April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

STEAM at the Library Supports Literacy, Common Core | ALA 2013



By Lisa G. Kropp

Do you know STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics)?  From hosting “parties” with traditional building blocks to using science kits with young children, ideas for STEAM programming in libraries were discussed at a recent panel at the ALA (American Library Association) annual conference.

The panel, “What’s Hot in STEAM Education: How Using ECRR2 Supports Literacy, Common Core, and School Success,” also honed in on using hands-on activities to build skills outlined in the updated Every Child Ready to Read initiative.

At the packed, standing-room-only event, moderator Christy Estrovitz, early literacy coordinator of the San Francisco Public Library, hosted panelists including Dr. Judy Cheatham, vice president of literacy services at the organization Reading is Fundamental (RIF), along with Eva Mitnick, coordinator of children’s services at the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) and Susan Anderson-Newham, early learning supervising librarian at the Pierce County (WA) Library System, and a 2013 Library Journal  Mover and Shaker.

Judy Cheatham of Reading is Fundamental: Resources for teaching STEAM and ECRR

What does STEAM programming mean to public libraries and early literacy services? According to Cheatham, STEAM has the potential to help position public libraries at the forefront of language and literacy development, particularly when working with parents, young children, and teachers.

Founded in 1966, RIF is the oldest, and largest, children and family literacy non-profit in the US. Its mission is to motivate young children to read by working with them, their parents, and  community members to make reading a part of everyday life.

Cheatham noted that the RIF site offers a multitude of resources to use when planning library STEAM programs. RIF’s 2012-2013 Multicultural Book Collection focuses on books that enhance STEAM education, and related four-page resource guides feature a wealth of information and suggested activities for parents, librarians, educators, and community coordinators.

The resource guides suggest simple ways to add STEAM activities to literature-based projects. “Teachers don’t have to be Albert Einstein’s offspring to do STEAM activities,” Cheatham noted, challenging the audience to infuse more STEAM into their programming.

Why focus on STEAM education at such an early age? Cheatham explained that in order for U.S. students to compete in a global economy and job market, we needs to improve their math and science skills. Middle School is the wrong time—too late—to introduce complex science and math terms and vocabulary, she said. Research shows that young children’s brains are like sponges, she noted: eager to absorb information on a wide variety of topics.

Cheatham cited statistics showing that 75 percent of students who are poor readers in third  grade remain so in high school. After third grade, cognitive demands increase yearly, as does the pressure to master  the new Common Core State Standards. If we don’t start introducing scientific vocabulary to kids at a younger age, she argued, we are going to lose the war on literacy and set students up for failure down the line.

Children’s librarians can serve their communities by creating STEAM programs for parents with young children, and by offering educators access to STEAM-rich materials and activities, Cheatham noted.


RIF recommends using Z is for Moose with STEAM activities.

She also stressed the need to target learners earlier through workshops incorporating ECRR best practices: talking, singing, writing, reading, and playing. One book that RIF recommends for STEAM activities is Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinksy (HarperCollins, 2012). RIF’s suggested related activities for the book listed included all five STEAM subjects.

Books that encourage STEAM allow librarians to teach complex vocabulary to parents, teachers, and young children in a fun way, Cheatham reiterated. Ending her inspiring talk, she reminded the audience that vocabulary needs to be heard, used, and practiced.

STEAM at the Los Angeles Public Library: Partnering with the California Science Center

During Mitnick’s presentation, she described a new STEAM program hosted by LAPL in partnership with the California Science Center. LAPL has 72 branches and a central library, all of which follow ECRR practices. Their recent collaboration with the California Science Center introduces preschool children to science concepts using the ECRR principles.

“Preschoolers are natural scientists” because they question everything, Mitnick noted. The goal of the  project was to create a program promoting STEM activities across the curriculum and referring to the California Preschool Curriculum framework. Also, she said, parents were provided with resources to support their child’s STEM experiences.

In January, four LAPL branches began working with preschoolers and their parents, using science kits created by California Science Center. Librarians received training during workshops at the Science Center, whose staff created six kits around the following topics:

  • Rocks and Minerals
  • Insects
  • Habitats
  • Seeds to Plants
  • Balls, Ramps, and Rollercoasters
  • Build It!

Each kit contained plenty of manipulatives and tech devices including iPads, digital scales,  microscopes, and a mini projector.

Mitnick created a Preschool Science Program Form for library staff to fill out  when utilizing the kits. This way, they could keep track of materials and equipment used, including books. The form features a description of the program and its learning activities along with examples of ECRR activities and skills. Finally, Mitnick asked staff to include anecdotal information and comments on the program by children and parents, feedback to keep in mind while the pilot prepares to expand to three more LAPL branches in the fall.

Mitnick said that reading the RIF-recommended STEAM books prompted LAPL librarians create additional booklists. The preschool science series involved a lot of dialogue among parents, librarians, and preschoolers: “What is an inclined plane? Can you find one at the library?” Librarians introduced science topics in other fun ways, like singing songs related to the kit’s theme. Library staff used the downloadable site Freegal Music to search key science words in children’s songs.

The young learners “wrote” their hypotheses by drawing their thoughts and ideas out on large pieces of paper. There was also lots of playing with the kits’ manipulative devices. Preschoolers created art using scientific principles, such as gravity painting. “The paint always goes down!” Mitnick deadpanned.

Librarians and parents used vocabulary terms such as observe, predict, and check, knowing that the kids, modeling adult behavior, would start using them too. Wrapping up, Mitnick said that LAPL hopes to expand their science programming with another grant next year for elementary age kids.

Block Play at the Pierce County Library System

STEAM-block-partyCROPAnderson-Newham started her talk by exclaiming, “Block parties are completely addictive!” She was referring to once-a-month events in which reps from the local Head Start center came to co-lead play sessions, using traditional maple blocks, with trained librarians.

Like Cheatham, Anderson-Newham emphasized that STEM activities should start in early childhood settings, when children are at their most inquisitive. During the block parties, librarians announce two simple rules: participants cannot throw blocks or knock down anyone’s structure.

She went onto explain the seven stages of block play:

  • Carrying blocks
  • Stacking–both horizontal and vertical
  • Bridging
  • Enclosures
  • Patterns and Symmetry
  • Early Representational
  • Later Representational

Anderson-Newham noted that once each stage is mastered, youngsters move backward and forward through them during play. The different block units feature labels—arches, columns, squares, rectangles, triangles, cylinders, and circles, as well as the basic, half, and double unit blocks—to teach children this vocabulary.

Each block party starts with a brief story time with picture books such as Christy Hale’s Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building (Lee & Low, 2012) or Shape Capers by Cathryn Falwell (HarperCollins, 2007). There are also pictures of famous structures from around the world to inspire the kids.

After some time, librarians add more elements to the block play–transportation vehicles, farm and zoo animals, scarves, and clothespins. “Library meeting rooms are perfect for blocks,” noted  Anderson–Newham, because they are large spaces easily emptied of furniture, offering ample room for big structures.

Participating Head Start teachers said that the sessions enriched block play back in the classroom as well. Students began looking around the room wondering, “‘What else can we use with our blocks?’” said Anderson-Newham.

Some Head Start sites invited parents along, many of whom were not previously library users. Spanish-speaking staff gave library tours. Many parents applied for library cards and are now coming to the library on their own, Anderson-Newham said.

Every participating child receives a free set of 100 wooden blocks to take home, along with information sheets explaining what children learn while playing with blocks. Participating libraries have added blocks into their existing Lego building programs for older students.

Anderson-Newham ended her talk by quoting Frank Lloyd Wright, whose mother once gave him a set of wooden blocks for his birthday. “‘The feeling of those simple maple blocks is in my fingers to this day,’” he said.

The event was sponsored by PLA (the Public Library Association) and ALSC (the Association for Library Service to Children) ECRR Oversight Committee.


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