What can public librarians contribute to STEAM instruction, and how can they prepare for this role?

By Amelia Midgett-Nicholson

For many public librarians, the prospect of creating educational and age-appropriate STEAM programming can be intimidating. They may think, “But I’m not a scientist!” or “I don’t have a STEM background!” If you are reading this book and have had similar thoughts, you are not alone. This anxiety is common amongst classroom teachers and librarians who don’t have strong STEM backgrounds. Thankfully, there are strategies, resources, and examples of public librarians who have successfully created and taught STEAM concepts in their libraries, with or without science degrees. In this chapter, we will discuss STEM anxiety, STEM concepts, STEAM for babies and toddlers, and role separation and collaboration.

STEM Anxiety

While STEAM incorporates science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, most of the anxiety surrounding STEAM tends to focus on its STEM components. There are some studies that explore the self-perception and confidence levels of educators with the arts (Hunter-Doniger & Herring, 2017; Leonard & Odutola, 2016), but most of the research surrounding art education and children indicates its powerful ability to alleviate anxiety, instead of induce it (e.g. Carsley & Heath, 2018; Rufo, 2017). As such, this section will focus on the phenomenon of STEM anxiety and the implications of this anxiety for instructors.

What is STEM anxiety? STAR_Net (https://www.starnetlibraries.org/), an organization founded by the National Science Foundation, provides STEM programs, resources, and training for librarians. In 2013, the organization conducted an exploratory study on STEM anxiety in librarians (Baek, 2013). Researchers interviewed eight librarians to find out their perceptions of librarianship and STEM and to discover any evidence of STEM anxiety. Results from this study indicated that there are at least two reasons for STEM anxiety. The first is a natural response to changes in the profession. Any time librarians are tasked with changing technology, changing responsibilities, or changing understandings of what it means to be a librarian, this can produce anxiety. Baek (2013) says, “With new professional duties come gaps in competencies and skills, and this perceived gap with an expectation of professionalism causes anxiety” (p. 7).

The second source of anxiety is an unfamiliarity with STEM as a discipline. Without science backgrounds or STEM degrees, many librarians feel that they are unqualified to facilitate STEM learning. Fear of change and discomfort with STEM as a discipline makes it very challenging for librarians to initiate STEM programming. Baek (2013) posed the question, “How can one engage others in loving science if they themselves don’t know or love science, even fear science themselves?” This essential question highlights how challenging it can be to create programs for a subject area which makes you anxious.

The implications of STEM anxiety extend beyond the librarian teaching STEM concepts; they can impact the success and attitudes of children. Beilock and others (2010) conducted a study on elementary math teachers and students and discovered that female teachers with math anxiety negatively impacted the math achievement of their students, especially female students. Overall, they found that “by the school year’s end, girls who confirmed traditional gender ability roles performed worse than girls who did not and worse than boys more generally. We show that these differences are related to the anxiety these girls’ teachers have about math” (Beilock et al., 2010, p. 1862). The implications of this study are startling when we consider that most public librarians are female. Gaining confidence in math and other STEM domains, and feeling comfortable facilitating learning in these areas, will help all students’ achievement and will help combat traditional gender stereotypes about who is allowed to like STEM or who is supposed to be good at it. Modeling excitement about STEM concepts will positively impact the achievement of students.

Focus on Concepts Instead of Facts

The first step towards tackling this anxiety is to approach STEM instruction by focusing on STEM concepts, not discipline-specific knowledge. The components of STEM are individual subjects, but Krakower and Martin (2018) describe the philosophy of STEM as “integrating these subjects in meaningful ways instead of teaching them in isolated classes. STEM is a way of showing students how these core topics are interconnected to each other in the real world” (p. 2). Teaching STEM in an interconnected and interdisciplinary way means that introducing foundational concepts, not discipline-specific content, is the most crucial aspect of instruction. This is good news! We can easily learn the foundations of STEM learning without needing an in-depth background in science, technology, engineering, or math.

What are core STEM concepts? There is no definitive list, but many are repeated throughout the literature, specifically from early childhood experts. They include:

  • problem-solving,
  • inquiry-based learning,
  • experimentation,
  • critical thinking,
  • persistence,
  • curiosity,
  • observation, and
  • cooperation (Dejonckheere et al., 2016; McClure et al., 2017; Tippett and Milford, 2017).

We can all relate to the concepts discussed above, regardless of academic discipline. And in fact, concepts like these are already a core part of what public librarians teach. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has developed a set of “basic learning outcomes” that enumerate the skills that tweens and teens can develop in the public library. Many of these learning outcomes overlap neatly with those identified as core STEM concepts.These goals include:

Teens are able to…

  • think flexibly.
  • innovate.
  • experiment, prototype, and test ideas.
  • demonstrate curiosity.
  • show perseverance and work well under pressure. (YALSA, 2017).
See the full list of YALSA learning outcomes online at http://bit.ly/2mg1x9U.

Asking questions, observing the world around you, learning how to play and work with others—these are practices and skills which we are already teaching in our libraries. When we reframe the way that we view STEM, going from a rigid set of disciplines to a loose connection of concepts, we will be more open to introducing STEM into our libraries.

It’s OK to Fail!

No one likes to fail, and evidence suggests that fear of failure may play a role in STEM avoidance behaviors, especially among women and those from marginalized racial groups (Dweck, 2006; Shapiro & Williams, 2012; Zeldin & Pajares, 2000). Yet. a recent study of STEM professionals found that the vast majority of respondents view failure as necessary for growth and professional improvement (Simpson & Maltese, 2017). As one participant noted, “failure is inseparable from learning. Not only do I think you can’t learn without failure, but failure is also a fantastic way to go about learning” (p. 228).

Failure is, in fact, written into the concept of experimentation and the engineering design process. If every idea worked out perfectly the first time, there would be no need to create prototypes or models, no need to go through multiple rounds of designing and testing, and no need to reflect on our progress as we work. In reality, all of these processes are normal and expected in STEM work, because a fundamental assumption of this domain is that things won’t always work out the way we hope or plan.

Understanding the important role that failure plays in STEM can remove some of the mystique from this field and help us understand that it’s okay if we don’t succeed right away with our own STEM initiatives. Explicitly talking about the positive side of failure with children and teens and modeling healthy responses to failure for them are also important, and may help to combat some of the fear that causes some young people to avoid STEM. One way that we can highlight the importance of failure for our children and teens by facilitating STEM learning experiences in which failure – or at least, temporary setbacks – are a key part of the experience. For an example of such a program, read about the Disaster Island LEGO Challenge developed by Milwaukee children’s librarian Peter Blenski online at http://bit.ly/2kHHReX.

STEAM for Babies and Toddlers

If STEM still seems intimidating to you, then think about how naturally it comes to babies and toddlers! Research has shown that “very young children are much more capable of learning about STEM concepts and practices than originally thought” (McClure, 2017, p. 14). This is most evident when we observe young children at play. McClure et al. (2017) says,

Children actively explore and investigate the world using all their senses from the moment they are born. As toddlers and preschoolers they exhibit many of the characteristics of young scientists and engineers in their play, including an almost insatiable desire to take things apart, figure out how they work, and put them back together (p. 12).

Every baby knows the scientific method!

Art by Tiffany Ard.

A baby drops a spoon from a high-chair to test a hypothesis about gravity; a toddler stacks blocks into a tall tower to learn how shape affects strength; a young child mixes paint on a canvas to experiment with color. In all of these examples, STEAM is present.

Research has shown that the earlier you can expose children to STEM, the better. In fact, “appropriate STEM experiences in early childhood can be starting points for supporting children’s continued successes in STEM at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels” (Tippett and Milford, 2017, p. S68). So how do babies and young children learn about STEM when they are not yet old enough for school? When they are too young to read? As informal learning spaces, libraries can bridge this gap and give children, and their parents, the tools they need to encourage their child’s natural curiosity about the world.

STEM Playtimes

building blocksFor the last 6 years, Emily Dagg from the Everett Public Library (https://www.epls.org/) has been running STEM Playtimes for babies and toddlers (Dagg, 2014). To design her program, Dagg started with a community assessment. She surveyed and conducted focus group interviews with parents of young children in her community. What she discovered surprised her: More than anything, families of young children wanted to get out of the house and go to programs at the library. They were interested in STEM for babies, certainly, but they wanted to participate in activities at the library. Thus, STEM Playtimes began.From day one, STEM Playtimes were successful. Without any advertising beyond putting the event on their calendar, they had 40 families attend their first session. When they are busy, they can see upwards of 60 families. These drop-in sessions, where families can come and go when they want, are intended to be a safe place for babies and toddlers to experiment and play. Each playtime has a theme. Some family favorites are Construction Destruction and Ramp and Roll. One librarian is at the entrance to the room, explaining the week’s theme and giving parents a handout. At STEM Playtimes, there are three core guidelines: “Take the child’s lead,” “narrate playtime,” and “play together.” Another library staff member floats around the space answering questions and modelling positive play when needed. Beyond that, everyone follows the lead of the babies as they play and experiment with the toys and activities in the room.

A grant from Thrive Washington (https://thrivewa.org/) allowed Dagg to purchase more than $10,000 worth of toys. Figuring out which toys worked, and which didn’t, took some trial and error. Dagg had to consider safety, durability, flexibility, cost, and, of course, how those toys contributed to STEM learning. This was a challenge. Most of the toys that the library had before were geared towards older children, so Dagg had to learn quickly which toys would work for this age group.

It was very important to educate parents and library staff about the STEM learning inherent in baby playtime. Not all parents were on board for STEM for babies and toddlers when they first started these programs. Dagg put up large poster boards with the questions: “What do you think about math for babies?” and “what do you think about finance for babies?” Parents wrote their responses on sticky notes and not all reactions were positive. Many parents said things like, “Let babies be babies!” and “they’re gonna grow up soon enough!” For Dagg, these sentiments echoed a common misconception that STEM for babies and toddlers meant flashcards or memorization. To her, it meant play.

To educate her community about STEM concepts in playtime, Dagg and her staff employed a modified version of the Every Child Ready to Read tool. Dagg said, “The key was intentionality, to say why you’re doing the things that you’re doing.” Just as librarians narrate storytime to teach parents about infant and toddler brain development, Dagg did that with STEM Playtime. Many parents did not realize how much their babies were learning while playing, and by narrating playtime, librarians helped ignite a spark of understanding.

While Dagg has always been a big supporter of STEM programming in public libraries, she recognizes that there is some hesitancy for many librarians to start these programs. “We aren’t scientists,” many librarians say. To that, Dagg says, “Librarians are information scientists with science degrees.” And, more essentially, STEM has always been, and always will be, a part of libraries. Librarians are here to help grow smart kids, in all disciplines. Reading itself is a tool that we use to learn about STEM.


Preschool-age children can also benefit from informal and non-formal STEM instruction of the type that might be offered in a public library setting. The importance of inquiry for STEM was the focus of Dejonckheere et al.’s (2016) study of preschoolers in Belgium. Over the course of seven weeks, students were presented with 15 different STEM activities, all of which required some experimentation and questioning. Half of the students were not given further help beyond the initial introduction to the activity, while the other half received question-based interventions from the teachers in the classroom. The teachers asked questions like, “Do large objects always float?” and “Can you find out which object will roll the fastest?” (Dejonckheere et al., 2016, p. 546-7) The results of this study indicated that “the didactics resulted in a substantial gain at the level of formal scientific reasoning and that the inquiry skills of the children increased to a higher level of exploratory behaviour” (Dejonckheere et al., 2016, p. 552). Giving young children the chance to explore STEM activities, and then asking probing questions to guide their scientific reasoning, is an excellent way to encourage the inquiry-based learning that is so crucial for STEM fields.

Role Separation and Collaboration

Public librarians are not expected to be STEM content experts. The same holds true for academic and school librarians. We are experts in information literacy, not specific disciplines. The different skills and expertise that librarians and content experts bring to the table means that they are particularly well suited for collaboration. Schrage (1995) defines collaboration as “an act of shared creation and/or shared discovery” (p. 4). This definition sits well with STEAM because so much of the teaching and learning that takes place is based on discovery and experimentation.

There are many examples of successful collaborations between content experts and public librarians. Overbey et al. (2018) described two collaborative STEM programs between public librarians and universities in Ohio: The Mean Green Science Machine (http://bit.ly/2moiQ8Z) and The Ohio State University Science Café (http://bit.ly/2mjz576). The Mean Green Science Machine was a collaboration between the Cleveland Public Library, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Case Western Reserve University, and The Ohio State University (OSU) Extension. The program originated at the Cleveland Public Library as “a grassroots STEM program for urban youth” (Overbey et al., 2018, p. 27). Librarians reached out to scientists at local universities and science teachers at the local school district to collaboratively develop STEM programming. The Ohio State University Science Café was a collaboration between OSU and Worthington Libraries. The program originated as a series of science talks on the OSU campus and morphed into a summer children’s program hosted at Worthington Libraries. Overbey et al. (2018) summarized the collaborative strategy of the program:

By combining resources and expertise with the Worthington Libraries, the OSU Science Café is able to reach a much larger audience of children than when they tried it on their own. Worthington Libraries not only benefits from the expertise of the OSU Science Café speakers but also from having a high-quality program that does not affect their Summer Reading Club budget. (p. 31)

Overbey et al. (2018) offered two examples of successful collaborations between public librarians and content experts to provide STEAM programming in the public library. Public librarians all over the country can use similar collaborative strategies to create STEAM programs in their libraries. As Schrage (1995) says, “Why collaboration now? Not only because we don’t really have a choice‒–but because it’s the best choice we’ve got” ( p. 5).


As we have learned, not only can public librarians play a role in STEAM instruction, but they should. Librarians can confront their STEM anxiety, focus on core STEM concepts, collaborate with content experts, and learn from others in the field. Doing all of this will lead to many more examples of successful STEAM instruction in the public library.


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