Being Inventive: Lesson 2

[This post is the second lesson in a 3-lesson. You can also access lesson 1 and lesson 3.]

Hello! Thank you for checking out this post. The content that follows is a mini-lesson for a field experience to the National Museum of American History (NMAH). This lesson is about being inventive and focuses on three galleries in the museum. While this blog post can be used as a stand-alone lesson, it is also part of a three-part series that includes classroom pre- and post-lessons. You can also find those posts here on our blog. Check them out! These posts have plenty of activity ideas and downloadable student handouts.

The lesson plan below is part script, part advice, and full of ideas and activities that will provide a fun way to get students using inventive skills. I hope this guide can also take some of the stress out of field trips and get you and your students excited to leave the classroom. Enjoy!

Field Experience (90 minutes)


  • Clipboards, optional
  • Pencils, optional
  • Blank paper, optional
  • Downloadable student handouts, optional

Know Before You Go

  • This field experience guide is written to tie specifically to the pre-lesson on being inventive. There’s lots to see at the NMAH, so be sure to schedule more time if you’d like your students to do more at the museum.
  • Entry to NMAH is free.
  • Both NMAH and Spark!Lab DO NOT take group reservations. That means that spaces can sometimes be crowded. If you arrive at Spark!Lab and they are at capacity, ask them when you might be able to return that day. Be sure to let them know when your class is leaving the museum so they can give you helpful information.
  • Spark!Lab is open from 10am-4pm and is CLOSED on Tuesdays.
  • Spark!Lab’s theme changes every four months but the process and skills will always be the same.
  • This guide recommends three areas of the museum. These areas can be visited in any order and you can choose rotations based on your interest and what is going on at the museum.
  • Please try and visit the space before you bring your class. I know that’s not always easy, but if you know the space you’ll feel more confident navigating it and asking students questions. As well, you can then design questions/student materials that align strongly with the museum exhibits.
  • The total activity time is budgeted for about 80 minutes. Use the additional 10 minutes for transitioning between spaces and bathroom breaks.

Spark!Lab, Level 1 West (20-30 minutes) 

The space is awesome, and so needs little additional support. While in this space your students will be able to complete challenges using materials provided by the museum. They will also be able to make things they can take home with them, draw inventions, complete a scavenger hunt, read, and observe an inventor in action. Let them explore and get hands-on.

While in Spark!Lab, help your students make connections between what they did in the classroom to what they are doing in the museum. Are they testing something? Sketching something? Building something? Reworking something? These are processes they did in the classroom and should also be doing in Spark!Lab.

Places of Invention, Level 1 West (20-30 minutes)

This exhibit focuses on six places of invention in the United States.

One note about the space:

From the middle of the room you should be able to see all of your students at once. They do not have to explore the room in any particular order so you can encourage students to start anywhere.

Each city has something to read, objects on display, and usually something to do. Encourage students to explore the entire room. I think they are likely to get stuck in the Bronx, because they can make music, and in Hartford, because they can make a photo holder to take home. Definitely let them enjoy those spaces, but make sure students attempt to see everything.

To help give them focus as they look, read, and explore you can download this student handout for Places of Invention. Each box on the handout is color coded to correspond with a part of the exhibit. Thinking questions are based on the “skill spot” wall texts in the exhibit. Drawing spaces can be used to sketch objects. Finally, the answers for the innovations can come in different forms, but the main ideas are as follows:

  • Silicon Valley – personal computer
  • The Bronx – Hip-hop (new beats)
  • Medical Alley – Pace Maker
  • Hartford – Factories that produces guns, tools, bicycles, and automobiles
  • Hollywood – Technicolor movies
  • Fort Collins – sustainable energy technology

Alternatively, you can bring blank paper and ask students to record answers to questions like the following: What was created in each city? What makes these places similar? What makes them different? What skills did people need, or use, to be inventive?

The main goal of this space is to let students see that inventive behavior happens across the country, at different times, and in different industries.

Object Project, Level 1 West (20 minutes) 

This exhibit focuses on everyday objects that changed everything.

Two notes about this space:

  1. It’s shaped like a donut with a wall in the middle. This means you might not be able to see all of your students at the same time.
  2. There are lots of interactive screens, so keep your eye on students to make sure they are taking turns.

In this exhibit, the focus is on how inventions have evolved over time and changed lives. If you would like to warm students up to this space, it might be nice to start with a conversation about a familiar product – perhaps something like a smartphone. You and your students could have a quick discussion about the purposes of a phone and how a smartphone has changed how people learn and communicate.

In this exhibit you can have students sketch different versions of an invention – like refrigerators or bicycles, and then they can write how they changed everyday life. You can also download this handout for Object Project.

Alternatively, this exhibit is very interactive so you might want students to have empty hands in order to explore freely.

If you take photos and post them on social media, be sure to tag us @liveitlearnitdc or #LILIpad. We’d love to see the amazing things your students create!

Mariel Smith

Mariel Smith is originally from outside of Baltimore and grew up visiting museums in Maryland and Washington, DC. Those early experiences gave her the strong belief that museums and historic sites are perfect places to learn, explore, and have fun. She has a B.A. in English literature from the University of Maryland and an M.A. in museum studies from New York University. Committed to sharing her passion for informal hands-on education, Mariel has worked in museums in Washington, DC and New York City, as well as abroad in London, England. She is proud to be a part of Live It Learn It where she can use her teaching experience and passion for learning to help students explore the wonderful history and resources DC has to offer. Outside of work Mariel loves to read, bake cookies, and watch Star Wars.

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