Public Libraries

Public Librarians as STEM Educators?

The Space Science Institution is a nonprofit organization that does R&D and education to make science accessible. They created an education branch called the National Center for Interactive Learning. One of the NCIL’s projects is called the STAR (Science-Technology Activities and Resources) Library Education Network. Also known as Star_Net, they have an online community where librarians can collaborate, they offer training, and give information about grants for libraries to produce STEM programming.

I am reading a report paper called The Accidental STEM Librarian: An Exploratory Interview with Eight Librarians from John Baek from Star_Net. As the title states, it is presented as a case study after an interview process with eight librarians on the state of STEM activities in libraries. Baek seems to be asking whether public librarians should be acting as STEM educators. He points to the fact that STEM topics are not part of our extended education and that many librarians admit to having STEM anxiety. He notes that librarians interviewed stated that they didn’t feel qualified to be “teaching” science since they are not scientists. And, most importantly, these hesitations can come across to our patrons. If we aren’t enjoying it, they won’t be either. These are all barriers to providing quality STEM programming in the public library setting.

Having worked with librarians to get them started on a robotics program in their public library, I can say that I have seen all of these issues. I am always suggesting that public libraries should find a hole in their community and figure out a way to fill it. Parents are wanting to find ways to get kids, especially girls, more interested in STEM activities and it is crucial that the future workforce have an understanding and interest in these areas. So this is an obvious hole at the moment! We can fill it… and many actively are! But should we be? I have asked myself this many times.

My initial reaction is… yes. We are not presenting ourselves as experts and we are merely trying to spark an interest. As we so often say, “We don’t know the answers but we know how to find them!” But it can be difficult to say, “Come see me talk about and demonstrate robotics!” when you have little to no training or experience on the subject… hence Baek’s use of the term “accidental STEM librarian”. Many STEM librarians I know suggest that when you run into something you don’t know the answer to admit to it and work with the patron to figure it out. This is a great example to children of curiosity and critical thinking which is exactly the point of providing STEM programming. But that can only get you so far… does it get us far enough?

Getting past the anxieties mentioned above takes a real interest in the topic. Someone who doesn’t have an interest or curiosity should not be dictated to run a STEM program. That means that if a public library is going to offer STEM programming, it will end up being driven by someone who has experience or an interest. If no one on staff has that interest, will the library simply not offer this to their community? It is pretty standard for public libraries to offer a storytime. It isn’t really an optional part of being a youth services librarian. At what point will STEM programming be as standard as storytime? And how will our education change to drive that?

There are many gaps in LIS education. You aren’t taught how to do a storytime even though, if you are a youth services librarian, it is a big and very public part of your job. If we were to try to educate ourselves on all of the possible topics that we have programs on, we would NEVER finish with our formal education. At what point does this need to be talked about in LIS programs?

Baek concludes that we can use typical librarian skills such as the reference interview to boost our confidence to provide this kind of inquiry-based programming.

In one sense STEM is no different than what the library has always done, which is provide learning opportunities that help them fuel new interests, support career development, and engage in lifelong learning. When seen from this broad mission of the public library, providing STEM is just business as usual.