When you look at the Brooklyn Bridge or pick up a lacrosse stick or rubber ball or gobble those countless ears of corn every summer, do you think of the indigenous peoples of the Americas? You should, because without them, those things — and many others — would not exist today.
That narrative is hopefully about to change thanks to the new STEM-focused imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in the Financial District, which opens Thursday.
“We’re showcasing here everyday innovations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Gaetana De Gennaro, manager of imagiNATIONS. “Usually, schools are teaching about Native Americans in social studies and history classes, but we want people to think about these innovations and the knowledge that went into each of them.”
The bilingual interactive exhibit is geared toward grades fourth through twelfth, but kids of all ages (and their parents) will surely enjoy testing their balance in a kayak, learning about everything from tensile strength from a portion of a Peruvian grass bridge and architecture to native foods, medicines and musical instruments, including touchable rattles made from cocoons, turtles and deer hooves — and how those STEM innovations “are not things of the past. They have relevance to contemporary life,” said Project Manager Duane Blue Spruce.
“This space is so different than going through the rest of the museum, where everything is pretty much behind glass,” De Gennaro added. “Kids will have a blast experiencing this. We’re getting them to play and examine what things are made of — smell it, feel it, look at it. Some of these things are still being used in Mexico and South America.”
As visitors wind their way through imagiNATIONS, they’ll also learn how Amazonians invented a chemical process more than 3,500 years ago to make rubber, the likely surprising way an igloo is constructed, try their hand at Maya math problems and even take on weather and pests just like the Haudenosaunee people, who lived in what is now New York, did in a farming simulation.
While imagiNATIONs mixes fun with learning, the main takeaway Blue Spruce hopes for “is to show the sophistications of the thought behind these innovations and that native people were deeply involved in everything from science and engineering going way, way back,” he said. “I don’t think enough attention is given to that kind of critical thinking.”