Libraries as an Environment for Informal STEM Learning

April 15th, 2015

For decades, libraries throughout the U.S. have been evolving to become unique venues for informal science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, hosting programs and exhibits that inspire children and adults alike, and supporting them in their lifelong learning. For example, as the role of the modern library has transformed from a repository of physical books to an information, activity and community center, the Chicago Public Library system, via the MacArthur-funded YouMedia initiative and IMLS-funded Maker Lab, has emerged as a leader in the Maker Movement. This week is National Library Week (April 12-18, 2015), an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association to recognize the contribution of libraries across the country to their communities. The event includes National Library Workers Day (April 14), National Bookmobile Day (April 15), and Celebrate Teen Literature Day (April 16), as well as a host of activities in libraries and on social media. Throughout the event, the #NLW15 tag on Twitter will be used for general discussion, and #LibraryMade will feature creations from library making and tinkering experiences. Many of the resources in the collection feature informal STEM learning experiences that take place in libraries. In honor of National Library Week, here are some examples:


The Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums project, jointly funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the MacArthur Foundation), creates learning labs in museums and libraries across the US in order to engage middle and high school youth in learning through digital and traditional media. These labs are further supported by a Community of Practice for those working with the learning labs or seeking to create similar programming in their own institutions. For more information about the Learning Labs project, see our earlier Spotlight, or the recent publication Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums: Transformative Spaces for Teens.

The project Pushing the Limits: Building Capacity to Enhance Public Understanding of Math and Science Through Rural Libraries (PTL) was funded by the National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program to develop a model to support STEM programming in rural and small libraries. This took the form of a combination of a science book club and science cafe, and was supported by professional development for librarians and scientist facilitators to administer PTL programming. The PTL project development was informed by front-end and formative evaluation, and has also released a summative evaluation which focuses on the effectiveness of the PTL project in meeting its goals for the library professionals, their patrons, and their science partners.

The STAR Library Education Network is also an NSF AISL-funded project that explores a different approach to STEM learning in public libraries. The network develops science and engineering exhibits that travel to rural libraries, enabling project leaders to reach audiences that traditionally don’t have access to science museums. Star_Net also provides professional development opportunities to librarians who want to become more involved with STEM. For further information, see CAISE’s previous Spotlight featuring the project, or peruse some of STAR_Net research outputs, including β€œPublic Libraries as Places for STEM Learning: An Exploratory Interview Study with Eight Librarians” and β€œThe STEM Education Movement in Public Libraries.”

Research & Reference

The article β€œHow Wide is a Squid Eye? Integrating Mathematics into Public Library Programs for Elementary Grades” describes findings from the Math off the Shelf (MotS) program from TERC, which created interdisciplinary mathematics resources in cooperation with library educators.

The dissertation β€œMaking learning: Makerspaces as learning environments” explores the implementation of a maker program at three sites–a museum, an afterschool program, and a community library–using an activity-identity-community framework.

β€œThe Public Library as a Community Hub for Connected Learning” is a conference paper that presents an introduction to the connected learning movement and the ways in which connected learning principles can be adopted by library programs to help them serve as community hubs for lifelong learning.

What are your insights on the role of libraries in STEM learning? Have you used libraries as a venue to foster science engagement, or have you participated in STEM programming at your local library? Share your experiences by leaving a comment, reaching out to us on Twitter (@informalscience), or contacting us at

Photo: Baltimore County Public Library CC BY 2.0