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img_3009Abigail Kutlas (SESP ’18) is a Learning Sciences major at Northwestern. She enjoys studying education, especially teaching best practices, and plans to pursue a career that aligns with those interests. Abigail is a 2016 Summer Internship Grant recipient.

This summer, I was an intern in Spark!Lab, which is part of the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Spark!Lab is a hands-on invention space geared toward six- to 12-year-olds and their families. There are activity tables throughout the space that present problems centered on a theme (right now, it’s “Planet”) and give them materials to create an invention that might solve the problem (like something to take plastic out of the ocean). My two fellow interns and I were asked to complete individual projects related to family engagement, and we also spent about half of the time working directly with the visitors in Spark!Lab. Being out in the space allowed us to try out engagement techniques, test the different activities and get feedback on how accessible or intuitive they were.

When I was hunting for summer internships, I knew I wanted a unique experience that would be difficult to replicate through my extracurricular or volunteer work. I Googled “Smithsonian internships” on a whim and did some research before deciding to apply for education-focused internships at four museums. The National Museum of American History had internship positions in almost every department and the website was a little confusing, so I ended up calling the intern manager and talking to him about my options and application materials.

I am really proud of the way my family engagement project turned out. I worked with the Smithsonian’s Office of Accessibility to create sensory kits for Spark!Lab. The kits include resources like visual schedules, sensory tip sheets and fidgets, and they’re designed to help our visitors with sensory processing disorders and intellectual disabilities feel more comfortable in the space. My mentors were really excited about the idea of making Spark!Lab more welcoming to all families, and they are now looking for ways to take my project further and make our space more accessible to visitors with physical disabilities. The woman I worked with in the Office of Accessibility said Spark!Lab is the first space in any of the 19 Smithsonian units to have permanent accessibility resources available, and I am really proud for having had a hand in starting that.

I’m thankful that I got my first taste of the museum world at one of the most respected museums on the planet. A career in museum education can take many forms, and my mentors in Spark!Lab were so supportive as I explored those options through informal interviews with them and other Smithsonian employees. Although I’m not sure I’ll pursue a career in the museum field, this internship taught me to look at education through so many different lenses – lenses I can carry into any future job I have shaping tomorrow’s leaders and innovators!