Updates From The Field: Public Libraries & STEM


November 16th, 2015

The inaugural Public Libraries & STEM Conference (funded in part through NSF #1413783) brought together more than 150 thought leaders from the library and STEM education communities in Denver, CO on August 20-22, 2015, to discuss the opportunity space that libraries present to help provide STEM experiences to underserved communities.

Slides and notes from the conference are now available on the STEM in Libraries Conference Wiki.

Commissioned Papers

The following commissioned papers offer a background and an introduction to some of the key issues surrounding the topic of STEM education in public libraries.

Collective Impact And The STEM Learning Ecosystem

John Falk and Marsha Semmel provided framing for the conference, emphasizing the importance of out-of-school learning experiences as contextualized within the STEM learning ecosystem model, a learner-centric view that acknowledges that a broad spectrum of experiences and settings contribute to lifelong learning (eg. formal schooling, the media, community institutions, museums, businesses, and more). As libraries continue to reinvent themselves in the 21st century, they have increasingly become a setting for facilitating STEM learning experiences.

Through the concept of collective impact, institutions in the STEM learning ecosystem can work together and forge partnerships, and thereby reinforce learning experiences and build a solid foundation for lifelong STEM education. To emphasize the potential of learning institutions working together to create wide systemic change in STEM education, Marsha Semmel stated “We need silver buckshot, not silver bullets.

Forging Community Partnerships

Even though public libraries have increasingly become venues for STEM learning, most professional librarians are not STEM content experts.  To address this concern, partnerships between libraries and STEM institutions such as museums and science centers were emphasized as an important strategy and opportunity. Meeting participants were quick to point out that because the definition of STEM and STEM expertise is broad, every community will have experts, some of whom may not identify as such. For example, one library participant mentioned partnering with a local fire department, and another mentioned partnering with hunters to coordinate STEM-relevant programming for their communities. Other potential partners identified included community organizations such as Girl Scouts, 4H, and local Boys and Girls Clubs.

Connecting With Underrepresented Audiences

Libraries are particularly strong settings for informal STEM learning experiences because of their ability to reach audiences traditionally underserved by venues such as science museums.  Nearly every community in the United States has a public library, and as Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Institute pointed out, there is very little variance in library usage based on ethnicity or income.

R. David Lankes, a professor at Syracuse University, gave a provocative keynote in which he tied STEM education to libraries’ traditional social justice missions.  He asserted that as STEM becomes an increasing economic focus, librarians can provide an opportunity to help bridge the STEM achievement gap across demographics.

Maddie Ziegler, an education consultant and grant writer, shared eight strategies from her work with traditionally underserved groups that can be applied broadly throughout different informal learning experiences and settings.

  • Take time to establish relationships and trust within the community.
  • Ensure that members of the community are active participants in the project’s planning and development.
  • Draw on participants’ cultural identity.
  • Integrate culturally relevant experiences.
  • Utilize bilingual or bicultural facilitators as appropriate.
  • Develop family-oriented programming.
  • Emphasize the educational merit of programming, and highlight potential STEM careers.
  • Identify barriers to participation and develop strategies to overcome them.

Building A Foundation For Research And Evaluation

One major strand of discussion throughout the conference was the need to build a foundation for better integrating research, evaluation and practice.  Although the library community is relatively new to evaluation, librarians already collect a variety of metrics related to library visits, circulation, resource usage, and more.  A breakout session on research and evaluation explored how to integrate evaluation with STEM programming, and focused on practical advice on developing meaningful evaluation questions, presenting data for maximum impact, and avoiding survey fatigue through embedded instruments such as portfolios.

For more information on integrating evaluation planning into the early stages of the project development process, visit the CAISE-produced Principal Investigator’s Guide to Managing Evaluation in Informal STEM Education Projects, which provides an introduction to evaluation including topics such as developing evaluation questions, key elements of an evaluation, and defining goals and outcomes.

Funding Opportunities And Future Directions

Representatives from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) discussed several opportunities for libraries to seek funding for STEM-related programming. Here are links to some of the annual funding programs that were discussed:

The Building with Biology project also invited libraries to apply for free kits that include hands-on activities, programming, and professional development materials on the topic of synthetic biology.  Applications will be due in early 2016.

Image: Ruth Hartnup CC BY 2.0