Located on the third floor of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Nature Research Center, the Visual World Investigate Lab (aka VisLab) is highly experimental and not easily defined. It is a Makerspace, it is a public outreach tool, it is a classroom for children and teachers, it is free, it is visited by about 2,000 people a month and it is open every day.
Lab coordinators teach science using scientific visualization techniques – such as virtual reality, augmented reality and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) – and encourage kids to learn how to code and build with impromptu electronics demonstrations and formal classes. The lab boasts many different types of software and hardware technologies such as augmented reality, GIS, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, robotics, 3-D modeling and 3-D printing. The lab’s formal goal is to teach science and how science is done. The lab’s informal goal is to encourage as many children as possible to become the next great scientists and inventors by demystifying the world of science, programming and electronics.
Some of the many questions lab coordinators get from parents and kids are “How can I do this at home?” (answer: websites such as Adafruit.com and Sparkfun.com have parts and tutorials) and “How much is a 3-D printer?” (answer: less than $200 for some). Those are fun questions to answer because the parts required to say, make a robot, are actually quite inexpensive, and there is an immense community of online enthusiasts, called “Makers,” that post detailed tutorials online for beginners (Instructables.com is another great example). In the VisLab you can get answers to these questions and many more while trying resources out for yourself.
Since its opening in 2012, the lab has grown and evolved in unexpected directions in order to best serve the needs of its visitors, and as a result of the lab’s popularity its coordinator (and this column’s author) has been interviewed online and on local TV, and even invited to Beijing to take part in a weeklong science festival. The VisLab has a very busy future with many new programs, robots and classes currently under development.
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Matthew Faerber is coordinator of the Visual World Investigate Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.