Friday, June 2, 2017

DIY STEM Programming

A big movement in education these days is a focus on STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (some places add in Arts, to make it STEAM). There's a push for students to be proficient in, and excited about, STEM; what can libraries do to help (and take advantage of this trend)?

Outside Performers

Okay, so this isn't DIY - but if you have the budget, go for it! I'm a big fan of Sciencetellers, though what you have in your area may vary. Lots of museums also offer traveling shows, and so do many state parks. I have a local nature reservation coming this summer to give a talk about wildlife - and they're bringing live owls with them! Reach out to local agencies and see if they have any traveling programs.

Of course, a lot of us don't have this kind of budget to play with. Many tech companies actually give incentives for their employees to volunteer. A few years ago, a local scientist gave us a call and set up a program where he brought special telescopes, so kids (and adults) could safely look right at the sun! (I think the adults were more awed by that one; the kids were more excited about the special glasses he brought that made everything look like it had rainbows coming out of it.) We also had a very nice man from iRobot visit and bring real robots that people got to look at and drive around.

And then, there's the programs for the real Do-It-Yourselfers: If you have time and a little money, you can put together some great programs on your own.

STEM for preschoolers

Once upon a time, I had a preschool STEAM program that we called Early Explorers. Every week, kids aged 3-5 would come and explore a different topic. One week we did an art project, another week we would build something (either individually or as a group), one week would have some sort of experiment, or interact with different materials to see how the world worked. We also did music once a month, which helps little ones to recognize rhythms and patterns (math concepts as well as art!). I'm sure you don't need help with preschool art projects, but here are some ideas for other topics:
  • Building/Engineering -LEGO bricks, Magnatiles, and good old-fashioned blocks worked well. Expand their minds by building with marshmallows and spaghetti. Use large blocks, like empty cardboard boxes, to build entire cities, or use recycled materials to build a robot or a dinosaur.
  • Experiments - playing with bubbles, mixing paint colors (you can do this in plastic baggies to reduce mess), making a baking soda volcano. Use magnifying glasses to look up-close at feathers or insects.
  • Interacting with materials - We did a lot of this. Take apart a flower (pull off the petals, notice the veins in the leaves, dip it in paint and make prints to see the different textures); play with shaving cream (this was HUGELY popular - the gel that turns into cream when you rub it is absolutely amazing to little ones. Just make sure you don't get the kind with menthol.); make ice chalk and draw with it on paper and the sidewalk (how is it different? Does it act differently when it melts?) Little ones probably can't make slime, but they can play with it (This is especially fun with oobleck and other non-Newtonian fluids. Put your fingers in slowly and you'll sink in. Try to pull them out quickly and it'll hold tight!).
(Why did I stop Early Explorers when I so obviously loved doing it? I no longer work at that library, and I currently don't have enough staff to feasibly run this one. It does take a fair amount of planning.)

STEM for kids

My library has a monthly Science Club for kids in grades 1-5. Let me just say, this is a very difficult age range to work with, because if you do a harder project, the little ones won't get it, but if it's too easy, the older kids are bored and make trouble. (Nevertheless, I persist.) Ideally, you'd be able to do a group for early elementary and a group for older elementary, but we know that there isn't always time for this. Things that have worked for me include:
  • LEGO building - You may already do this! LEGO building is engineering, which is awesome, and can take no time to plan. Every library I've spoken with does LEGO Club differently; some have challenges - say, everyone has to build a pirate ship; some dump out the whole bucket and have a free-for-all. I have small bins, and each kid gets one and can take a couple handfuls of LEGO to start with, and are welcome to come back and take more once all the kids have gotten a chance to take some.
  • LEGO volcanoes - Have the kids build up a hill around a plastic cup, and then let it erupt with baking soda, vinegar, a drop of dish soap for bubbles, and lots of joy and excitement. (I wrote about this on my other blog, here.)
  • Candy Science - who doesn't like candy, and science? There are a ton of great ideas on (I've also written about this on my other blog.) 
  • Static Electricity - a charged balloon can lift up a person's hair, a piece of tissue paper, and even roll an empty soda can!
  • Magnets - what sticks? What doesn't? Make your own compass!
  • Slime and/or Oobleck - Oooey, gooey, tons of fun! Also, very messy. Do this one outside.
  • Chemical reactions! Baking soda and vinegar, Diet Coke and Mentos - do this outside, too.
  • Planting seeds/seedlings/plants
  • Magnifying glasses and/or microscopes - it's hard to do microscopes unless you have a bunch of them, but I've had a number of magnifying glasses, with which we examined bugs, feathers, our own hair, etc., and each kid got to take turns looking through a microscope at the same things.
  • Hatching caterpillars/ant farm - it'll be an extended project, but kids can stop in and see how the bugs are doing.
  • Build a Leprechaun trap - one of my little buddies was telling me all about the amazing trap she's going to build next St. Patrick's Day, to build a leprechaun trap! A better mouse trap this is not: Leprechaun traps usually have glitter and shiny things to lure them, and then they have to somehow trap the poor little guy inside. The ideas that kids have for this are astounding - make a display of traps once they're done!
There are so many great books and websites about science experiments you can do with kids! We particularly like Steve Spangler's science website (he has books, too!).

STEM for teens

I think it's hardest to come up with STEM ideas for teens, because they've already done the basics. Oobleck is cool and all, but it won't hold the interest of your average high schooler for long. What to do?
  • Girls Who Code is a wonderful program that gets girls more interested in computer science. All you need to get started is a location in which to have your club, Internet access, and computers that the club can use.
  • Minecraft remains super popular, and it is the epitome of STEM - the laws of physics apply in the Minecraft world, and you can design and build your own creations. The downside of this is money - you'd need computers for each participant, and the software itself is $26.95 per user. You could make a Minecraft-themed program, and build things in real life. (I've seen this done with Perler beads, on cupcakes, and by painting cardboard boxes.)
  • Robotics and electronics - does your local school have a robotics team? Will they come and do a demonstration? Maybe you have the budget to get a Sphero or other robot that can be programmed and played with. Maybe you can use old electric toothbrush motors and make a bristlebot.
  •  Microscopes - Just as with kids, it's hard to have enough microscopes to do everything with, but luckily, teens are better at sharing. Try magnifying glasses and microscopes with this level - they might surprise you!
  • Building projects - Does your library have a Little Free Library location? Perhaps your teens can help build one, either from scratch, or by upcycling existing cabinets. Maybe they can create planters for your building, and take care of their gardening maintenance. (Bonus points if you grow herbs and/or vegetables and have a cooking class!) 
  • Egg Drop - we did this one a few years ago and it was so much fun! Teens put together contraptions that will help raw eggs safely reach the ground from a great height. Our custodian volunteered to carry all the completed Egg Drop entries onto the roof - we'd hoped to get a firetruck to use the ladder, but it didn't work out. There were parachutes, padded envelopes, mini-helicopter blades, and more! It was the most fun, messy day!

As Always

We'd love to hear your ideas! What STEM programming are you doing in your libraries? Let us know in the comments here, on Twitter, or on our Facebook page.

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