 and is located in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, focuses on the invention process while ScienceWorks, created 10 years ago today, allows youngsters to actively explore scientific principles. A birthday bash for ScienceWorks will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the museum in Ashland. There will be no admission charge that day.

Hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, Brodie, 43, has a doctorate's degree in history from George Washington University. He arrived at the Smithsonian as an intern in 1989, and has worked there ever since.

"ScienceWorks is a fantastic place," he observed. "The relative informality of the space is a plus. I'm a big fan of unstructured or loosely structured activities. It is very inviting and accessible to kids as they come in. It is clear there is no specific way a kid is supposed to experience this museum. ScienceWorks provides the opportunity for kids to find their own path. That is important."

Museums like ScienceWorks kick-start young brains, said Brodie, who has a 14-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son.

"They provide creative opportunities to kids and, by extension, to their parents who bring them," he said. "To give them that experiential opportunity to where they get to engage in an activity and do it is critical.

"The typical stereotype about who is a scientist or an inventor is that they are inaccessible to most kids," he added. "They think you have to be super smart and in a laboratory doing this for 100 years before you come up with something."

The staff at the center and ScienceWorks share the belief that young people are inherently creative and innovative, Brodie said.

"Our goals is to tap into that and provide opportunities for them to experience it," he said. "If you provide the exposure to them at an early age, that they can solve problems and understand this material and come up with their own solutions, that is really empowering.

"The whole idea is if you expose them to this, it becomes part of their world throughout their life," he added.

Learning is not stymied when an experiment fails, he said.

"Part of what inventors do is understand that things don't always work, that they must be resilient," he said. "They learn to go back and improve it until they get the results they want. They learn something especially if it fails."

When young people visit the center in D.C. or ScienceWorks in Ashland, they are having fun and don't realize they are actually learning and inventing, he said.

"We're showing that innovation and invention takes place in a lot of different places in a lot of different ways," Brodie said. "People every day are coming up with real-life science solutions to the challenges they face."

And that includes those on skateboards, he noted.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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