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Inside this issue:

What About the Grown-Ups?: The Changing Landscape of Science Center Programming

Coffee and Conversation: Building Relationships through Adult Programming

Senior Afternoons at GLSC

Adult Museum Programs: A Taxonomy of Learning Outcomes

A "Lifelong Learning" Reading List

Hot Topics: Planning a Successful Lecture Program

Starstruck: Lifelong Learning and the Carnegie Science Center

Lifelong Learners: A Global Phenomenon

Sharing 'Secrets': Creating Exhibition Content for Adults


Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: July/August 2003
July/August 2003
Coffee and Conversation:
Building Relationships
Through Adult Programming
Coffee and Conversation: Building Relationships Through Adult Programming

By Joan L. Parrett

Today's rapidly growing, active senior population (people aged 60 and up) would seem to be an ideal museum audience, yet attracting this group to science centers—and keeping them coming back—is no easy task. At the North Museum of Natural History & Science, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we faced two major challenges in our efforts to create successful educational programs for this group.

The first was competition—local, county, and regional. In the city of Lancaster alone, a weekly newspaper insert lists dozens of long-standing senior program opportunities. The county's tourist industry works hard to draw residents to traditional "Pennsylvania Dutch Country" venues. And nearby Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., vie for their share of retirees' time and dollars. We were entering a crowded marketplace.

A second challenge was relevance. What were the needs of this new audience? Were we prepared to meet those needs through programs tied to older visitors' interests and abilities?

Rather than opinions, we needed data—both to determine feasibility and to guide decisions. This article will describe how we tackled the challenges and devised a program that has garnered an increasingly loyal following.

The research phase

Our effort started in early 2000, when the museum's board of directors, looking for ways to expand audiences and programs, authorized a full-time education position responsible for (a) comparing current opportunities at the museum with the interests and needs of specific city, county, and regional populations, and (b) developing and pilot-testing new informal science programs and events based on the resulting data.

The position was filled in October 2000. Within a few months, we had a plan in place to assess the existing situation, explore the competition, complete a market analysis, and begin to build successful programs.

Internal audit. We began by examining our museum records for indicators of previous success with seniors. Although in the past five years we had not piloted in-house events aimed specifically at older audiences, we saw that the museum's Rambles program (first-class vacations with a natural history emphasis) had been popular with community retirees. Older adult memberships were also usually renewed.

Next, we gathered data about our current older members. What were their membership patterns, special-event attendance patterns, and levels or kinds of volunteering? Did we show concentrations of retirees from certain industries? (This might inform decisions about topics.) Were residents from only a few retirement homes represented? Did a certain educational level predominate? Did we have many retired or active baby boomers on our rolls? Were our older members visiting throughout the year, or did they disappear in certain months? (The local tradition of "going south" for the winter could defeat programs scheduled from November to March.)

Finally, we checked our facility for barriers that might discourage seniors. We added an accessible restroom on the lower level and more benches throughout the museum, and we made sure program materials were available in large-print format. (Areas we hope to address in the future include curbside drop-off and additional accessible parking.)

Scanning the competition. Next we undertook a survey of local program offerings for seniors. Such data exists in every community. Our information was gathered from senior center bulletin boards, newspaper ads, retirement homes, recreation centers, the "yellow pages," church event lists, commercial tour operators, and "senior expos" at local malls.

We looked for patterns, seeking to match strengths in our collections, events, classes, and exhibits to "holes" that other organizations had missed. (Were there plenty of crafts classes for seniors, but no computer training courses?) We looked to see if popular programs usually fell on a certain day of the week, or at a certain time. (Early risers, seniors like to "get up and go.") What other schedule-specific patterns could we find?

Market analysis. We did two types of market analysis. The first involved direct feedback from other providers. Contacting people like activity directors at retirement centers, pastors of large churches, and adult education program directors at community colleges, we asked what kind of difficulties they faced. Did participation fluctuate seasonally? Was there an accepted ceiling on fees? Were some programs too popular to compete against? By using these conversations to explore potential partnerships, rather than presenting ourselves as a competitor, we kept the way open for future collaborations.

Though our window for market analysis was limited, in the future we plan to look also at U.S. Census data that might affect long-range planning.

Our best marketing source was the seniors themselves. By surveying those who already had direct or indirect connections to the museum, we not only expanded our pool of stakeholders but also learned that older visitors value non-threatening educational situations as a way to "stay sharp," and that they prefer to attend "adult education classes" rather than "senior citizen programs." Using the adult ed designation would produce unexpected benefits—attracting, along with retirees, adults from 32 to 59 who were currently unemployed, working on rotating shifts, or able to use midday flex time to drop in.

The most important guiding principle for our new programs came from a retiree's perceptive comment: "Older adults need ways to build new relationships." Seniors are often separated from family and friends through relocation, death, or illness. In designing our adult programs and events, we made sure to include opportunities for relationship building.

Planning for success

Our data revealed a number of factors that could affect our new programs:

  • Retirees in Lancaster traditionally reserve Mondays for medical appointments and Fridays for barber and beautician appointments. Our largest competitor met on Thursdays. We picked Tuesdays for our sessions.
  • Many local seniors go out of town in winter and summer. Eight-
    to 10-week semesters in spring and fall accommodate these travel periods.
  • Retirees often have standing breakfast and/or lunch dates. A mid-morning time slot fits their schedules.

Accessibility counts. Attendees appreciate the availability of an elevator and a double-doored classroom. Padded chairs add to their comfort.

Based on our research, we launched our weekly "Coffee and Conversation" (C&C) program in March 2001. Each Tuesday-morning session begins at 9:30, with 15 minutes of coffee and visiting time, and continues with 60 minutes of conversation on a scheduled topic. We run two semesters a year—mid-September to October 31, and March 1 to April 30. Classes are open to all interested adults, although most of our regulars are in their 60s and 70s. Museum members attend free; others pay general admission. For mailing-list purposes, we maintain a sign-in sheet, but there is no formal registration.

All of our programs highlight Lancaster County and the North Museum collections. Honoring our members' requests for in-depth programs, we focus on one topic per term and intersperse on-site sessions with short field trips. Programs are led by a single expert or by a weekly guest chosen by the education staff. Topics to date have included the Geologic Tourist, the Archaeological Tourist (based on local Susquehannock Indian sites), the Ornithological Tourist (county bird-watching), the Arboreal Tourist (local trees, nuts, and woods), and the Historical Tourist (Lancaster's connection to the Lewis and Clark Expedition). Tie-ins with museum collections or current exhibitions foster extended learning.

A two-way street

What I have described may seem like a lot of details, but the rewards are evident in the responses we get from C&C participants: "Thanks for taking care of us. Usually things are just slapped together for seniors." ... "I never have to worry on [field] trips. We're never rushed, and you help us into the van."... "I've lived here 35 years and never knew this vast tree collection was 20 miles away. I'll come back here to hike."... "I meet such great people at these programs. Some of us are even beginning to meet for lunch."

Each semester, C&C participation has increased. We began with six attendees in 2001; our last session numbered 25 regulars. C&C brings repeat visitors into the museum and adds more names to our members list. The Spring 2003 session produced 11 new memberships, and two participants recently became volunteer docents. At weekend events, we often spot C&C participants roaming the galleries with grandchildren in tow.

The program has even spawned an informal offshoot. On the final day of the Lewis and Clark series, participants decided to continue the interest group on their own. Using the C&C format, they will go on summer field trips to Lewis and Clark events and start meeting regularly in September.

The success of Coffee and Conversation demonstrates the validity of our mission statement, which reads, in part, "to generate interest in lifelong learning and to foster strong community involvement." One C&C participant recently asked a staff member, "You'll never stop these, will you?" She needn't have worried. The relationships we have built through the program have become important to the entire North Museum family, not just to our valued older visitors.

Joan L. Parrett is education programs manager at the North Museum of Natural History & Science, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For more information about the museum, visit


Research got the North Museum's Coffee and Conversation program off to a good start, and our first semester provided some additional "rules" that remain relevant, regardless of the percentage of new participants.—J.P.

  • Be punctual and predictable. Begin and end on time, or participants will start to leave. Longer sessions are acceptable, but must be advertised in advance. Field trips, including an inexpensive, optional lunch (preferably with a menu available ahead of time), should end no later than 2:30 p.m.

  • Keep it participatory. Since "conversation" is advertised, straight lectures are met with gracious intolerance. Attendees expect unhurried time for both coffee and conversation. Remember, it's about building relationships. With that in mind, we also try to use 15-passenger vans for field trips and arrange restaurant seating at connected tables.

  • Be consistent with staffing. The regular host should be a staff member, not a volunteer. This reflects the museum's commitment to the program. The staff member is responsible for dealing gracefully with any problems that arise.

  • Make it a special occasion. C&C participants appreciate a beautifully arranged table with tablecloth, colored napkins, themed centerpiece, cutlery, and glass serving dishes. (Note: If staff fail to keep the table tidy, women participants will clean up. This can lead to bad feelings.) Coffee must be decaffeinated, hot, plentiful, and immediately refilled. Flavored coffees are OK with Lancaster baby boomers, but not with our older visitors. Though powdered creamer is acceptable, real milk is appreciated. Pastries (coffee cake, nut breads, Danish, homemade cookies) are essential; precutting into pieces of varying sizes makes serving easier and accommodates dietary considerations.

  • Put it in writing. Weekly "Conversations" for each semester are advertised three months or more in advance. Printed schedules are always set out on the coffee table, and changes are announced at least three weeks ahead. The museum host brings the sign-up sheets, which include phone numbers, on the field trip bus in case of medical problems.

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