Creating Affordable Public Library Programming for Young Scientists
Why science programming? International studies (see “America’s Children: Providing Early Exposure to STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] Initiatives”) show that American students continue to come up short in the areas of math and science. Low interest in the sciences may indicate that students are unable to relate the science concepts they are learning in classroom with everyday life. If the trend toward low science scores continues, these students will be unable to compete for jobs in a high-tech workforce.
According to Dr. Lani Connolly, Assistant Director for the Science and Engineering Center at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), “many children think science is boring, irrelevant, or just plain ‘too hard.’” In order to combat this way of thinking, “it is important for children to experience science.” Dr. Connolly added that children need to see that science “is a part of everyday life … in weather, in the way we move our bodies, in the technology we use.” Table-top kiosks or kits—e.g. Contact Science kiosks—that provide hands-on learning can help children make connections between abstract concepts and everyday life.
While many believe children acquire the necessary science skills in middle school or later, researchers believe early exposure to science activities is indispensable (see “America’s Children”). According to Rosemary Wulf and other researchers with University of Boulder Partnerships for Informal Science Education in the Community program, the best time to spark a life-long interest in the sciences is before age nine. Getting kids interested in the sciences early is important because children lose interest after age foruteen (see “Impact of Informal Science Education on Children’s Attitudes About Science”).
To boost interest in the sciences in Rockwall, Texas, Rockwall County Library’s Children’s Department put a special emphasis on low-cost science programming for children and their families. Low-cost programming was essential, because Rockwall County Library, like many communities, has experienced significant budget cuts. To offset cuts, librarians made use of volunteers, university partners, and science ambassadors for their science programs.
Rockwall County Library’s Service Area
Just northeast of Dallas County, Rockwall County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country. In 2010, The Texas Tribune listed Rockwall County as the third fastest-growing area of the country. One reason for Rockwall County’s high growth is its proximity to Dallas and its reputation for quality amenities. Rockwall was listed in Family Circle Magazine as one of the top ten places to live in America in 2009. Among other things, Family Circle editors based their decision upon Rockwall’s schools, affordable housing, and green spaces.
Currently, Rockwall County Library serves a community of approximately 81,000 residents. The county includes Rockwall, Fate, McClendon-Chisholm, Mobile City, and parts of Dallas, Heath, Royse City, Rowlett, and Wylie. According to ProximityOne.com, Rockwall County’s population will reach 118,000 by 2020. Families who are relocating with young children explain much of Rockwall’s population boom. Nearly one-third of Rockwall County’s population is currently younger than seventeen. Many of these children and their adult caregivers benefit from educational programs provided by Rockwall County Library’s Children’s Department.
University and Museum Partners
In 2012, Rockwall County Library was fortunate to take advantage of a UTD Science/Museum of Minnesota program called Contact Science. The coordinator of the program at that time, Julia Hermann, was in the process of looking for public libraries that would host hands-on interactive exhibits. She worked with the Rockwall County Library Children’s Department to determine if there was adequate space and interest in the program.
UTD’s Contact Science program provides three exhibits—MicroWorld Adventures, Electric Adventures, and Optical Adventures—that are rotated to public libraries and museums in the northeast Texas area. The exhibits are offered at no charge, but some record-keeping and programming is expected. Since the three Contact Science exhibits are large, table-top kiosks, space was a primary concern.
Fortunately, Rockwall County Library, built in 2008, has an ample-sized children’s department. Contact Science’s MicroWorld kiosk could easily fit along the back wall, along with a display of related books. Before viewing specimens, parents and children could watch a video on a computer screen that gave a brief history of the microscope and instructions for the exhibit’s use.
Each child and caregiver signed a guest book and “checked out” the glass slides of pollen, locust wings, moss, and other microscopic plants and insect parts. Children also had the option of bringing in their own specimens and preparing a slide. A printer connected to the microscope allowed patrons to print what they saw in the microscope. Younger children were encouraged to draw the specimens.
Though the exhibits were designed to be self-guided, the children’s librarian, Mrs. Doreen Miller, also designed three MicroWorld programs to explain microscopes and “microworlds” in greater depth. The classes, which included games and activities, were a hit with the homeschoolers. Sixty-nine children and forty-four adults attended Mrs. Miller’s MicroWorld programs.
Some activities that reinforced the material were the “secret messages” Mrs. Miller prepared. Children were given a worksheet with a simple question, e.g., “If a microscope has more than one lens, what is it called?” If the children looked through the microscope they could see a magnified image of the answer in specially prepared slides. To keep the program fun, one lucky patron received a HEXBUG and habitat as a prize.
Librarians also developed programs that invited Rockwall’s teens to participate in science-related activities. The 2012 Teen Summer Read theme was TSI Investigation: Realm of the Unknown. Since it was relevant to the Teen Read theme, youth librarian Lindsey Snelling invited Dr. Connolly to present a forensics program. Three summer workshops on forensics aimed at kids in fifth through eighth grade attracted, entertained, and enlightened fifty teens, who learned how to dust for fingerprints and how to analyze handwriting samples. Teens also took part in science activities by volunteering their time in Mrs. Miller and Ms. Snelling’s popular teen volunteer program. One teenaged science-enthusiast, Madi Hartley, came each week over the course of the summer to help young children with simple experiments.
Science Ambassador programs connect scientists with youth so they can see how relevant and fun science can be. Such programs usually call upon on volunteers from the scientific community to visit and enrich classrooms or other learning spaces such as libraries. More ambassador programs are being launched every year. In 2012, for instance, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering launched an ambassador program in Pittsburgh that will focus upon energy.
One of the older programs, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Solar System Science Ambassador Program, matches five hundredspace scientists with schools and learning environments throughout the country. A second program, NASA’s Earth Ambassador Program, focuses on matching climatology experts with interested audiences. Many corporations— including Exxon, Raytheon, and Bio Rad Laboratories—and many universities have similar science outreach programs. If you’re fortunate enough to have a Science Ambassador in your community, ask for his or her help in developing a science program.
Rockwall County is happy to have a Solar System Science Ambassador, Max Corneau, who willingly offers his time and support to science-related programs. In June 2012, Rockwall County Library offered a come-and-go event for the viewing of the Transit of Venus, a once-in-a- lifetime astronomical event. Mr. Corneau and another volunteer, Mike Greer, set up two high-powered telescopes under the eaves of the library’s porch to view the rare event. Children and adults peered through a Coronado Hydrogen-Alpha scope and a Sky-Watcher to view the dark shape of Venus against the bright background of the Sun. A crowd quickly formed to hear Mr. Corneau discuss the significance of the Transit of Venus and the unusual “black drop” effect.
Mr. Corneau returned on September 22, 2012, to coordinate a night program to coincide with International Observe the Moon Night. This international event was created by scientists, educators, and other astronomy enthusiasts. No matter where they are in the world, participants can post their event on the International Observe the Moon Night website and even receive a certificate.
Rockwall’s “Observe the Moon Night,” which was announced on Rockwall County Library’s website and in flyers distributed throughout the library, was well-attended. Using the telescope as a counting device, Mr. Corneau counted more than 250 views of the moon during the event. While this figure does not serve as a total tally (some participants viewed the moon more than once) it does reflect the community’s interest in the topic.
Patron- or Volunteer-driven Programming
One of Rockwall County Library’s best-received, patron-driven science programs was the monarch butterfly release in 2012. A patron provided the monarch caterpillars from her garden, while Mrs. Miller provided a mesh cage. To the delight of children and their care-givers, Mrs. Miller placed the butterfly habitat on the Children’s Reference desk. Library visitors could watch the caterpillars’ transformation from its voracious larval stage to delicate butterfly.
The caterpillars were so hungry that keeping enough milk weed in their mesh cage was a challenge. After they emerged from their chrysalis, the butterflies snacked on watermelon until they were ready for release. The whole process, from caterpillar to butterfly, took five weeks. Thirty-eight monarch butterflies were released. Libraries that do not have access to monarch larvae can use larvae from moths or other types of butterflies. A good place to find information about creating a butterfly habitat for your library is the Butterfly School.
Can public libraries create more elaborate science programs than those created by Rockwall County Library? Of course they can. Many small to mid-size public libraries, however, simply cannot afford to spend a large amount of money on programming. For those libraries, there are simple ways to create affordable science programs for youth. Moreover, the easiest way is to create partnerships with universities and to reach out to science ambassadors and experts in your community.
Ask your local university or museum if it has an outreach program. In many occasions, these volunteers will be more than happy to share their expertise for free or for a nominal cost. At Rockwall County Library we were fortunate to be able to make use of the UTD’s Contact Science program. If a comparable program does not exist, ask your local science museum if it has an outreach program. Nearly all museums and some zoos have an outreach program.
Tie programs into an existing program, if you can, to draw in a larger audience and capitalize on a theme. In Rockwall County Library’s case, we paired our teen summer reading program, TSI Investigation: Realm of the Unknown, with Contact Science’s forensic program. Many police departments also offer forensic programs to public libraries. Finally, many organizations have science ambassadors who can lead science programs for children and adults.
Public libraries have several options when it comes to creating affordable science programming for youth.