Public Library's Cardboard Carnival STEM Program Successfully Goes Remote

Undeterred by pandemic limitations, the staff at Evanston (IL) Public Library and its partner organizations turned the second annual Cardboard Carnival into a remote program with an online showcase to spotlight young patrons' marble runs.

When the pandemic closed public libraries, it seemed like all hands-on programming would be lost for the duration. Sure, story time could go virtual, but makerspace and STEM programming felt doomed. Not so. Staff at schools and libraries around the country have found a way to continue.

At the Evanston (IL) Public Library (EPL), staff wasn’t going to declare anything impossible and wait for “normal” times to return. When January rolled around with pandemic precautions still in place, EPL decided to go ahead with Cardboard Carnival: Marble Run where patrons grades 4-8 were challenged with the task of designing and constructing a 3D cardboard marble “adventure” with tracks, tunnels, loops, and a programmable motorized element. For every element included, kids earned tokens toward a raffle of prizes. The only requirement was not to use premade track. Beyond that, the young patrons were free to create whatever they wanted to get a marble from the beginning to end.

The Cardboard Carnival had been a success in its first iteration in January 2020, but a year later, nothing was the same. Would kids want another virtual option or would screen fatigue lead few to sign up? Would those who do take part understand the video instruction and continue to work on projects without the in-person observation and assistance of staff from the library and partner organizations?

Marta's marble run. 

EPL teen librarian Tyler Works, who led the program, found out quickly that the enthusiasm for the Cardboard Carnival was not lost to COVID. As a matter of fact, kids just kept signing up. Not wanting to turn anyone away, the library bought more materials to accommodate demand. The take-home kits included a Circuit Playground Express base kit, continuous rotation servo motor, alligator clips, a hot glue gun, hot glue sticks, marbles, and more. It took an “all hands on deck” approach from EPL staff, according to EPL innovation and digital learning manager Renee Neumeier.

In the end, 155 kits were packed and picked up for the program, funded by the Illinois State Library Project Next Generation Grant and possible because of the coalition of established partnerships with EvanSTEM, Family Focus, MetaMedia, Digital Divas, Y.O.U., and the City of Evanston.

Neumeier called the program one of her proudest moments working with community partners. The goal of the program is to help kids learn about engineering design, create more interest in STEM, and build problem-solving skills. Staff focused on reaching out to kids typically underrepresented in STEM.

Both Works and Neumeier stressed that this program is scalable to meet an individual library's resources. It can be done with less expensive kits and fewer participants. It just takes a little creativity and innovation. Especially during a pandemic.

Works and staff from the library and partner organizations created video instructions that the young patrons could access any time. They also hosted a livestream on Saturday morning and established mentor hours when kids could call in for video assistance and troubleshooting. Screen fatigue wasn’t a factor because this wasn’t passive screen learning, the kids were hands-on participants while they watched the instruction.

Rania's Marble Run
Said Rania, "You need to experiment with it. And you need to have parts first and then put it all together."

In the end, 80 kids submitted complete projects in March, with nearly 60 percent underrepresented youth, according to Works. In March, there was a virtual showcase of their work, and a dedicated web page allows people to take their time and look at the projects when they can. The completed Marble Runs showed great imagination and an understanding of the engineering process, according to Works. Videos of the projects can be found at

“I was very impressed,” he said.

The program also seemed to meet its teaching goals that went beyond the mechanics of the project. EPL asked some participants what they learned and the answers included: “Building is fun and I know how to code now!” “You don’t need to be fast, you need to work carefully.” “Have a plan.” And “to never give up, to think outside of the box.”

The results also showed Works just how much work the kids put into their marble runs, how engaged they were, and how much they enjoyed the program. Without the limitations of building in the library and needing to transport it, kids created giant courses for the marbles with tracks coming down walls and more. The program’s success not only taught Works what was possible during the pandemic but also gave him ideas about how he wants to run programs in the future.

“I really like this model,” says Works. “A sustained, long-term project like this is just a more effective way for people in general to learn.”

Works sees value in continuing longer projects instead of one-and-done, in-person programs. And he wants to continue a hybrid model that includes asynchronous learning and video instruction, along with an option for in-person and online support and instruction. Such programs allow patrons to participate despite other scheduled activities or an inability to get to the library and eliminates the limitations of library space.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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