Students Lydell Mann, Gregory Hyson and teacher Leah English from the Cornerstone School in Washington are pictured at the Washington Auto Show. (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR CAPITAL BUSINESS)

The Ford Motor Co. Fund has announced a $500,000 donation to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the largest corporate contribution the museum has received for a program that supports innovation and science for youth.

The company made the announcement at the Washington Auto Show at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where it set up a Spark!Lab exhibit, an interactive inventor’s workshop. In a large hall surrounded by 40 new Ford cars and trucks, a dozen students from a local elementary school took in the exhibit after a press conference. They designed cars with PVC pipe, created music with marbles and wood, and built model vehicles with dry pasta noodles.

The donation represents part of the funding necessary for a $2 million Spark!Lab initiative that includes updating a program at the museum and building labs in three other museums around the country.

Spark!Lab in D.C. is set to reopen in the spring of 2015 with expanded space and new activities involving phone apps and video-recording kiosks that allow students to use media to pitch their inventions.

The lab is part of a $120 million overhaul of the museum’s west wing. The federal government put up half of the funding, the other half is to come from private donors.

“Ford supporting the renovation is huge,” said Tricia Edwards, an education specialist at the Smithsonian who manages Spark!Labs. “It’s going to be very different than anything else on the National Mall.”

The president of Ford Motor Co. Fund, Jim Vella, sits on the board of the National Museum of American History. He said the foundation was looking for a substantial project to support this year that would also highlight the 150th birthday of the auto company’s founder Henry Ford.

“One of the things that he was known for was tinkering in innovation,” Vella said. “So it’s a great partnership for us because it allows us to reach out to young people and get them involved in invention projects that may lead them to [science and engineering careers], which is real important to a company like Ford.”

Ford has partnered with the Smithsonian since 1974, funding exhibitions including Freedom’s Sisters, an exhibit that highlights little-known woman figures in the civil rights movement. It also gave $400,000 to the National Zoo for its panda Webcam.

Edsel Ford II, philanthropist and great grandson of Henry Ford, talked to the elementary school students as they built model cars.

Ford, who was raised in a family of philanthropists, said he and his wife became philanthropists in 1980 after returning to Detroit from Australia.

He became a major supporter of children’s causes, and began funding the Salvation Army, the Smithsonian and the Skillman Foundation, which funds school and neighborhood projects in Detroit.

Now, as he sits on the board of Ford Motor Co., he travels the country hoping to inspire other business leaders that may not be engaged in philanthropy.

“We need to get executives involved and passionate,” Edsel said. “Some are and some aren’t. Once you become a corporate officer of a company, you need to go to a class or school that teaches you these things. I don’t think it’s human nature.”