The Lowdown on STEM

A formula for luring teens toward science and math

September 20, 2011

Linda W. Braun

Each week I have at least one conversation about how schools and libraries are working to support teaching and learning in STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I’ve discovered that some librarians are struggling to figure out what their role should be in the STEM universe. I’m here to give you a few pointers.

First, here’s some background. In the mid-2000s, STEM gained prominence when Congress made those disciplines a focal point of education initiatives that sought to improve teaching and learning in U.S. schools. In 2007, the America Competes Act became law. Reauthorized in 2011 (PDF file), the act was promoted in a White House press release as an initiative that bolsters efforts “to enhance STEM education—to raise American students from the middle to the top of the pack and to make sure we are training the next generation of innovative thinkers and doers.”

What’s the big deal?

The reauthorized America Competes Act places the national focus on STEM education, and makes funding available to support science and math activities in schools and libraries. For example:

  • Grants have been awarded to a variety of educational institutions by the National Science Foundation’s National STEM Education Distributed Learning program to “establish a national network of learning environments and resources for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education at all levels.” Some of these projects work towards bringing STEM education into the classroom and/or library, and all projects support collaboration between different educational institutions within a community. These initiatives are worth looking into to learn what others are doing in this area, and to make connections between your library and your community’s education providers.
  • Now in its first round of funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums program, administered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, will make a direct link between public libraries and STEM education. The overview of the program states: “These labs will become spaces for experimentation and creativity for young people, helping them gain experience in both STEM learning and such 21st-century skills as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration, carried out in an out-of-school-time setting.” The STEM connection in this first round of Learning Lab grants, whose recipients are scheduled to be announced in November, highlights that STEM is not something just to be considered for formal learning environments such as schools, and clearly creates an opening for public libraries to get involved. (The second round of funding is scheduled to take place in spring 2012.)
  • The STEMgrants.com website lists a wide array of other funding available for schools and youth-serving organizations involved in STEM activities. Grants range from those that focus on a specific demographic (e.g., mini-STEM grants for girls sponsored by the National Girls Collaborative Project) to projects with a much broader scope, such as the Intel STEM grant for K–12 schools, which recognizes innovative teaching and learning in math and science.

With such a variety of funding sources available, youth librarians have a good shot at finding a grant just right for a teen project in development at their library or on their wish list. Just take a bit of time to research what’s possible based on your library’s initiatives

When there’s no extra funding

Even if grant funds are unobtainable, librarians need to make sure that the programs and services provided to teens support STEM education. Once teen librarians are aware of what STEM is all about, it’s possible to join the conversations, and articulate the role the library can play. That role can be through providing materials and/or offering curated resources, classes, and out-of-school-time programs. For example:

  • Classroom connections: Analyze your collection for the resources and programs that can support STEM, and remember it doesn’t have to be just the math or science curriculum that you want to support. Make connections via other subjects as well, such as history or language arts. Maybe there’s a fiction title with a scientific connection or a biography of someone involved in STEM-related work. What about your books on cooking, or car repair, or music?
  • Content curating: How can you help organize content available through the library within a STEM context? Maybe it’s creating a web-based LibGuide, LiveBinder, or perhaps by curating news at scoop.it. Consider the possibilities and make it easy for teens and teachers to access the best of what you have available for STEM-related learning.
  • Out-of-school-time programs: If you put your mind to it, you’ll discover numerous possible STEM connections for the out-of-school-time programming you provide. Gaming sessions, candy sushi projects, digital content creation—all can have a relationship to STEM. Every time you develop a new program, think about the potential STEM associations and make sure to highlight those when talking with teachers, administrators, and parents.
  • Marketing: It’s also crucial to consider how you can position your programs and services within the STEM context. By doing this, you’ll let people in the community know you are well aware of this key educational focus and help them to start thinking of teen librarians as aware of, involved with, and keeping up on current issues in the education world.

Want to Learn More?

Two resources to check out are:

  • Stem Libraries: Supporting STEM Studies in Secondary School Public Libraries (PDF file).
  • The STEM tag at the KQED Mindshift Blog.

LINDA W. BRAUN is an educational technology consultant for LEO: Librarians and Educators Online and a past president of ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association.