February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Want to Start a STEM Program? Assess Your Community Needs First

Megan Egbert says that, at one point, she felt guilty because she didn’t have a maker space up and running in her library. A programs manager at the Meridian (ID) Library District, Egbert is one of many librarians around the country who’s working with children and youth, families, and community members to figure out the best way to support the STEM learning needs of young people. But she didn’t rush to launch a STEM program with a maker space. Instead, she sought to understand the specific needs of the community. Then Egbert and the library made available the resources to support those needs.

Egbert learned, for example, that the local children’s theater needed props for an upcoming production. So she made it possible for those working on the production, including youth, to use the library’s 3-D printers to make the props. Egbert says that, as a result, “Those involved learned how to design 3-D props, manage files, and print to scale and size.” The process required using math and engineering processes, critical thinking, trial and error, and iteration—all part of STEM learning.

What is required to build such a successful STEM program? “I would not invest money in stuff as much as I would training for staff who have to be comfortable enough to engage with community and be able to fulfill what the needs are,” says Egbert. “It’s important to make sure the library is embedded in the community. For example, it requires outreach at the schools, at the Boys & Girls Clubs, at the parks.”


The STEAM planning wall at Hennepin County Library

insight at an unlikely venue

The need to connect with the community to build successful STEM library initiatives is also apparent to Christy Mulligan, the community connections librarian at the Hennepin County (MN) Library. She played a leading role in engaging community members in the development of the Brooklyn Park (MN) Library’s STEM-focused services. (That new library facility is scheduled to open in the spring of 2016.) Mulligan says that community members told local leaders that they were interested in STEM activities for youth in informal, out-of-school learning environments. Library staff worked more than 12 months with an advisory group of community members, who helped develop plans for the new STEM-focused facility.


A circuit bending workshop at Hennepin Public Library

What else did Mulligan do to get a read on the communities in the surrounding area? She went to the Minnesota State Fair. “I had to figure out how to build a library with a STEM focus, and it happened that the Minnesota State Fair was having a STEM Day. I walked around for three or four hours and met everyone in the STEM community in Minnesota,” she says.

From her encounters there, as well as her interactions with local community members, Mulligan learned what was likely to work. The advice included a lot of “do this, but don’t do that.” This insight helped her, the library building advisory committee, and her other colleagues create a STEM-focused library that meets the needs of local youth and families.

Filling in the Gaps

It was working with the English Language Learner (ELL) community that gave Josie Watanabe, the formal learning librarian at the Seattle Public Library, the idea for math-oriented programs. “While I was working with [the system’s] libraries on our Homework Help program, I realized ELL students weren’t equipped to do math. To be successful in math requires a lot of academic language, an ability to communicate thinking, and comfort with taking risks. These are things that a lot of these ELL students didn’t have. That’s when I came up with Math Buddies,” she recalls.


Two “learning buddies” tackle a game together.

Math Buddies was initially modeled on the library’s Reading Buddies program, with teens working with younger students. The teens didn’t “teach” math to the younger kids in traditional ways. Instead, they played math games with them to help build comfort and confidence. Watanabe discovered, however, that “the teens that wanted to be math buddies were good at math, but not good at interacting with kids.”

So Learning Buddies, a mix of Reading Buddies and Math Buddies, was born. Teens still volunteer, but they facilitate learning in both areas, without having to be a math star. In the hour-long program, teens spend 20 minutes reading with the kids, and then they transition to playing games. As a result, participants develop academic language and the skills required to learn math.


A brother and sister team up during math game night at NewHolly Branch Library in Seattle.

Watanabe also works with the Seattle community to bring math learning to families. In the fall of 2015, she held a math game night for families at two library branches. The program at the NewHolly Branch Library, a neighborhood with a large Somali population, drew 80 people. How did Watanabe and her colleagues bring in so many families? They did it the old-fashioned way, by working with branch staff and going out into the community to let residents know about the program.

Still, Watanabe believes that the program wasn’t successful in the way she would have liked. A big turnout doesn’t necessarily translate to learning outcomes. She realized that for youth to really learn math, a more intimate group would have been better. For future programs, Watanabe plans to ensure that participants experience more one-on-one and small group attention.

Assessing learning

Assessment is something Watanabe embeds in Learning Buddies each week, using the “plan, read, do, reflect” format. At the beginning of the session, each pair of buddies plans the specifics of the content they’re going to work on. Then they implement the plan. As a result, everyone can see what is and isn’t working and make needed changes.

Assessment as a part of STEM programs is something that many library staff members are starting to examine more deeply. At Meridian, Egbert says, “We’ve just gotten to the very basics of evaluating the STEM programs, and now we’re really measuring interests, not just measuring skill [acquisition]. We’re trying to gauge engagement and to find out if youth think they learned something at the program.” It’s important for libraries to develop assessment methods that show what users gain from programs to demonstrate value to the community.

The David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality (YPQ) has developed assessment tools, including a STEM-focused set of quality assessments, which mesh with library goals. The YPQ assessment measures areas such as safe environment, interaction, engagement, and youth-centered policies and processes.

While at first glance the YPQ might seem ambitious, there’s a lot to work with. The rubrics are all areas that libraries regularly consider when developing programs for youth and therefore should resonate with staff as they work to assess their STEM programs.

Here’s a simple way to get started. Look at the YPQ tools and consider turning at least some of the assessment categories into a checklist. Also, many organizations—from Goodwill to Boys & Girls Clubs to public radio stations—have integrated Weikart’s methodology into their work. Often these organizations are interested in training others to succeed with it. Learn more about the Weikart Center at http://cypq.org/assessment.

Building for the future

If STEM programs aren’t something you’re already implementing at your library, it’s likely that you’ve been thinking about it. But don’t jump in without taking a good look at the actual needs of kids and families in your community.

As Erica Compton at the Idaho Action Center says, “Go to businesses and ask what they are seeing as community needs” and “look to workforce development and pull up data on the job market and what it will be in 10 years. It’s likely you’ll read about a deficit of STEM workers.”

You can have a hand in preparing youth to fill that future deficit through the programs you initiate. “Don’t [just] go out and buy a bunch of stuff—find out what the community is interested in and start there,” says Compton.

Extra Helping header

This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.

Linda W. Braun About Linda W. Braun

Linda W. Braun (lbraun@leonline.com) is an educational technology consultant and a past president of YALSA.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.
Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. In my rural high school I started with jigsaw puzzles (500 – 1000 pieces) and a Lego table. The students love it. A group with sit down and engage and leave — then another group will come in and create. And guess what – I see no phones when this is happening. Students love it.

  2. good job…