People find resonance in concepts and experiences they can relate to. Research shows that learning and memory-making are more likely to occur when people can connect their experiences with familiar ideas and events. Incorporating the reflective process into your program allows visitors the opportunity to digest and process what they experienced during the program.
Tips & Takeaways
- Find content that people can relate to emotionally, intellectually, or physically - either directly or indirectly - based on their life experiences and/or knowledge.
- Within your program, consider what connections you can make to familiar concepts, ideas, and emotions. How can you make the alien familiar?
- Having a hard time? Think about life's universals, such as food, sleep, work, family, love. Almost everyone can find someway to relate to these.
Quick & Easy To-Dos
- Brainstorm connections you could make to your program's content. How will you help people understand and find relevance? The lists you come up with will provide ideas for the design process and help your facilitators later on.
- Think of questions or activities that might encourage reflection on your activity or topic.
The USS Constitution Museum's Alka-Seltzer™ cannon-firing program exposes families to the same science of gasses under pressure, the same science behind baking soda + vinegar volcanoes and soda + Mentos™ explosions. Who hasn't experienced an shaken soda exploding? How can we relate these concepts to people's larger life experiences?
Finding Relevance by Making Connections
Research shows that when people can connect to a concept on an intellectual and emotional level, they are more likely to engage with it, remember it, and learn from it:
What children attend to and remember from their museum experiences is highly correlated with the presence of familiar concepts or experiences, either contemporary or historic, with which the children could make strong links" 
John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking have found the same correlation to be true for all ages when they can "assimilate events and observations in mental categories of personal significance and character, determined by events in their lives before and after the museum visit." 
This is why Brain Building in Progress suggests adult caregivers "connect new concepts to what children already know," "help make connections that support reasoning," and "prompt children to talk about their own experiences." 
Parents often know that making these connections is important, but they don't always feel equipped to help their children do so. Parents at the Denver Art Museum explained that "they didn't always find the art accessible and asked for help in talking about it with their kids - not explaining it so much as making it relevant." 
That's why it is our job as program designers and facilitators to, as Heather Nielsen argues, "support connections to daily life." In the video below, Heather explains that concept while Beverly Sheppard calls upon us to determine our program goals in order to meet that need:
Reflection and the Assimilation of Relevance
In order to help families assimilate and internalize relevancy, include time in your program to allow for reflection:
Central to all forms of experiential learning theory is the need to ‘review the experience’, to establish its ‘perceived relevance’ and to engage in ‘reflective observation’…Reflection is clearly ‘intimately connected’ with the learning process. It is this period of reflection that enables the learner to establish relevance and learn from it, before moving on to apply what has been learned in new circumstances." 
Implications for Practice
When you’re determining content, think about what links you might make, even simple ones, to people’s lives and experiences. But remember, different generations have different knowledge, experiences, and interests. Try to find a variety of connections to allow families to develop empathy and find relevance.
- World trends
- Timely topics in the news
- Universals (something every person can relate to, i.e. food, sleep, work, love, clothing, etc.)
A family relaxes in hammocks, a favorite of visitors, that are installed in the "Berth Deck" area of the All Hands on Deck exhibit. Courtesy USS Constitution Museum.
An Example of Building in Connections and Relevance
USS Constitution’s 32 lb carronades pack quite a punch. Each one can send its 32 lb. cannonball up to 400 yards at over 500 miles per hour through the air and into an enemy ship’s solid wooden hull. Sounds impressive, right? But can most individuals off the street understand or relate to...
- How heavy a 32 lb cannonball really is?
- How far 400 yards is?
- How does any of this happen?
- What a cannon firing looks, sounds, feels like?
A full-size reproduction of a 32lb carronade from USS Constitution.
Though most people haven't seen a cannon firing, you can remind them they’ve likely seen it in a movie or read about it in a book. Ask them, "what was that like?"
Most people have experimented with a baking soda + vinegar volcano eruption, seen fireworks go off in the sky, shaken a soda can and watched the bubbles overflow, or dropped a Mentos(TM) in a can of soda. It's all the same science, but they can probably relate to these phenomena more than a cannon firing.
Adding a dumbbell, or better yet a real 32lb cannonball, and letting people lift it gives them a sense of what that weight feels like. If you can't do that, maybe there's a child participant who weighs about 30lbs. Ask people to imagine picking him up!
Feeling the weight of a 32lb cannonball.
A lot of Americans or Canadians have seen or played on a football field (or a soccer pitch for our foreign visitors). 400 yards is 4 football fields. If that still doesn’t seem like much, think about how far quarterback Tom Brady can throw a 14-ounce football – not even 100 yards, never mind 400!
We as facilitators can point out these connections (and we should - relevance = resonance and engagement), but visitors may not truly assimilate the scientific process involved right away. It may take time and further related experiences for them to truly understand the forces of pressure and gaseous build-up that push the canister lid to fly through the air. That's ok. Remember: we are helping to build understanding through exposure rather than rote learning or mimicry. Eventually, participants will be able to draw upon this experience, along with many others from their lives, to understand new concepts.
1. Munley, Mary Ellen. Literature Review April 12, 2012 PDF. MEM & Associated and Smithsonian Institution’s Early Learning Collaborative Network. A summary of the results of research conducted in museum settings or in other locations using learning resources and materials designed by museums and that focuses on learning by young children.
2. Brain Building in Progress Website. The Brain Building in Progress website includes numerous resources for educators and parents to help their children, birth to 5 years old, learn and progress.
4. "Kids & Their Grownups: New Insights on Developing Dynamic Museum Experiences for the Whole Family." Denver Art Museum, 2013. Web. 13 May 2014. This report details the Denver Art Museum’s process of creating new experiences for children and their caregivers by increasing the Museum’s relevance and providing opportunities for family participation.
5. Graham Black. The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement. London: Routledge, 2005. This practical guide outlines various ways professionals can develop their programs, exhibits, and general museum atmosphere to best engage the public.