Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Training for Learning: Notes from the Public Libraries & STEM Conference

In the latter half of August, I spent several days in Denver, CO, for the inaugural Public Libraries & STEM Conference. It was a new and relatively small conference--grant-funded and led by folks at the Space Science Institute and Lunar & Planetary Institute, with around 160 total participants from public libraries, STEM organizations, institutions of informal learning, and library thinkers and researchers. I was able to attend as representative both of ALSC and of my own library. I'm grateful for that opportunity, because I really learned a TON. Rather, perhaps it's more precise to say that I heard from many smart and inspiring people, which has left me we lots of little nuggets and bigger ideas to chew on. Either way, I want to share some of my biggest takeaways with you.


The conference logo aimed to combine a compass and a road leading to the horizon--a great visual metaphor for finding direction on the pathway of STEM in libraries.


One of the major goals of the conference was to "Help define a new 21st Century vision of STEM in public libraries." To that end, there was a lot of talking about what libraries are currently doing; what STEM institutions are doing; trends in libraries in general; and what libraries are best equipped and poised to do in this realm.


I had three major takeaways (each with minor components, which I'm discussing in each of three posts):
  • Don't forget training as a necessary component of adding STEM at the library (which I'm talking about here)
  • Collaborate within the larger learning ecosystem for greater collective impact (which I'm talking about on the ALSC blog)
  • Equity needs to be part of the equation when thinking about STEM programs and services (which I'll talk about next week)



So let's start with a few givens, several of which John Falk from Oregon State University shared in his opening morning keynote. First, there are over 17,000 libraries in the United States. (An oft-quoted sound bite is that this is a greater number than there are McDonald's restaurants in the U.S., with libraries having around 3000 more locations in this country.)


That's a lot of libraries, as and Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Center shared, we're right up there with firefighters and nurses in terms of community figures with the most public esteem and public favor. So people are favorable toward all those libraries we have in the U.S.


Falk also pointed out that research indicates that the primary reason people engage in STEM learning is to satisfy their personal interest and curiosity. So STEM learning is largely self-motivated, because people have an interest or something they are curious about. Libraries are an excellent place for this, as more and more learning is taking place outside of formal school contexts. Falk quoted that about 3% of a typical American's life is spent in formal schooling--and 97% spent elsewhere. If the library is one of the places that make up "elsewhere," and people are interested in STEM, it would seem to follow that libraries as places for STEM is a serviceable idea.


And this is something that conference organizers and attendees have seen. STAR_Net, a community of practice for libraries doing STEM, did a national survey to see what the state of the field is in this specific area. What they found ties in many ways to preparation, training, and support for the staff who will be implementing STEM in various ways in their libraries. With regard to programming, this survey found that lots of practitioners are looking for off-the-shelf program resources that they can immediately adopt and adapt for their libraries. In terms of training, these same staff are interested in both online and in-person training opportunities to gain content knowledge as well as confidence to offer STEM learning in the library. And finally, it found that staff would like a clearer pathway toward collaborating with community partners when it comes to STEM.


In exploring the survey responses and data from interviews, what becomes more clear is that people say they want more how-to resources. But that statement is just part of the issue, the easiest bit to articulate. The resources are just the front end of the equation; the rest is having interaction with peers and colleagues who can help put those resources into context and practice in practical ways. It's the difference between having a resource manual alone or having a manual and a colleague to go through it with you.


For libraries, STEM practitioners, and folks invested in informal learning in general, this means that we need to refocus some of those energies that we've all been putting into developing our own unique resources. There are plenty of resources available, and the trend of all libraries wanting to create their own from scratch is an instance of reinventing the wheel. A better use of time and energies would actually be to create connections between people and resources that already exist--letting practitioners know what is already available to them rather than asking someone to start from square one.


This comes down to people. What can people do to share what they know, the resources they've created/found/used? David Lankes spoke in his keynote about how libraries themselves are just buildings; as a concept, they are abstractions and thus cannot do anything or have an impact. It is the people in libraries, however, who are real and who can do things and who can create impact. So it's up to people. If practitioners and would-be practitioners of STEM in libraries need to be connected to resources to learn and gain confidence, then it can follow that libraries are the best positioned to help meet this need.


So perhaps my biggest takeaway on this point of training and informal learning is really more of a question: To what extent is it the responsibility of libraries with successful STEM models to train the rest of the profession, especially those without easy access to professional development? If I'm already doing STEM in the library, and as such have garnered experience and created and gathered resources, in what ways it is my responsibility to share my experience and resources with those libraries who haven't had that opportunity, or who are craving more training and context? If we have it, shouldn't we share it? If training as needed, and it is within our capacity to train, shouldn't we train?

I'm inclined to say "yes" to this question in general, although at some point questions of capacity and institutional priorities come into play. But as a general ethos, don't you think our training one another when it's within our power is a good--and in some ways progressive--concept?


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Exploring Water & Dissolving in Science Club, Jr.

I led my final Science Club, Jr. program of the summer last week. The program has gotten such a great reputation that we had a huge combo crowd of folks who had registered in advance and folks who showed up day-of with a big interest in participating. And while I need to work with my fellow youth programming staff to work out the finer points of our registration/latecomers/walk-ins policies, I was glad to be able to allow 15 families--not just kids, as per usual--to participate. It was crowded, sure, but everyone was happily engaged in doing science.

In this particular program, I wanted for us to explore some of the properties of water. Or, more specifically, how some substances will or won't dissolve in water. To kick off our program, we shared a read aloud of The Gingerbread Man. This picture book choice may seem odd at first glance, but recall the story: the gingerbread man meets his ultimate demise because he must trust a fox to carry him across a river--a river which would cause him to fall to bits should he try to swim.

Photo by Skokie Public Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

So we read the story, then we talked about what we observed happening. I was interested to discover that, when we started talking about why the gingerbread man couldn't swim, many children said that if he swam he would have melted. I would not have anticipated that bit of kid logic, although it of course makes sense to me in hindsight. This reasonable misconception opened the door for us to talk about what the word "dissolve" means and to practice saying it.

Photo by Skokie Public Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
After we had the nuts and bolts of the concept of dissolving substances, we moved to our hands-on experiments. Each station was prepped with the following:
  • a bowl of water
  • a small cup with salt
  • a small cup with fruit punch powder
  • a small cup with a few Skittles candies
  • a small cup with a piece of graham cracker
  • a popsicle stick for stirring

Before we really got to experimenting, we talked about how we could tell that the liquid in our bowls was water. This line of questioning helped reinforce that scientists never drink or eat a substance that they don't know what it is. It's never to early for science safety skills!

The first phase of the experiment was for kids to dump the cup of salt in the water and observe what happened. Kids were invited to stir their mixture with their popsicle sticks if they so desired. End result: the salt dissolves!

Phase two was dumping the fruit punch powder into the water to observe what would happen, again with optional stirring. This time around, only some of the substance dissolved. We were able to tell some dissolved because the water turned the color of the powder, but we could also see some undissolved powder on the bottom of the bowls. This allowed us to introduce the concept of saturation, when no more of a substance can dissolve in a liquid.

Advice: if at all possible, dump the bowls and refill with fresh water at this point.

Photo by Skokie Public Library (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Phase three was placing the Skittles candies in the bottom of the bowl. We just observed to start off, watching what happened to the colors of the candies as they sat in the water. The colors will bleed from the candies, ultimately leaving a white candy at the bottom of the bowl. Before giving everything a stir for good measure--because who can resist, really?--we talked about reasons why the color might come off but the whole candy might not dissolve.

Our fourth and final phase of the experiment was the graham cracker, which most closely resembled the gingerbread man of our story. Once again, after placing the graham cracker in the water we observed. Kids were interested to see how the graham cracker became visibly soggy before ultimately coming apart in pieces. I heard some great parent/child conversations about what this experiment suggests about dunking cookies in milk at home.

All in all, this was a great program--not too messy, easy for antsy young scientists to do the activities more quickly with their caregivers as desired, and a concept that kids encounter but didn't necessarily have the vocabulary to explain. It was a great summer for Science Club, Jr.!

Monday, August 3, 2015

9 Weeks of Pop-Up Programming for Summer

This summer, we offered weekly pop-up programs in the main entryway to the youth services department at my library. We changed up the activities each week and harnessed the power of summer teen volunteers to keep the pop-ups running smoothly. Full details ahead!


What activities did we offer?
Over the course of our 9-week summer reading program, we offered the following activities:
  • Monster page-corner bookmarks
  • Catapults
  • Card Making
    • Materials: assorted colors paper and card stock, assorted die cuts, markers, glue sticks, and joke books
    • How-to: Invite kids to make cards for time-appropriate occasions; for us, that was Father's Day and/or graduations. We also had plenty of joke books on hand for kids who wanted to just make "anytime cards."
  • Fingerprint Art
  • Origami Dinosaurs
  • Balloon Rockets
  • Postcard to an Author/Book Character
    • Materials: postcard-sized paper and markers
    • How-to: Encourage kids to write a postcard to their favorite author or book character. If you're able to, take photos of the kids' cards and tweet them at the authors and/or publishing houses.
  • Planet Buttons
    • Materials: button maker with appropriate button-making tools and materials as well as images of the planets sized to fit the button maker
    • How-to: Encourage kids to choose their favorite planet (we did this activity to celebrate New Horizons and the first clear photos of Pluto) and then make a button to share it proudly.
  • Optical Illustions

When did pop-ups take place?
Based on the calendar of scheduled programs and a rough guess at general patterns of foot traffic in the summer, we opted to offer pop-up programs on Thursday afternoons for approximately 90 minutes. After a few weeks of running the pop-ups from 4-5:30, with seriously dwindling numbers for the last half hour, we adjusted the time to 3:30-5 p.m.

Who ran the pop-up programs?
While I (or another staff member, the week I was out of town) was present in the youth department for the duration of the pop-up programs, a team of teen volunteers actually facilitated the pop-up activities from start to finish. I had a team of 5 teens who took turns rotating roles: one would be designated in-charge; one would make sure to take count of participants; one would move about the department to alert kids and families that an activity was taking place; and everyone would assist kids in completing the activity.

Who was the target audience for the pop-ups?
We wanted to offer activities that were accessible to children ranging in age from preschool through early junior high. Recognizing that that is a really huge range in age and ability, the litmus test for a program activity was whether a first grader might be able to complete the activity on their own/with little mediation. The volunteers were more than happy to assist kids who needed it, but we didn't want activities to be frustratingly complicated.

How were the pop-up activities received?
Really well! While there were some fluctuations in the number of attendees from week to week, we had a solid number of participants for every activity, and always a handful of kids at minimum who expressed really enjoying the activities.

Would we offer summer pop-ups again?
You bet! For next summer, I'll be considering not only what activities might be well suited to pop-up times, but also the best possible strategies for staffing them (volunteers? or part-time programming staff who can spend some work time making activities as well as leading them?) and when we offer them (scheduled? or truly pop-up, when we see lots of bodies in the department but no program on the calendar?). Lots to think about, including potential implications for school-year pop-ups.

~~*~~

What have been your most successful pop-up programs and activities for kids?


Monday, July 20, 2015

Exploring Gravity in Science Club, Jr.

The majority of programs I've been leading at the library this summer--which is just a small slice of the myriad offerings that come out of the youth department, BOOMbox, and digital literacy specialists--are focused around some aspect of STEAM. I really enjoying figuring out interesting ways to introduce and explore basic STEAM concepts with kids, and last week's Science Club, Jr., was no exception.

In that program, 15 kids and their caregivers got to explore gravity and its effects via a story and a few activities. To prepare, I set up trays for each child containing:
  • string (cut to a child's arm length) tied to one paper clip
  • two additional paper clips
  • a paper towel
  • a pipette
  • a piece of watercolor paper
  • vials of watercolor (prepared with 1 part watercolor concentrate, 10 parts water) in red, yellow, and blue

I start my Science Club, Jr., programs with a group story. The program happens in our craft room, which is on the small side; this means that, with tables set up for our activities, the read aloud happens with kids sitting on the floor and a few chairs in the back for some of the caregivers. Chairs get pushed out of the way when the story is done and hands-on activities begin.

Our story to introduce gravity was Mini Grey's Egg Drop, a tale of an egg who just wants to fly. This is absurd, of course--eggs just drop!--but the story is a great one to talk about and ask questions throughout. It's pacing is perfect for young 3-year-olds to get a sense of what's going to happen to poor egg, but it's never so slow or obvious as to bore the older kids. Read it. It's wonderful.

After the story and talking a bit about gravity, including a demonstration of me dropping different objects from a height to see if, in fact, they all fall, we moved to the activity tables. First up was the string/paper clip activity. I demonstrated holding the end of the string in one hand, arm extended, and holding the paper clip end of the string by my nose. I then let go of the paper clip, causing it to swing downward and move the string like a pendulum. I counted how many times the string moved back and forth before it came to a rest--until the force of gravity was stronger than the momentum of back-and-forth. I then had kids do the same.

Kids reported how many times their strings had swung with a single paper clip, and I asked caregivers to help kids keep track of their number. Next we added a second paper clip to the first, repeating the experiment a second time. After counting the number of swings before that two-paper-clip-string stopped moving, we added a third paper clip for our final experiment trial. Kids gleefully shared their decreasing numbers as paper clips were added--allowing us to infer that as heavier items stop moving more quickly, gravity's relative effects can depend on the weight (mass) of an object.

I like to conclude, whenever possible, with an activity that includes some take-away component, so we closed out our exploration of gravity with some gravity painting. To paint using gravity, kids learned how to use their pipettes to pull the watercolors from the vials and drop them onto the top of their watercolor paper, which they or a caregiver held perpendicular to the paper towel-lined tray. With the paper standing up straight and watercolor dropped at the top of the page, gravity pulls the paint downward in a line--effectively doing the "painting" for you. I was thrilled to see kids starting to figure out that they could make lines in different directions by rotating their papers, and I even had a few kids who rotated their papers while paint was dripping. By using red, yellow, and blue paints, kids also had the opportunity to talk about mixing primary colors, which reinforced an earlier Science Club, Jr., program.


All in all, we had a great time exploring gravity. I was pleased to hear several of the attending families continuing to talk out in the youth department about gravity and how it pulls objects toward the earth, and plenty of kids said they were excited to take their gravity paintings home to show additional family and friends. Success!


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Exploring Bubbles in Science Club, Jr.

Our science adventure opportunities for preschool-age children have continued at my library this summer, with seasonal additions of weekly Nature Play (outdoor sensory play time) and Tour the Sensory Garden (hands-on garden explorations) programs that have been quite well attended. We've also continued to offer Science Club, Jr., as a monthly offering. In our most recent Science Club, Jr. program, we explored bubbles.

To prepare for this program, I gathered:
  • 18 small bubble containers, to which I added a few drops of watercolor colorant;
  • white paper; 
  • one massive jug of bubbles;
  • a sleeve of chenille sticks;
  • some plastic food container lids; and
  • plenty of paper towels for inevitable drips and spills.

We kicked off our exploration of bubbles with a story: Big Bad Bubble by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. This delightful picture book suggests that, when a bubble pops here on Earth, it doesn't just disappear--it reappears in La La Land, where the monsters find bubbles terrifying. This fun, obviously fictional, story provides lots of opportunities for talking about what kids know about bubbles, making observations, etc. And a little bit of humor can go a long way to starting a program off well.


Our first hands-on activity was to see what bubbles leave behind when they do pop. I placed sheets of white paper and the small containers of now-colored bubbles on each table, and kids were instructed to blow their bubbles onto their papers. Note: instruct caregivers to hold the bubble containers while their kids dip the bubble wands and blow bubbles, as otherwise spills are guaranteed. As kids blew their bubbles onto the white paper and the bubbles popped, they saw the various shapes and sizes, now in color, that the bubbles left behind. Abstract bubble art!

Our second hands-on activity was to see if we could blow bubbles in shapes that are not spheres. We talked about circles and spheres, then I gave each child a chenille stick to bend into another shape. These chenille sticks--now in the form of bubble wands with triangle, square, heart, and moon-shaped heads--were then dipped into pans of bubble solution I had set on the tables. We had a bit of a bubble party as kids with different shaped wands took turns demonstrating the bubbles they were creating. Much to the kids' delight, this activity shows that no matter the shape of the bubble wand, bubbles are spheres. Note: I highly recommend ending your program with this activity, or doing it outside if possible, as the floor is a bit of a slippery mess after all the blowing of bubbles around the room.

Thus ended our exploration of bubbles in Science Club, Jr. The topic seemed particularly apt to kick off the summer (this program happened early in June), and I heard many families say they'd be experimenting with bubbles at home as a result of attendance.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Stock Your Digital Suitcase: A Family Tech Program

Summer usually means two main things at the library: summer reading and vacations. As youth librarians, we want those two things to go hand in hand; we want kids to include reading as part of their summer vacations. For many libraries, this intended connection has long led to heightened promotion of audiobooks in the summertime. After all, what better way to pass the time of a long family car trip than with a great book that's performed for you? With this summer ethos in mind, I decided to offer a program to highlight the particular value of the library's eresources during the summer. And so the concept for "Stock Your Digital Suitcase" was born.

My idea for "Stock Your Digital Suitcase" was to allow my target audience--school-age children and their caregivers--the opportunity to learn about the different downloadable and streaming eresources my library offers, then give them time to start trying them out while I was in the program to help with questions and troubleshooting.

Because I knew I wanted families who attended the program to be able to get hands-on and actually download a resource, I clearly stated in the published event description that attendees should bring an ereader and/or wi-fi-connected device (smartphone, tablet), their library card, and any password they might need to download the free eresource apps. I asked people to register for the program so I could gauge the general level of interest in this topic--if only one or two signed up, I was prepared to scrap the program and instead set up one-on-one appointments with the would-be registrants. While the program roster didn't fill up as quickly as some of our summer program offerings, I was pleasantly surprised that, come program day, I only had one slot left in my 20-person roster. Eresources is obviously a topic of interest for many of our patrons.

I spent the first half of the program--about 30 minutes--giving an overview of the basics of my library's eresources. I presented these basics with the visual aid of some simple slides, which I had on my iPad mini and projected via Apple TV. We talked about what is required to use ersources: library card in good standing; device; and internet connection. And, because my library has eresources available for both download and streaming, we talked about the difference between those two models. The big takeaway: if you're going on vacation to a place where you don't know if you'll have wi-fi access, make sure to download everything before you leave!


In this introduction to our eresources, I also explained that each of the platforms--in our case, 3M Cloud Library, OverDrive, OneClick Digital, Hoopla, and Zinio--requires users to set up an account with them. I emphasize that, while this initial setup process can feel a bit tedious, it is a one-time process. From there, I touted what each resource offers, running the gamut from downloadable and streaming ebooks and eaudio, to downloadable magazines and streaming comics, to streaming movies, tv shows, and music. To say that the attendees were flabbergasted at the breadth of content available who be accurate.

I had created a little half-page handout for attendees to use in the second half of the program, which was hands-on trial time. The handout listed the web address of where to find the list of the library's eresources as well as the names and types of content offered by our different platforms. I included images of each platform's app icon as well to make locating them in the app marketplace easier.

I moved about the room as the kids and their caregivers got down to business downloading a first app and setting up an account. The account creation aspect is the reason I specified this program was for families, including the caregiver: creating an account on each platform requires an email address (which many kids either don't have or don't know), and most ask you to check a box saying you are over 13 or have a parents' permission to proceed. 

Once the desired apps were downloaded and required accounts created, kids searched and browsed for the books and other materials (but primarily books, which made me so happy!) they found interesting, then tried their hands at downloading and/or streaming. At this point, we talked a bit about how eresources return themselves (no late fees!), how best to browse for kids' materials, and how to put an eresource on hold. All of the questions were outstanding ones that really helped kids and their caregivers understand how to use these resources in the same ways they would the library stacks. After the end of the program--which I ended with a reminder to add all ereading to kids' summer reading logs--lots of families left with smiles and statements that they couldn't wait to "pack" for their summer vacations.


I'm thrilled that this program was such a success. As the staff member who purchases all the children's and teen content for our ebook/eaudiobook platforms, I know that we've upped our budgets for eresources in past years. The fact that there's a sizable audience of library cardholders eager to put these materials to use makes me happy. When I shared the success with my colleagues, they recommended possible times to repeat this type of program: perhaps after the holidays when devices have been received as gifts, or in advance of spring breaks. I'll figure out the logistics of when, but I think it's safe to say this program deserves some repeats to highlight a great pocket of our collections.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What It Means to Me to Be a Media Mentor

I consider myself a pretty competent desk worker. When I'm on the youth services "Ask Questions Here" desk at my library, I genuinely enjoy advisory questions--it's a joy to get great materials into the hands of eager youth. I get a rush from a good reference query; it's like a sort of logic puzzle to find the specific resource or information that the child or caregiver seeks. And I feel like my natural curiosity serves me well in my job: I read a lot about literacy, education, developmental appropriateness, etc., and I am always happy to share some of the research and recommendations I've read when parents ask questions about specific materials, encouraging literacy, or appropriateness of a certain item for their child.

I love doing all of these parts of the desk worker's daily trade. And, in a twenty-first century library, I don't think any of these services is limited strictly to books.

Did you notice that I didn't specifically mention books and traditional reading materials in the first paragraph of this blog post? That was intentional. If my experience working at reference desks over the past few years has taught me anything, it's that library patrons--of every age--consume information widely and in many different ways. Books. Audiobooks. Downloadables. Web resources. Databases. And, most recently, new media--predominantly apps.

The way I see it, my job is to answer patron questions. If they ask me about books, I tell them about books. If they ask me about the appropriateness of a book for a child of a certain age, I share resources that can provide perspectives on that topic. I use the knowledge I have gleaned from my education, training, and years of service to given patrons the best possible resources in answer to their questions, whatever those questions may be. And if that holds true for books, it holds true for other types of media, too.

That's one of the reasons I co-authored Media Mentorship in Libraries Serving Youth, a white paper adopted by the ALSC Board this past March.

Media mentorship means providing children and their caregivers with the best possible answers to their queries, regardless of the type of media they ask about. Being able to answer those questions well--which is my job--requires me to be knowledgeable about all those types of media my kids and caregivers might ask about. I need to have some basic information about all those types of media, specifically information and recommendations from experts. And I need to know where to go to find reliable, quality information when I a patron's question requires me to find it.

That's what being a media mentor means to me: supporting children and their families in their information needs and wants, and having access to and knowledge of the information that can help me do that. It's not about format--I am a media mentor when asked about books as much as when I'm asked about apps. After all, books are the original library medium.

I don't find the idea of media mentorship controversial. It's not about technology; it's about children and families and doing the best we can to serve their needs. That's what it means to me to be a media mentor.

~~*~~

Do you have a perspective or story about what it means to act as a media mentor to children and families in your library? Help us spread the word about the virtual release party for the new Media Mentorship in Libraries Serving Youth white paper! After Tuesday's ALSC Community Forum, we'll be taking to Twitter and blogs to spread ideas for media mentor programs and services. You can join us by using the hashtag #mediamentor.