When Learning is Cool: What it Means to Be Sparked

Sparks fly at the Boston Museum of Science. Photo from bostonvisitorsguide.com

From a little spark bursts a mighty flame” -Dante Allghieri

The spark is more than just a concept that museum professionals carry around on a day-to-day basis. Creating sparks is a real and actual everyday goal, and for some museum professionals, it is a decided lifetime mission… At least, this is the way that sparks functioned at Pacific Science Center.

Generally, the spark is understood to be the moment in which a visitor realizes that something– the educational object, experiment, or work of art in front of them– is deeply and sincerely cool. It’s a moment of connection. The spark is a synapse that bridges the junction between the way that we understand the world and how we understand a thing in front of us. Often the spark seems so cool because it gets you to think about something in a new way.

You’ve been sparked before. Try to remember a time when you saw something or took part in an activity (in a learning environment or elsewhere), and you uncovered something that you considered wholly and incredibly awesome. Some things that have sparked me are Paul Revere’s Ride, this speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, this poem, and this scene from Dead Poet’s Society, for example.

That’s not to say that these same things should also spark and inspire you. Sparks are personal connections– and they happen in museums everyday. In fact, it wouldn’t be a big stretch to say that the creation of these connections is often the aim of integrative exhibitions and museum programs. Sparks don’t always necessarily inspire a person to change career paths, but they ignite or strengthen interest in something.  There has been research performed and theories drawn on how to inspire certain kinds of connections in certain kinds of museums, and curiosity (often a post-spark result) has been called a key to happiness by psychologists.

The following is an excerpt called On a Thing Called Art, written by Jeanette Winterson. This clip is about art, but she presents a case for the importance of connections. I find it to be the best case for sparks that I’ve yet to come across. Have a listen:

Sparks ignited in museums and other learning environments (informal or otherwise), lead to connections and curiosity. Schools, museums, community centers, and educational programs provide unique opportunities to open ourselves up to new sparks of interest that may have lasting impressions on the way that we view particular subjects and situations.

I write this post to provide an outline of what I mean when I use the word “spark” in blog posts. Because the spark (inspiring it, sharing it, and understanding it) serves as significant fuel for my professional interests, I felt the need to introduce the topic in my own terms. Please feel free to respond with your own takes on the concept, or with messages about things that have sparked you.

Posted on by colleendilen in Arts, Blogging, Community Engagement, Education, Museums 3 Comments

About the author


MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

3 Responses to When Learning is Cool: What it Means to Be Sparked

  1. zoogeek

    I was “sparked” recently when I went to the CalAcademy nightlife event a few weeks ago. A couple of friends and I went after our fund raising class, and spent some time just wandering around. The exhibit that sparked me, figuratively and literally, was the display for the Electric Eel. They had a panel where visitors could create a circuit with their fingers between two metal discs, and literally feel how powerful a shock from an electric eel would be. It wasn’t harmful in tiny doses, and I can say from experience that you wouldn’t want to be creating such a circuit for long.

    When I first approached the exhibit (after watching the charismatic little eel himself), I had been thinking it would be brilliant to demonstrate the power of the animal, and voila! I was pleased to see that the CalAcademy was well ahead of me in this line of thought. I really thought that their didactic interpretation was a great example of how to ‘spark’ visitors and museum professionals alike.

  2. ebazan

    I find that I am easily sparked. When someone takes the time to truly explain something and I take the time to truly understand it as best I can, I find that almost everything I learn is really cool in its own way. Almost.

  3. Corina M. Paraschiv

    This is an amazing video/essay.

    There’s an author called Alain de Boutan that has had the exact same thought. He didn’t make the distinction between acute vs chronic but the second part of the idea — that art is a way to connect to reality and engage with it and understand it better– he was discussing that.

    “Si nous avons tendence a oublier qu’il y a infiniment plus de choses dans le monde que ce a quoi nous nous attendons, la faute en revient peut-etre un peu aux oeuvres d’art, car nous y retrouvons le même processus de simplification ou de sélection que celui qui caractérise l’imagination. Le discours artistique implique d’importantes abbréviations de ce que la réalité nous impose. Un livre peut nous dire, par exemple, qu’un narrateur a voyagé tout l’apres-midi pour atteindre le bourg montagnard de ‘x’ et qu’il s’est réveillé, une nuit passée dans un monastère médieval. à la leur d’une aube brumeuse.

    Mais nous ne voyageons jamais simplement toute une après-midi.

    Un narrateur qui fournirait une profusion de détails deviendrait bientôt exaspérant. Malheureusement, la vie elle-meme scouscrit souvent à ce mode de narration et nous lasse avec des répétitions, des accents fallacieux, et des intrigues insignifiantes. Elle tient à nous montrer l’usine Bardak Elecronics, la poignée de sécurité dans la voiture, un chien errant, une carte de Noël et une mouche qui se pose au bord, puis au centre du cendrier.

    Ce qui explique le curieux phénomène en vertu duquel des éléments précieux peuvent être plus faciles à appréhender dans l’art ou dans l’anticipation, que dans la réalité. L’imagination prospective ou artistique omet et comprime, elle suprime les périodes d’ennui et dirige notre attention vers les moments cruciauz et, sans mentir ou embellir, donne ainsi à la vie une netteté et une cohérence qui peuvent lui faire défaut dans la déconcertante confusion du présent.”

    I think it’s very poetically put but very close to the same idea — art is a way of simplifying, of taking out all the little distracting “narrative details of life” and showing or writing about the important, “strong”, relevant moments. In the present in our lives everything is always abundant in details and we can get lost. Art is the ability to step back, and show a representation of what is important. It’s a synthesis, a way of escaping the crowded details of life that make it hard for us to understand the world, and to finally have a big-picture of reality.

    In a way– that’s VERY essential indeed!


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