While STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) in libraries has become a popular topic recently, many of us still have some trepidation taking the leap in the library. And who can blame us? A ton of children’s librarians have backgrounds in the arts and humanities, and the last science class we took was ten or more years ago. I only passed my last science class (in 2002) because the alternate final exam involved writing down every single you learned, rather than  multiple-choice options. In high school, my geometry and chemistry classes were both taught by a gym teacher. Even after four years of participation in Science Olympiad as an adolescent, I still cringed when offerings at youth services conferences mentioned STEM.

And then, I realized, STEM was something that was already a part of lots of programming I offered, if only in small doses.

This is a first post of an exploration of “Sneaky STEM”, embedding sciences in our current programs. Note that I use STEM rather than STEAM, which includes art; while I don’t deny that art is important, it’s already a big part of many programs. Additionally, all art has scientific components!

Oh, you know, just sciencing. "Lasers" by flickr user dmuth

Oh, you know, just sciencing.
“Lasers” by flickr user dmuth

The first thing we need to do is identify our own mental barriers to adding STEM to our programs. Here are 5 that needed busting my own mind. Hopefully I’m not alone, and you can relate to some of these:

MYTH 1: STEM has one correct answer: And if you don’t get that correct answer, you’re wrong. And you should probably feel like that’s a personal failing, amirite?

BUSTED: STEM is all about the exploration and experimentation, not the answer. And if you don’t get the generally accepted outcome during your program? “Hey look, kids, we’re making NEW SCIENCE right here in the library!” (This is a perk of not having to give formal assessments).

MYTH 2: STEM uses lots of big, confusing words: And these words are the only hope to understand concepts. Let’s get out the flash cards! Aren’t we having fun?!

BUSTED: While vocabulary development is an added bonus when we’re talking STEM in the library, using kid-friendly definitions is key to their understanding. WordSmyth is a great place to type in a word and get a kid-friendly definition. Another way to connect scientific ideas to kids’ lives is to make connections to their life experiences. Consider the following STEM concepts and how you can tie them to things kids already know, enhancing their schema:

Gravity = the feeling of jumping up and falling down

RAM= the computer’s brain remembering something

Aerodynamics= where wind goes when it hits your face

Accuracy= how many times you get something right

While these definitions are not exact and leave out nuances of the actual words, they become keys to talking about larger concepts on a small scale during your library programs.

by Flickr user prometheus_lego

This could be you. “Hazardous Mad Science” by Flickr user prometheus_lego

MYTH 3: Unless you’re doing science experiments/coding activities/building complex structures/using equations, you’re not doing STEM: There are some great programs out there that are super-STEM, like this post by Angie at Fat Girl Reading about their week-long ScienceFest. If you haven’t dipped your toes into STEM at your library, these posts can simultaneously be really inspiring as well as feed the Impostor Syndrome Monster.

BUSTED: Science-based and science-enhanced programming can be considered on a spectrum. Just like early literacy learning focuses on pre-reading skills, there are a lot of skills kids can practice in the library that advance their STEM understanding. Scavenger hunts and room hunts emphasize observation skills. Drawing, cutting, and other hand-eye coordination activities help with using a mouse or gaming controller. Games that sort or categorize objects help with hypothesizing and recognizing patterns. Singing, clapping, and dancing have connections to math. Thinking about it this way, what are you currently doing in your library that has a STEM focus or component? Let us know in the comments!

MYTH 4: STEM is counter-intuitive: A lot of us hear the word “math” or “science” and freak out. We decided long ago that math or science is not for us. Maybe we find these content areas boring. How can we make non-snore programs when it’s hard to care about it at all?

BUSTED: Science is simply learning by doing, and it makes for a great shared experience with kids to try new things. Science and math are all around us. If you’re living, you’re doing science and math all the time. Science and math are our default mode. Science and math are why we don’t bump into stuff all the time, have favorite foods, walk without falling down, don’t freeze to death or spontaneously combust on a daily basis, and breathe. STEM activities are for bold, imaginative people; and STEM fields need more women and people in general. Just like adults telling kids they’re not readers is kind of a lie; if you’re alive, you’re a casual scientist.

Excuse me, there's sciencing to do. "scientist-minifig" by flickr user pixbymaia

Excuse me, I must go science now.
“scientist-minifig” by flickr user pixbymaia

MYTH 5: You have to be an expert. Okay, so maybe you’re thinking about doing some STEM programming. But if we’re all casual scientists, what can you give your kid patrons? What could you possibly know that they don’t?

BUSTED: In order to guide kids to learning, you only need to know slightly more than they do. This means different things for different programs. For instance, if you’re celebrating spies, you might want to count on that there are lots of spy fans in the audience and share new things they might not know. But, unless you live in a state where geodes are prevalent, you can talk about how geodes are formed as part of a program and engage your audience. Additionally, since science is all exploration, the right answers are not always necessary (see Myth 1).

What was your inspiration to start STEM programming in your library?

Let us know in the comments!

S Bryce Kozla is a Youth Services Librarian in Wisconsin. She also blogs at http://brycedontplay.blogspot.com/