Recently, I had the pleasure of leading an Electric Art class at a local library. As students sewed circuits using conductive thread, LED lights and batteries, we discussed how electricity works, why we needed to identify and correctly align the anode and cathode pins, and the other various scientific principles in play. After the class, the hosting staff member, seemingly surprised at this level of discourse, looked at me a bit agape and said, “Wait, you’re a librarian?” Yep. I know, weird, right?
But, it isn’t really. Many of us in the library world have been inundated with Makerspace mania, digital media labs, STEM/STEAM programs and on and on. Often libraries are bringing in content experts to help educate the public on how to use equipment, but just as often, librarians are leading the charge with maker programs. In fact, since going into the wild as an independent library educator for hire, it’s been intriguing how individual libraries draw the line between what is and is not “librarian work”. Some libraries are even hiring librarians and library assistants in part because of their skills and interests with potential for programming. Applicants who knit, play guitar, are certified yoga instructors might gain a leg up on competition if, in addition to reference and readers advisory skills, they’re able and willing to teach others about their hobbies.
Most libraries aren’t going to this extreme, but the definition of “library work” has been in contention as long as I’ve been in the profession. In my first few years in public libraries there were almost daily lamentations from librarians who did not feel that helping folks use computers should really be their responsibility unless it was to access a database or do “serious reference”. Now, that sentiment is rarely if ever heard from library staff, and constituents consider the library synonymous with computer support. When clients now ask about how in the world I learned all of this technology stuff, mentioning my history as a librarian always seems to be interpreted as more than sufficient qualification.
So, does the next evolution of librarian-ing include science?
Yes…and no. The thing about libraries is that we often try to be everything to everyone because librarians can help customers find information about anything and will help anyone. The problem is that there’s just too much to do, too much to know, and it’s one thing to be able to research anything and another to be able to educate on everything. Depending on the staffing structure and objectives of your library, it may just not be practical for you as a librarian to take on leading science, technology, engineering, art or math (STEAM) classes. If that’s the case, you can just hire me, call it a day, and skip to the end of this article. Otherwise, keep reading…
Whether in a dedicated space or not, making has become one of the trendiest topics for libraries to explore. As with all trends, it can be dangerous to dive in without considering the big picture. What are the objectives your library hopes to reach through maker learning? (Hint: If it’s to get into Library Journal, that ship has sailed, and you should probably rethink your priorities.) Is it about changing the community perception of the library from a book warehouse to a learning center? Is it to support an already curious community? Is it to build entrepreneurism? Is it to give youth a chance to problem solve and think critically doing something hands-on? If your answer includes the actual learning happening when folks are making, and they’re doing any making that involves electricity, then science is likely to be a crucial part.
Here’s where things get interesting. Youth librarians in particular are accustomed to creating and leading programs that are topically themed. Holiday craft programs, “people in my neighborhood” storytimes, big truck days, and International Games Day are events that sort of celebrate a topic without typically digging to deeply into learning about it. That’s fine, but if we’re promising stakeholders such as funders and community members that we’re going to increase STEAM skills, than we must move beyond STEAM themed events and into rich, participatory learning.
Librarians have more experience with this than we might think, but we tend to focus on arts and humanities content. Children’s librarians educate parents on building early literacy skills in active storytimes. In teen and adult book discussions and writing clubs librarians provide guidance and help participants collaboratively educate each other. One thing that all of these examples have in common is that they are learning and experience focused rather than output oriented. Our main goal (or outcome) to achieve in storytime is empowering parents to help their children become readers, not to produce a group of children who perfectly perform the Itsy Bitsy Spider. We need to approach STEAM the same way.
It’s about how to think.
When my library comrade was trying to wrap her head around a librarian who scienced, she had a sudden thought, “Wait, what was your undergraduate degree?”
Are you wondering too? You might be surprised. “Art…um, specifically sculpture.”
How, what, why? An art-making librarian who teaches… STEAM? Yup. Here’s what’s really going to blow your mind, I learned more about science, technology, engineering and math while trying to create art than I did in most of my traditional academic classes. When people think of sculpture, they tend to think Rodin style figures carved in marble, but modern sculpture is really just about 3D creation, and at the time when I was in art school, we were just beginning to explore digital projection and interfaces with technology. To create any given piece I might have to research and create electrical circuitry, calculate ratios, and engineer a structurally sound object, all while also considering the aesthetic components. Professors, grad assistants and peers all contributed to this learning either by direct guidance, referrals or collaboration. Fellow STEAM majors in the dorm loved to brainstorm because we all shared the love of the process… getting ideas, researching, testing, reworking. These are fields that are constantly evolving because those in them are forever learning and improving.
This is EXACTLY what the maker movement and connected learning is all about. Students who create are driven to learn. We lead classes to provide them with the introductory tools and understandings, and then help them take it to the next level through research and information literacy skills. Most librarians are comfortable with the later part, but in order to get students to the point at which they are asking self driven questions to research, we need to help them build more robust background knowledge and critical thinking skills.
Consider the difference between a craft program and an art class. Traditionally, libraries have led craft programs in which students, possibly with parent guidance, try to recreate the librarian-produced example. This is similar to the renaissance studio approach in which an apprentice would recreate master works repeatedly. This approach led to perfection of existing techniques, but it crushed innovation. In an art class, students may be instructed in a technique in order to gain foundational skills, but they are encouraged to use that technique in an original work or better yet, expand on that technique in an original way. This approach leads to new discovery, ownership of projects, and creative spirit. The renaissance studio approach leads to the output of perfectly executed reproductions. The art class approach leads to the outcome of more educated, creative and innovative students.
When we lead STEAM classes at the library, we need to consider this difference between project-based learning that is outcome focused instead of output focused.
When we have students do an “experiment” are we using the scientific process to hypothesize, test and evaluate, or are we just dropping some vinegar into baking soda and watching it foam? Did students get an opportunity to make informed predictions? Do they understand why they were correct or not? Will they be able to transfer this knowledge to grow future understandings?
When we teach a coding class, are we having students regurgitate code from an instruction sheet, or are we problem-solving as a group based on some foundational principles? Would students be able to customize their games independently based on what they learned?
Obviously, students attending the Electric Art: Powered Pins class would be disappointed to leave with a pin that didn’t actually light up, so we need to consider the resultant product, but if we want them to learn in such a way that they can continue to create, the focus needs to be on why the circuit works or doesn’t and how to troubleshoot it. When I lead LEGO® WeDo® robotics classes for 7-10 year-olds, it is always so tempting to jump right into showing the students the instructional videos so they can create a cool animatronic animal. I know it’s exciting, and their little faces will light up when their robot alligators snap their jaws. But as fun as those moments are, I would be doing them a disservice to skip past the content leading to the prize. All of these robots are constructed using basic science and engineering concepts, and the goal is really for the students to begin to understand these concepts enough so that they can create their own models, rather than just recreate the example. So, we spend time exploring gears, axles, pulleys, belts, forces and beams before we put them all together into a larger project. This process always leads to greater success when they are subsequently challenged to design a robotic animal from scratch. After all, this is the whole point. If we want to create creators, then we need to give them the tools.
Classes like Electric Art and robotics use project based learning to introduce and explore broader concepts. The outputs might be glowing badges or dancing robots, but the outcome is students who have the tools and drive to continue to create and learn. The key to achieving that outcome is finding a balance between building foundational knowledge and opportunities for individual exploration. BOTH components must be present. If as a profession we are truly dedicated to creating makers, than we need to be ready to bone up on science, technology, engineering, art, math and pedagogy. We must be informed and inspired educators, or we need to bring in those that are.