Boldly Going into the World of STEM @ Your Library, or … You Can Be a STEM Rock Star!
Common Core Standards and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). If you have heard these terms and wondered if they applied to library programming, here’s your answer: YES! At a time when librarians are doing as much or more for their communities with less funding, how are you supposed to integrate such daunting topics into your story time, summer reading, and children’s and young adult’s literacy efforts? Incorporating STEM and Common Core Standards can sound overwhelming and out of place in a library, especially if you’re short on staff and budget, but they can be reduced to a simple and manageable format that fits into your space without too much mess or cost.
How to Get Started
The answer is deceptively simple. Remove yourself from an “I Can’t” or “I Won’t” mindset and explore the possibilities. You’re well-practiced at making things educational and entertaining already, so step back, grab a science experiment book or surf on over to YouTube, head to your local grocery or discount store for some inexpensive household supplies, and, most important, think like a Kid Scientist. Watching the results of mixing vinegar and baking soda come bubbling out of a recycled water bottle never gets old.
Start simple; offer fun (and inexpensive) activities that will inspire students to think and do hands-on activities with lots of deductive reasoning. These types of learning activities are included in a lot of the Common Core Standards. Add in a lot of patience, courage, and planning on your part, and you have a winning combination that will transform you into the Bill Nye of your library.
Sometimes science may seem like magic, but it’s really just careful preparation and the right mind set. There are an abundance of free online software programs available to make you and your patrons into computer software programmers and story book creators. A reliable online search engine and some research will turn up some phenomenal programs like Carnegie Mellon’s Alice and MIT’s Scratch that offer the opportunity to develop and use higher-level thinking skills in math, reasoning, and literacy.
Think of it as a stepladder. You have to start at the lowest rung and pull yourself up until you go as high as you can. The first step requires a paradigm shift, moving from your comfort zone into a new learning zone for you and your patrons. Once you have decided to give the world of STEM a try, you will find that children and their parents will be very excited and receptive to participating in your world of learning.
When teens and children come into your library, you are already expanding their literacy horizons. Why not boldly go where you may have never gone before and expand all of your patrons’ ideas about what your library offers the community? You do not have to go back to college and get a STEM-related degree. Everything around you STEM-related already, you just have to expand your personal horizons and see the possibilities. Your library can become a “library,” all you need to do is take that first step onto the ladder.
STEM at Glen Carbon
So, are you convinced yet? If not, here are some personal experiences from our summer reading program that were hugely successful with patron of all ages. Some of our parents were as enthralled by the simple experiments as their children. We even took our show on the road and conducted a community outreach program at our local juvenile detention center. The excitement and enthusiasm was overwhelming , and detainee students dressed in their coveralls asked us to come back so that they could do more hands-on science experiments.
The Glen Carbon Centennial Library is located within a half-hour drive of St. Louis, Missouri. It started out in 1975 as a one-room Reading Center staffed by volunteers, and has grown to serve a population of more than 12,000 community members as well as patrons from surrounding communities. Our library was named the Best Small Library in America in 2010 by Library Journal and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Our library prides itself on providing our community with the best services and resources possible within our budget constraints. We have three full-time and eleven part-time leaders on our staff. We offer numerous adult and youth programs geared toward literacy enhancement and life skill improvement and maintenance.
Our library’s summer reading theme for 2012 was “Camp Summer Read,” which was a not-too-subtle imitation of Rick Riordan’s famous Camp Half-Blood from the Percy Jackson series. We wanted to do more than just a summer camp theme, so we delved further into the books and derived a plan of action. Greco-Roman history was highlighted, with lots of books about mythology, math, and architecture.
And how, you ask, did we get STEM into this theme? It was pretty obvious that we were all operating on a basic college-level understanding of STEM subjects, so it was equally obvious that we were going to have to figure it out as we moved through the planning stages. What turned out to be a subject that was unfamiliar to everyone in Youth Services became a weekly summer program for all ages, “It’s Greek to Me.” Hopefully the humor won’t be lost on you with this theme. It really was “Greek,” not a native language for anyone in Youth Services. We invented as we went along, using a book of science experiments, YouTube videos, and Steve Spangler’s wonderful science videos.
So, armed with ideas and donations from our local Kiwanis and Kohl’s Team members, who both support our literacy initiatives year round, we moved into a summer reading camp that highlighted STEM’s educational and entertaining sides. It wasn’t rocket science in its truest form, but it had the same excitement for the kids and parents who participated in the wide variety of chemical, electrical, and physical reactions that were generated in our children’s program room and outside the library.
STEM activities that educated and entertained our families included Archimedes’ water screw; newspaper lotus blossoms that illustrated the theory of water dispersion and why paper floats until it absorbs water; LEGO engineering; digital games and programming; sundials; and excavating chocolate chips from cookies. Watch our videos, Summer STEMS of Learning and STEM Summer Learning @ the Library, to see of some of the educational and fun activities that can be done in a library with little or no cost.
Was it a little messy? Yes, sometimes.
Was it a little time consuming planning and prepping the experiments? Yes, sometimes.
Was it one of the most successful and educationally beneficial literacy initiatives that we’ve undertaken in the six years that I have been the Youth Services Director at Glen Carbon Library? Yes, definitely.
Did we win the appreciation of parents in the community who recognized the value of this special summer programming? Oh, yes!
Were we STEM goddesses to our young patrons who could not wait for the next week’s theme? You bet.
Would we do it again? Yes, once a month, on the fourth Saturday of each month. It’s called “Library Lab,” and we all just keep learning about our world, one lab at a time.
If you build a STEM program, they will come, and they will learn. Not just about STEM applications, but that their library is the best place in their community to read and learn. Investing in your community’s youth is more than buying the most books your budget can afford. It is also about inspiring youth and their parents to want and expect more from themselves, their schools, and their library.
And that should be at the top of every youth librarian’s ladder.