Libraries: The “Spine” of the Community and STEM Learning

The third in a series of IMLS Focus events took place June 5 at the Chicago Public Library and brought together a diverse group of library stakeholders to consider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Learning in Libraries. As with the previous two Focus events, this series of panel discussions organized by IMLS provided the chance “to hear from a broad range of stakeholders about future IMLS funding strategies, particularly for the agency’s National Leadership Grant program.” Throughout the day panelists from libraries, museums and science organizations considered the STEM landscape, goals and impacts, program models, scalability, capacity and diversity as they relate to opportunities for libraries and STEM learning.

Susan Hildreth, Director of IMLS, led the charge for the day with the thought that libraries have the chance to grow and support a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs by bringing successful STEM programming and learning spaces to the community. Connie Yowell (Director of Education for U.S. Programs, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation), the panelist most quoted throughout the day, aptly described the role of libraries as the “spine” of the community that connects organizations, people and services into a network of learning. Connie also encouraged libraries to value their existing assets by remaking and remixing what they already have to transform their communities away from consumption and towards participation in those assets through STEM programming, maker spaces and interactive engagement. The discussion throughout the day produced the following takeaways:

Libraries that are successful in this endeavor will need to…

  • Commit to change in staffing, policies, structure, procedures, collections and staff training
  • Build capacity in alternative funding, structures, outreach and embedded and meaningful partnerships
  • Collaborate in partnerships rather than being the isolated gatekeepers who are experts on everything
  • Focus on context rather than content since youth are most engaged when solving a problem or challenge in context

Libraries that attempt to engage with STEM learning will find challenges such as…

  • Training and educating library staff in STEM principles and programming
  • Adapting STEM concepts into the library culture, language and mission
  • Maintaining diversity in STEM learning opportunities

Panel participants represented various successful models and partnerships around STEM learning include…

  • FUSE – A new kind of interest-driven learning experience being developed by researchers at Northwestern University with the goal of engaging pre-teens and teens in STEM/STEAM activities.
  • Star_Net Library Education Programs: Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Star_Net provides science and technology resources for libraries.
  • Hive Learning Networks: Funded with innovation funds from the MacArthur Foundation, these networks connect librarians, museums and after-school folks to create connected learning experiences in which youth can more easily participate in accessible, “anytime, anywhere” learning activities by pursuing their interests and following their peers.
  • XTech and California Tinkering Network: Both projects connected with Exploratorium and intended to provide programming for populations that are underrepresented in STEM.
  • City-Wide STEM: The Chicago Public Library partnered with multiple organizations for the Summer of Learning, a city-wide effort to engage young people in hands on STEM learning.

IMLS plans to develop an updated funding guide based on the discussion and feedback from all three IMLS Focus events.


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