By Amy Koester
“I get it! The Titanic sank because too much water got inside! A boat can only hold so much water!” That was the moment it all clicked—the “eureka” moment, if you will—at my library’s “Sink or Float: Titanic Edition” school-age STEAM program. The children in attendance now had the concept knowledge to allow them to build and test their own boats, and all it took was a tub of water, an ice cube tray, and a goal toward exploring science concepts in a hands-on way. They were prepared to move to the work tables piled with straws, yarn, twist ties, Popsicle sticks, and clay to try their hands at building unsinkable ships. Ta da! An engaging and sneakily educational STEAM program.
What’s “STEAM?” It’s an acronym for “science, technology, engineering, arts, and math,” part of a new trend toward injecting creativity into STEM learning. STEM proficiency among students has been a goal among educators for the better part of a decade, propelled by a series of reports in the mid-’80s showing that many American children weren’t mastering these areas. The reports spurred federal funding and initiatives in many school districts to bolster STEM learning.
While government agencies and schools were busy promoting STEM, some educators believed that something was missing. For American children to grow up to innovate in STEM fields, they needed not only academic proficiency, but a healthy dose of creativity and ingenuity as well. Thus STEAM was born.
Does STEAM really belong in a library?
STEAM has great potential for school and public libraries because it taps into children’s natural interests while also facilitating informal learning. In a school library setting, that translates to enriching activities that might otherwise become too rigidly restrained to a single discipline. A child might love learning about controlled explosions in chemistry class. But she has to wait, perhaps as long as a few years, until the appropriate unit in social studies to learn about bombs in wartime—and then loop back to her technical understanding of explosive materials. Not so with STEAM in which the science, design, and history of an invention are all combined—just as they are in actuality. Suddenly those explosions, as cool as they are on a purely scientific level, aren’t so one-dimensional.
In a public library, STEAM means creating opportunities for children to explore and experiment. A program on a well-loved chapter book is great, and topics such as railroads and bridges are reliably popular among young patrons. But what about a program demonstrating that bridges aren’t just the roadway extensions we take for granted? What if that program covered different types of bridges, along with video footage of a bridge collapsing, and a hands-on opportunity for kids to build bridges from dried pasta and then test their strength? Suddenly kids are deeply engaged—and curious. They genuinely don’t know what will happen to the materials in front of them, but they want to find out. They leave the program with more knowledge and interest than they might have had if they’d just read about bridges. That’s the power of STEAM: To bring together all the facets of the things we find interesting in the world in a way that’s tactile and packs educational punch.
Top 10 Go-to
Resources for STEAM Programming
Titles by Gail Gibbons, including The Vegetables We Eat (Holiday House, 2007), a great summertime read for a gardening or plant science program. Gibbons’s books are wonderful for sharing as much detail in a program as you want, and her illustrations are rich with information, too.
I like Steve Jenkins’s books, especially The Beetle Book (Houghton Mifflin, 2012) and Bones (Scholastic, 2010), to show a variety of images on a STEAM topic. Jenkins’s illustrations are beautiful and whimsical, and they pair well with photographic nonfiction books.
I enjoy sharing titles by Anne Rockwell with school-age children, especially What’s So Bad About Gasoline? Fossil Fuels and What They Do (Collins, 2009). Rockwell does a good job of engaging her audience with the STEAM concepts they experience in their own lives.
I rely on Janice VanCleave’s “Play & Find Out” series and “Easy Activities” series (Wiley) to find simple, engaging experiments for my preschool and school-age STEAM programs. VanCleave has kid-friendly ideas on pretty much every science topic.
Fizz, Bubble & Flash! (2003) and other titles from the “Williamson Kids Can!” and “Williamson Little Hands” series are great resources for hands-on activities across the STEAM spectrum. I especially look to these resources for ideas that connect to the arts part of STEAM.
Full of STEAM program ideas for kids of all ages, this wiki features contributions from students in an Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) online course as well as librarians eager to share program plans.
This blog from the Madison (WI) Public Library staff shares a variety of program examples. My favorites are in the WonderWorks category.
A great resource for fun ways to explore and enjoy math in everyday library activities. Check out their monthly calendars, which are ready to print.
This site offers myriad experiments in the Lab section. Experiments are grouped by broad science concepts, from “All About Air” to “Weather.”
Here you’ll find hundreds of experiment and activity how-tos, with feedback from kids and teachers who’ve tried them.
What does STEAM look like?
STEAM programming can be as simple or complex, low-tech or high-tech, or cheap or lavishly funded as you like. Maybe you want to test the STEAM waters by setting out science exploration stations. Think of an ant farm, a tray of rocks with a magnifying glass, models of rockets or molecules, or a seed whose growth can be tracked on subsequent library visits. Perhaps you could start by modifying an existing library program. Take preschool storytime, for example. To add STEAM to this activity, you can a) talk about the natural world and scientific principles found in fiction picture books; b) share some engaging nonfiction picture books, such as Anne Rockwell’s Becoming Butterflies (Walker, 2002); and/or c) change that cut-and-paste ladybug craft time to an activity that explores real insects, alive or preserved, using a magnifying glass. All three options will help preschoolers develop basic knowledge about how the world works. That’s science literacy, which children will need to succeed in STEM subjects once they get to school.
STEAM programming can also mean creating new programs, be they stand-alone or in a series. At my branch library, I offer preschool and school-age science programs on alternating months.
For preschool science, I use a read-talk-explore format to focus on a single scientific concept. In a program on the human body, for example, we might read Tedd Arnold’s Parts (Dial, 1997) and then talk about how different body parts work together to do their specific tasks. Then we would allow some time to explore hands-on body science, using kids themselves as the scientific subjects, to reinforce what we’ve learned. Activities include listening to a heartbeat at rest, and again after 10 jumping jacks; seeing how lungs work by breathing into and out of a paper bag; and simulating digestion by smashing different foods in a plastic-bag “stomach,” noting the state of the contents before and after.
I’ve replicated this read-talk-explore format for several preschool science programs on topics such as color, gravity, and the weather. I see engaged learning in these programs, with active involvement by caregivers.
For school-age programs, I take a slightly more streamlined learn-build-test approach. I advertise the topic ahead of time—airplane science, for instance—and then start the program with a brief discussion of the relevant science. In the case of airplanes, I’ll project some slides on the forces acting on planes, Bernoulli’s principle, and aerodynamics. Then, after a few minutes of questions and further concept exploration, the children head to tables with materials to build things and put their science knowledge to work.
In one program, kids build paper airplanes; in another, they construct parachutes. They enjoy getting directly involved in the engineering process and applying the understanding they’ve just learned. I end every school-age science program with time to test our creations—just as every good scientist would do. Children watch with rapt attention as their peers test their inventions and prove the scientific concepts introduced at the start of the program.
I also offer STEAM programs with an extra focus on that “A” for “arts.” In these programs, I don’t advertise the ‘science’ component. Unfortunately, girls sometimes shy away from anything overtly connected to science, so I use these alternate “science”-free event titles to attract kids with varying interests.
Call it false advertising, but I always work in the science concepts once kids are engaged in creating stuff. In LEGO Club, we might talk about what makes a structure solid. In a program where kids use recyclables to craft aliens, we might discuss how a creature’s body reflects the environment where it lives. These are all very real, important scientific concepts that connect directly to the types of hands-on, crafting events that libraries have been offering for years. Do you craft? Then your programs already have STEAM potential!
It’s a common librarians’ take on the maker movement: That making is really “crafting” by a shinier name and that’s really nothing new to youth services. This thinking relates to STEAM, too—because “making” is also just a fancy term for “engineering.” It’s not the term that’s important, but the practice of hands-on creation. “Making” means using your brain and tools to figure out how to create things. That’s very STEAM.
Programs across the country
Discussion of STEAM library programming on the national level got rolling at the 2013 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, with several programs and panels devoted to the subject. Since then, libraries of all shapes, sizes, and service populations have created STEAM programs to serve their communities.
On the preschool front, Rachel Fryd, youth services coordinator, and Joel Nichols, branch manager and children’s librarian, at the Free Library of Philadelphia, have transformed traditional storytimes with STEAM. They share books, songs, fingerplays, and activities that correspond with themes like balance, observing the Moon, and plant science. Lisa Kropp, youth services coordinator at the Suffolk (NY) Cooperative Library System, is in the process of putting together “Science Buddy” kits that will enable adults or teen volunteers to lead science activities with preschool-age children and their families, including families from low-income backgrounds who qualify for the federal Head Start program. Partnering to bring STEAM learning to these children pairs wonderfully with Head Start’s mission to promote school readiness.
For an exemplary school-age STEAM example, look to the Danger Club at the Eastern Lancaster County (PA) Library, led by youth services librarian Heather Smith. Her Danger Club tagline: “Science can be dangerous; or at least really, really messy!” What kid wouldn’t love that? The Danger Club has explored STEAM concepts by making bubbles, slime, water rockets, and batteries that gave a small but invigorating shock. Talk about sparking a child’s interest.
The Chicago Public Library offers a wonderful example of STEAM programming with teens as well as partnering to fund programs. Two branches of CPL house themed science kits that contain activities and challenges designed by Northwestern University’s FUSE project (fusestudio.net), focusing on hands-on projects involving technology and design. CPL purchased supplies for the kits, and FUSE reps trained CPL staff to use the contents with teens. These patrons drop in at the libraries and use the kits to explore topics like robotics, biotechnology, and app design. Partnering with an organization like FUSE has helped CPL make STEAM learning available to teens using their existing library staff, who need not be subject experts.
A few tips
First and foremost, don’t feel like you need tons of activities to illustrate a single concept. For preschoolers, three or four hands-on experiments are about all they can handle. For school-age kids and teens, one activity is usually enough. Kids can spend a long time engaged in a hands-on constructive task, and they need time to explore and think to really get into a creative, innovative mindset.
To cement the learning of STEAM concepts, have library materials on the day’s topic ready for checkout. Printing out ideas for take-home activities or charts for tracking at-home experiments are great options, too.
“Make-it, take-it” stations allow kids to take home the supplies for a simple self-contained experiment. Many families don’t realize that they can do STEAM activities at home, but they’re excited to do so when they have some guidance.
Finally, recognize that you don’t need a science background in order to do STEAM programming. My secondary education didn’t predispose me to engage with STEAM in my library. Like many a librarian, I was an English major in college. But I remember being curious about the world as a kid, as is any child. For me, that meant joining the Science Olympiad team, an extracurricular science competition club, and even attending a physics camp one summer.
The way the world works was fascinating to me, and I recognize that holds true for many of the kids I serve, too. I offer STEAM programs not because I’m any sort of subject area expert—I look to great resources for my ideas and planning (see STEAM resources sidebar). I offer STEAM programs because children of all ages are curious about how things work, and at the library, I can help their curiosity transform into keen interest and, potentially, lifelong engagement and the innovation that keeps us all moving forward.
Amy Koester is the children’s librarian at the Corporate Parkway Branch of the St. Charles (MO) City-County Library District. Her blog: ‘The Show Me Librarian’