Becoming a Creative Fellow

by Tomas Durkin

“Creative Fellows work closely with the Education and Exhibit Departments to drive innovation concepts, prototype new exhibits and programs, and gain experience in the fields of museum education, informal learning and design thinking…Creative Fellows have the opportunity to develop their skills as artists, educators, designers, and non-profit administrators through a combination of project-based learning and hands-on experience facilitating the Children’s Creativity Museum’s programs.”

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In October of 2011, I discovered an intriguing program known as the Creativity Fellowship at The Children’s Creativity Museum.  I had been living in San Francisco for about a year and a half, and was starting to feel a disconnect between my studies for my MFA and my recently chosen career path of developing museum exhibits.  My creative drive was also beginning to wean.  Between being a perfectionist and a procrastinator, I was constantly sabotaging myself.  It seemed every project I worked on was completed in the early morning hours before it was due, or I would convince myself that if I just turned a project in late, I could make it even better.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had worked on something that wasn’t assigned to me by a professor.  I was looking for something more than just work-experience.  I needed something to change my life, not just to add on to it.

The last time I had felt a creative high was working on an exhibit for the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, CA.  The exhibit was an interdisciplinary collaboration between electrical engineering, music, and visual art students at UCSD.  We designed, constructed, and implemented an interactive kiosk that let visitors listen and see how different guitar effect pedals created their signature sounds.  I realized that I wanted to pursue a career working with museums and their exhibits.  This experience also led me to recognize that I am the most creative and productive in a collaborative environment, especially one where people bring a wide range of experiences to the table.  Not only does working with others offer you new perspectives that you wouldn’t otherwise consider, it also gives you a group of people that you don’t want to let down.  It’s much easier to give up on yourself when you’re the only person affected by that decision.

Unfortunately, my first application didn’t get a response.  The museum was in the middle of a rebrand at the time and my paperwork was probably lost amongst the commotion of renovating the museum.  I still felt incredibly drawn to this mysterious Creativity Fellowship and reapplied again in November.  This time I was asked to come in for an interview.  My persistence paid off and Ben Grossman-Kahn, the Education and Innovation Manager at the time, thought I would be a perfect fit.  I started training in January 2012 with the newly-hired Education Interns.  Fellows are thrown in head-first into all aspects of the museum, and I hit the ground running at full speed.  Within my first month, I was trained to lead all of the different field trip experiences.  I had experience working as a water sports instructor for 10 years, but informal education was never something that I had ever envisioned myself pursuing as a career path.  However, as I began to learn about the museum’s educational philosophies and the “Pillars of Creativity,” I discovered that I was a developing a tool set to not only help children overcome their creative speed bumps, but to help overcome my own creative mental blocks as well.

Imagination Starters and 20% Inspiration is one of the museum’s philosophies that first struck a chord with me both as an artist and as an exhibit designer.  One of the hardest things for anyone to do is to create something from a blank slate.  A blank, white piece of paper can be one of the most intimidating moments for an artist or a writer.  Everyday we glean inspiration from the world around us, which in turn helps influence our imagination and our decision making.  So why should we ignore or even repress the power of inspiration while we’re being creative?  We don’t live in a vacuum, so why should we be creative in one?  Here at CCM, we strive to provide inspiration in all of our exhibit spaces.  From building castles and forts in Imagination Lab to the various Mystery Box prompts, we want visitors to be inspired to create at every turn.  We never want there to be a question of “What do we here?”

One of my first projects as a Creative Fellow was to develop and facilitate a Rube Goldberg Workshop with a fellow intern to be held over Spring Break.  For those who are unfamiliar, a Rube Goldberg Machine is a deliberately-complicated device that accomplishes an extremely simple task.  Over the course of this project, I learned about the concept of “Failing Forward” first hand.  Our idea was that kids would help us make a combination of domino and marble runs that would travel all around our Birthday Party Room.  Instead of having everyone work on the same part of the of project at once, we divided the room into sections and assigned different parts of the run to different groups and visitors.  We then later connected the different sections together.  The problem was that enthusiastic visitors were so fascinated with the dominos and marble runs that they just kept knocking them over and giggling ecstatically at the result.  In the end, we spent so much time getting the marbles and dominos to work together, that our Rube Goldberg Machine never actually accomplished a task other than giving our unofficial mascot Aha a high five with a domino.  However, the process of watching kids create these intricate and innovative ideas was one of the most meaningful moments I’ve had here at CCM.  Some might even call this a “light bulb moment.”  It didn’t matter that our machine didn’t actually accomplish a task.  In fact, it never mattered.  What did matter was the process and the collaboration, not the end product.  Little did I know it then, but this was the beginning of my journey towards becoming an educator.

My largest undertaking as a fellow was to develop a brand new field trip for CCM called Video Game Design.  Using a software program called Scratch, students would learn the basics of programming by creating a Pacman-esque video game.  Using colored bricks as metaphors, Scratch teaches fundamental programming concepts such as user input, coordinate planes, conditional loops, and variables in a fun and easy-to-understand way.  Scratch is also completely free, and available on all platforms.  This meant that students could continue and expand upon what they learned with us, using the same tool set, and at no additional cost to them.  After overcoming my initial grumpiness that programming was not this easy when I was a kid, I very quickly realized the potential of being able to teach kids programming without forcing them to suffer through the meticulous task of typing code.  We were currently using Scratch at the museum on a very rudimentary level, but we were far from utilizing its full potential as a teaching tool.  After researching through various curricula and sample programs online, I developed a 2-hour field trip where I introduced students to as many concepts of programming as possible.  Even though students were learning under the premise of creating a video game, the thought-process and vocabulary that they were developing is relevant to a much wider range of potential applications.  This was my first real experience developing curriculum and I began to take on not only the day-to-day roles of being an educator, but the mindset as well.  When I first discovered the Fellowship, and even after my first couple weeks, I never expected that I would be spending so much time teaching.  I definitely did not expect to enjoy it as much I did and as I currently do.

I was hired as a full-time educator in October of 2012.  Being a teacher is not something I’ve actively pursued up to this point in my life or even seriously considered.  But on the other hand, I honestly can not see myself being anywhere else.  Never have I felt so much drive and purpose as I do right here, right now.  Being hired as a Creative Fellow will forever be one of the watershed moments of my life.  Even after a year, I still feel an incredible magnetism towards this place.  It’s difficult for me to describe in words the magic that is created within our oddly-shaped walls.  It is far easier to explain why it happens.  The answer is simply the people.  The staff, city guides, interns, and volunteers are what make this place so special.  Without them, none of this magic would happen.  Even when I was just hired as a Fellow, I could have a professional conversation with our Managers and Directors and not be disregarded as just a temporary employee.  And it’s not just that they’re good at their jobs, each and every person who works here possesses an endearing personality.  My co workers have ended up being a network of close friends that I never knew I had.  We are all incredibly dedicated to both our individual and our collaborative endeavours.  New ideas are encouraged, support is always around the corner, and creativity is simply everywhere.

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