February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

First-Ever “Public Libraries & STEM” Event Forges New Alliances

STEMLibrariesProfessionals from the library, education, and STEM fields gathered last week in Denver to participate in “Public Libraries & STEM,” the first conference of its kind to convene leaders from these arenas to examine current and future practices at the intersection of librarianship and science, technology, engineering, and math.

“We were really trying to foster giving [participants] networking opportunities galore,” says Paul B. Dusenbery, the director of the Space Science Institute’s National Center for Interactive Learning (NCIL), based in Boulder, CO. It, together with the Houston-based Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), organized the August 20–22 event attended by about 150 people. “If you look at the potential for STEM subjects in libraries, it is a beautiful fit.”

Dusenbery also directs the STAR Library Education Network, which he describes as a community of practice where professionals can find resources and examples of library-based STEM initiatives across the country. LPI has worked with libraries for more than 15 years to develop space science learning opportunities. The two organizations received funding from the National Science Foundation to hold the event. Representatives from several other library, education, museum, and science organizations also participated in organizing the conference.

“Sometimes you go to conferences and you meet people in passing, but this was a little bit more intimate,” says Sharon Cox, the manager of the Queens Library Children’s Library Discovery Center in New York City.  “We had more time to sit down and really talk about what each of our organizations is doing and things we’d like to do in the future.”

One idea generated at the event is the possibility of an annual public engagement campaign focused on bringing families into libraries for STEM activities. The key, Dusenbery says, is effectively marketing these opportunities to diverse communities. He points to how Cox uses social media, partners with other community organizations, and holds events such as an annual “discovery street fair” to pull in families from a wide range of cultures and ethnicities.

A pre-conference survey gathered information on what libraries are currently doing and areas where they feel they need support. The results showed that roughly 80 percent of libraries are developing and implementing STEM-related programs.

While Dusenbery says that might sound encouraging, he cautioned that the quality of these efforts is unclear. For example, if public libraries want to work with K–12 schools, the activities or programs they are organizing should be aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, which 15 states and the District of Columbia have now adopted, according to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). The NSTA, along with the National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve, led the process of developing the standards.

The survey also showed that library staff members generally feel comfortable working with students in elementary and middle school, but that leading STEM programs for high school students or adults takes them out of their comfort zone. That’s why partnerships with content experts are important, Dusenbery stresses. “You don’t have to be an educator, but we want you to learn how to be a great facilitator” and show children and adults how to find the information they want, he says.

Participants expect the conference to spark a variety of new relationships focused on increasing STEM education opportunities.

“The event was the most helpful conference that I have attended in recent memory,” says David Keely, who is coordinating a $1.2 million effort to create a guide for state library agencies on how to provide patrons “engaging and meaningful informal science and technology experiences.” Cornerstones of Science, a Maine nonprofit, and the Maine State Library, are leading the effort. “If there is the demand, excellent programming will follow.”




Linda Jacobson About Linda Jacobson

SLJ contributor Linda Jacobson is an education writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area.