STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Programs are a hot topic these days. There is a real push to offer more science and technology types of programs and events. It’s a trend in education and among non-profit organizations for children. But what role should libraries really play in this movement? After all, we’re about literature and books. Is this a fad that is going to fade away in a year or so after we’ve committed significant portions of our limited resources to it?
Sometimes, if you listen in on discussions among youth librarians, the importance of including STEM activities predominates so much that you might think that every program we are planning these days must be a STEM program. But just because we’re all talking about it so much, doesn’t mean that it has taken over or is going to do so. I think it is discussed so much because including STEM topics at all is a major change. If we were to look at library programs 2 or 3 years ago, how many would have included science or math at all?
Before I go further, let me say that I believe that STEM programming can “play nicely” with our more traditional programming. One does not preclude the other. In fact, we may find kids more receptive if we don’t advertise our STEM programs as being about science. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of being a leader for a Girl Scout Brownie troop of 2nd and 3rd graders. When I asked them if they wanted to do any of the science badges or activities they unanimously replied, “No!” But at one meeting, I included a hand-on science activity without telling them it was science. They loved it! They wanted to do more! But they had assumed science activities had to be like the textbook science they were doing in school, which they thought was boring. Instead, we learned about the phases of the moon using Oreo cookies (instructions courtesy of NASA). Guess what, two and four weeks later they could still tell you what they had learned! They went on to earn every science badge available.
But what does leading a Girl Scout troop have to do with offering STEM programs in libraries? Libraries are about information – not just certain types, but all information. We talk about teaching information literacy and digital literacy. STEM literacy is just another kind of literacy. It should not replace our early literacy, literature-based, or arts and crafts programming. But it can certainly enhance those programs. For example, a program on nocturnal animals (a suggested theme for the Dream Big Summer Reading Program at our library in 2012) could begin with reading aloud Stellaluna by Janell Cannon. Discussion of the book leads into scientific information on bats, including a game identifying which animals are nocturnal, diurnal, and crepuscular. End with a craft and you’ve hit arts, literature and science! And hopefully had some fun along the way.
Yes, there is a big push for STEM programming. But instead of seeing that as a threat or a burden, we could look at it as an opportunity. This is a way to enrich our existing youth programming, not replace it. And the truly huge benefit of the current focus on STEM is that fantastic, creative ideas are easy to find and community support is likely to be high. Who knows, maybe we can convince the public and politicians of our relevance if we can help further local STEM initiatives. Adding STEM to our program lineup may push some librarians out of their comfort zones. But the payoff in benefits for our children and teen library users could be huge.