Humans Of PacSci
Meet Robin Snelling, a recent transplant from Washington D.C., who was inspired to volunteer at Pacific Science Center after trying a Tinker Tank activity at Seattle Design Festival last year.
The simple, inexpensive challenge — to design three different homes for owls with special needs by folding paper — intrigued Snelling. “So often, people faced with a challenge and immediately want to find the right solution instead of taking time to explore different options. Learning to approach a problem with the understanding that there isn’t one right solution is important for students AND adults,” Snelling says. “I knew right away I wanted to be involved with Pacific Science Center. I came home, went on the website and submitted a volunteer application.”
Snelling volunteers every other week in Tinker Tank, our hands-on design space. Here’s her behind-the-scenes perspective:
A really big part of the role is acting as a facilitator — not telling people how to do an activity or what the intended outcome is, but exposing them to the materials, letting them develop their own process, experiment and not be afraid to fail. Often students and adults come into an open-ended space and they can feel intimidated: I’ve never done that before. We encourage and motivate people to try. We celebrate when they come up with a new process, a new outcome. Circuits. Wind tunnels. Aviation related things. Here are materials at your disposal and ways you can approach the problem. Then we let them loose.
Describe a favorite moment/interaction you’ve experienced as a volunteer:
I really love those times when someone comes in—child or adult—and says, I’m not creative. I can’t do this. With time, as they fiddle with materials, it’s really empowering for people to see what they can create in such a short time. It opens people’s eyes to what’s possible. The Aha! Moment. I can do an engineering project. I can be scientist.
When we were doing circuits, which can be a very male-dominated activity, a family came in with their son and two little girls. The son sat down and immediately started tinkering with things and the parents said, Oh yeah, he’s a builder. This is his thing. He’s good at this kind of stuff. The two girls were standing off to one side, totally out of their element, not even approaching the table.
I sat down and asked them to come over and help me with this thing I was working on. We had some prefab components: a small battery pack, a light bulb, buzzers, switches and the wires to connect all those pieces. They slowly picked up things and began connecting them. When they finally got the lightbulb to light up, it totally changed their perspectives on what they were capable of. It was really, really cool!
It’s really fun to have that first glimmer of interest, and once they’re focused a little bit, you know they’re thinking. That’s the first step of empowerment. They’ve gone from totally disinterested to thinking: Maybe if I get involved, I CAN make this work. I could build something as cool as the adult, or the kid of the engineer sitting next to me.
What do you like about volunteering at Pacific Science Center?
I love that the visitors, staff and volunteers are so diverse in interests, careers, lives. It’s SO great to be surrounded by curious people. We talk about geography, history, movies….It’s such a great atmosphere for learning. I benefit just as much as the visitors I’m trying to inspire and get involved in tinkering.
What’s a favorite aspect (exhibit, experience, place) of Pacific Science Center that not many people know about?
My assumption was that the Science Center was very geared toward a younger crowd. But you really can benefit coming here at any age and it doesn’t matter how much background you have in science.
Tell us a little about yourself? What’s important to you? What do you do for fun?
I’m a generalist. I went to college for Environmental Science with a minor in Values, Ethics and Social Action. I’m interested in a lot of different things. I’ve had jobs that were science-based, art-related, fitness-focused, etc. I’m learning to play violin (poorly), am an ESL tutor and try to spend as much time adventuring in the outdoors as I can. I was very artistic when I was younger, so for a long time I was definitely more drawn to crafting than scientific tinkering. Part of the appeal of the Science Center for me is it’s such a diverse group here. It doesn’t matter what your background is. You can contribute.
Share an interesting fact about from your past.
I used to work at Crayola in R & D developing crayons and other products. I also worked at an organization that helped communities fundraise and organize volunteers to do their own playground builds.
Share a dream about your future.
I would love to be spending 99 percent of my time doing things that inspire and empower other people, and to spend the other one percent sleeping. I’d wish the same for everybody! I think there’s so much talent in the world and if people could all be matched with their passions, I can’t imagine how awesome the world would be.
Tell us a science fact not many people know about.
Spider webs actually reflect UV light which is why some scientists think birds are able to avoid flying into them. Scientists are working on putting UV threads in windows to keep birds and other animals from crashing into them.
What’s your favorite science fiction movie/book and why?
“The Giver” by Lois Lowry. It’s cool that some people are so forward-thinking they can look at current trends and envision what the future might be based on that. Of course, “The Giver” is also full of morals and social commentary, so that’s a bonus!
What’s your favorite science/tech gadget?
I’m not a tech person. I’m a minimalist. I don’t even have a smart phone!
Tell us about one cool way you use science in your everyday, personal life
When don’t you use science? When you wake up and take a shower, you rely on the bonds between dirt, soap, and water to get clean. When you make breakfast, you need to consider what foods will give you the most energy to carry you through the day. When you get on the bus, you sit down quickly so you aren’t the victim of physics when the bus lurches forward.
Exposing yourself to science teaches you to think in a logical, yet incredibly creative way. It’s a process for discovering new scientific information, yes, but it’s also a great model for how to approach life and problem solve. Think critically. Think outside the box. Leave assumptions outside the door and think instead about what’s possible. That’s what science is and why I’m interested in it!