June 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Real-World STEM: a Library Bio Lab and a Sixth-Grade Code Curriculum

A Brooklyn middle school teacher who built a computer science class from scratch and a California public librarian who created a library  bio lab shared the stage at the LibraryJournal  Lead the Change session “STEM in the Real World,” bringing two perspectives to STEM programming. The presenters were Ruth Mesfun, sixth grade computer science teacher at the Excellence Girls Middle Academy in Brooklyn, NY, and Shaun Briley, a 2016 Mover & Shaker who is branch manager at the La Jolla/Riford Library branch of the San Diego Public Library.

Mesfun opened the session by leading the audience through her own experience learning code, designing an after-school coding club for the students at her all-girls school, and finding support to expand it into a grade-wide curriculum.

Learning code, building a curriculum

ruth mesfunA co-founder of People of Color in Tech, Mesfun described how she gained confidence to learn code herself and build her program. While leading the audience through her experience, she offered specific suggestions. A through-line: Coding is much more fun to do with other people, so reach out.

Mesfun explained that she needed four things to gain her principal’s blessing to create a computer coding class. They included having growth mind-set herself; learning how to code (and loving it); forming allies; and having the tech to carry it out—computers.

“In college, I thought that coders were super geniuses who didn’t look like me or act like me,” said Mesfun, who majored in economics. She later realized that she had lost an opportunity because she had a limited view of her own abilities.

Later, Mesfun read “an article about a homeless man who taught himself to code and went to work for Microsoft.” With renewed determination, she wanted to make sure she didn’t deprive her students—or herself—of opportunities to code because of any perceived shortcomings. “When I started breaking that mind-set, I became more powerful and empowered,” she said.

She began by building a personal network through the organization CSNYC. She also recommended that participants check out the organization ScriptEd, which helped her build a curriculum, and local government resources.

“To get my principal 100 percent on board, I connected [my curriculum proposal] with the Common Core,” she said. Mesfun got the green light to launch an after-school coding club with 10 computers. When the principal “saw how much the kids were learning and how joyous they were, [using] critical thinking [and] working together,” she was impressed.

At that point, Mesfun, who teaches 80 students, wanted them all to have the opportunity. “If I can’t teach my course for all my girls, I can’t teach any,” she said. Mesfun produced a 15-page curriculum proposal that addressed potential roadblocks. Cost was an obstacle, and Mesfun stressed the importance of acquiring a budget through grants and other means. “The worst thing is to fail and have no money to boost yourself,” she said. Mesfun benefited from a Google for Education grant and encouraged participants to look into grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

”The more you network and the more connections you build, the easier it is for people to say, ‘Yes, let’s do this,” Mesfun advised. “This person has so much support, how can we say no?” Through personal networking and outreach, she arranged for her students to visit the Facebook offices and hopes to arrange for Microsoft representatives to speak with her girls.

Asked about favorite teaching resources, she recommended Khan Academy and Codecademy, as well as code.org “hands down” for elementary teachers and Scratch for middle school. Mesfun also noted that code.org has lesson plans for teachers and also recommended Google’s cs-first program.

Computer science skills aside, Mesfun says her favorite thing about this process has been watching her students learn “the soft skills.” She explained, “They were very proud to be working together and also love to help each other.”

In closing, Mesfun reiterated the importance of community. It can be “extremely lonely” to code by yourself, she said, urging participants to reach out to friends or find Meetups. “You should buddy up and be accountability partners or a failure club and talk about what you’ve done this week. Failing is great—you get it out of the way and build a better attitude.”

Biology as a hobby

brileyShaun Briley wants to “allow everyday kids to come in and do biology as a hobby” at the bio lab he spearheaded at the La Jolla Riford Library. Partnerships were key to getting the lab off the ground, he said—facilitated by the many biotech facilities in the San Diego area. He hoped that these partnerships would “get the next generation excited” about important issues raised by biotech in an environment where they were not bound by a classroom curriculum.

A DIY Bio group, the Wet Lab, “gave us equipment lists, and we then reached out to organizations in our community,” Briley said. Those included the Salk Institute and the University of San Diego (UCSD) Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Volunteers were also key, and he tapped the many UCSD post-doctoral fellows and others in the area.

The library lab itself is “very basic,” Briley said—with donated microscopes and other items acquired from BioSurplus, which sells reconditioned second-hand biology equipment nationally.

Simple learning activities at the biology maker space include DNA extraction, taking a “cellfie”—cotton bud, stain with DNA, stain it, and taking a picture of cells. He added that ready-made kits are available for DNA extraction activities, bar coding, and forensic science from the company  Bio-Rad. “This is the kind of [program] that attracts donors, he noted.

The lab has 3-D printers, as well as a 3-D printed working microscope, and other student-designed items. Popular, hands-on programs at the lab include those focused on forensic science, DNA barcoding, Brownian motion, and florescent protein transformation. In other popular activities, students test water quality at local beaches, study local pollution, and extract DNA from strawberries. The lab also offers science fair mentoring. “Volunteers do open lab hours, and students come in, and we help them design projects. Schools throughout San Diego come to the lab,” he said. “What we’re offering is to have scientists come in—it’s like science day.”

On a practical level, you “Want to make sure people know [the maker space] is safe,” he said. Noting that the “chemicals are less dangerous than chemicals we have in our cleaning closet,” Briley listed the required supplies for his lab, equivalent to those for a high school bio safety level 1 lab, including a fire extinguisher, eye wash, and goggles.

Invited presenters from local biotech facilities benefit from the experience, Briley said, because the audience of teens and tweens “challenges them to explain their work to a youth audience, something they’ve never had to do before.”

However, he added, “We’ve had people from eight to 89 years old” attend workshops. He tries to group participants according to their skill level.

Ultimately, Briley said, “We’re teaching the basics. What we’re really doing is teaching biology and inspiring learning, which is part of our mission.”

Advising the audience on how they can create their own bio labs, Briley said, “The key is to make the kind of science you’re doing relevant in your area,” whether it’s agricultural, petrochemical (in a location such as Houston), or whatever type of environmental biology, species identification, or pollution study is particularly relevant to the region.

“As far as I know, we are the first ones to do [this] in a public library,” he added. Briley recommended that libraries wanting to set up their own programs look for biologists at community colleges, high schools, and Meetups. Most cities have biologists on staff, he says: “We have biologists working in our city waste and water department.”

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Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (sbayliss@mediasourceinc.com, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.

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