By Megan Boland and Lauren Wise

In 2002, Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, spoke at a TED conference about her experiences throughout her career and the intersection of the sciences and the arts. As both a scientist and a dancer, Jemison addressed the perception that science and art are distinct from one another. She stated, “The sciences, to me, are manifestations of our attempt to express or share our understanding, our experience, to influence the universe external to ourselves. It doesn’t rely on us as individuals. It’s the universe, as experienced by everyone. The arts manifest our desire, our attempt to share or influence others through experiences that are peculiar to us as individuals,” (2002). Similarly to Jemison’s prescient 2002 TEDTalk, this book also explores how the sciences and the arts are not binaries, at odds with one another; rather, they work alongside one and with one another. 

Jemison’s TEDTalk addressed many of the concerns traditionalists may have with incorporating arts with the sciences. While Jemison stands as an example of how the sciences and the arts can work together, she also stands as an example of a woman of color who broke barriers. Underrepresented groups including women, people of color, and patrons from low socioeconomic backgrounds may encounter a variety of barriers and obstacles in pursuing an interest in STEM career paths. Public libraries, as part of their foundational values and unique space within the field of education, are part of the process of educating and engaging young patrons in various ways—including STEAM. This chapter will explore how public libraries, through STEAM programming and instruction, can help promote and strive for equity, access, and diversity in STEAM—so more people of all genders and races can join Jemison in the stars. 

Setting the Context

Despite decades of effort to increase interest, participation, and attainment in STEM education, certain population groups remain underrepresented in these fields. These inequities are predominantly seen across race/ethnicity and gender. While the “gaps” have narrowed some in recent years with increased involvement in related degrees and occupations, they are still present and still wide. Note that although this book as a whole focuses on STEAM rather than STEM, the vast majority of equity-related research in this area centers on STEM, and especially on science and engineering, so these will comprise the bulk of our discussion below. 


According to the National Science Foundation (2020), there are three racial/ethnic groups considered to be underrepresented in Science and Engineering (S&E) relative to their proportions in the U.S. college-age population: Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives. Although together these groups comprise 28% of the national population, they hold only 13% of S&E jobs (NSF, 2020). These same groups are also underrepresented in S&E higher education programs. For example, while Blacks made up 13.2% of the U.S. population in 2017, they made up only 9% of S&E bachelor’s degree recipients that year, and 7.7% of S&E doctoral degree recipients (NSF, 2020). 

In addition to being underrepresented in S&E fields, people in these three groups are also paid less than their white and Asian counterparts. The National Science Foundation (2019) reported that although the overall median S&E salary was $80,000 in 2017, the median salary for American Indian or Alaska Native workers was $67,000, while for Hispanics it was $65,000 and for Blacks it was $56,000. Some of this gap might be explained by the fact that the share of underrepresented minorities in S&E fields has increased in recent years, meaning that people from these groups are likely to have fewer years of experience on average than their white and Asian peers. However, even when controlling for experience, education, and field of employment, “S&E highest degree holders in [underrepresented] racial and ethnic groups working full time earn 10% and 5% less at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels, respectively” (NSF, 2019, “Salary Differences for Women and Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” para. 3). 


While a broad definition of STEM fields that includes healthcare presents a more equitable gender representation, the fields of technology, engineering, and computer science show there is still a severe lack of representation for both women and people of color (Funk & Parker, 2018). Improvements have been made over time, however men still outnumber women among S&E degree holders at all levels. This gap is unevenly spread across S&E domains, with women holding the majority of degrees in some fields, but a small minority in others: 

Since 2000, women’s overall share of S&E bachelor’s degrees has remained at about half, although the trend over time varies across fields. In computer sciences and mathematics and statistics, the number of women earning bachelor’s degrees increased during this interval; the number of men, however, grew at a faster rate than the number of women, resulting in an overall decline in women’s share from 28% to 19% in computer sciences and from 48% to 42% in mathematics and statistics. (NSF, 2020). 

This variation is also pronounced in the workforce, with women occupying more jobs in the life and social sciences and fewer in computer science, engineering, and mathematics. Although the number of women in STEM jobs has risen 40% over the past twenty years, they still only occupy 29% of total STEM jobs in the U.S. (NSF, 2020). As with underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, women are also paid less than their male counterparts in the S&E workforce (NSF, 2019). In 2017, the median overall salary for S&E workers was $80,000, however males earned a median of $90,000 while females earned only $60,000. As discussed in the previous section, the effects of experience and subfield lesen, but do not entirely explain, this gap: 

Controlling for the effects of differences in field of highest degree, degree-granting institution, field of occupation, employment sector, and experience,​ the estimated salary difference between men and women narrows by more than half relative to the total difference in full-time salary. However, after controlling for these effects, a salary differential remains. Women earn 9% less than men among S&E highest degree holders at the bachelor’s or doctoral level and 10% less at the master’s level. (NSF, 2019, “Salary Differences for Women and Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” para. 3)

Socioeconomic Status

The statistics about these underrepresented groups look even more bleak when combined with other demographics, such as socioeconomic status. ACT’s 2017 report STEM Education in the U.S. found that “on average, first-generation college students who are from a racial/ethnic minority group and a low-income family are sixteen times less likely to be ready for credit-bearing STEM coursework in college than the group of students who are not considered underserved” (ACT, 2017, p. 11). Socioeconomic gaps in science achievement appear as early as elementary school (Betancur, Votruba-Drzal, & Schunn, 2018). Longitudinal studies have found that “higher family SES compensates for negative predictors of STEM enrollment, such as gender and race,” while lower family SES strengthens gender and race disadvantages (Niu, 2017, p. 298). 

The Leaky Pipeline

Despite general improvements in STEM achievement across all groups on national tests (NSF, 2020), participation in STEM wanes as students move through the educational pipeline, contributing to the gaps described above in higher educational attainment and employment. The metaphor of an “educational pipeline” is used to represent how a student navigates through preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, postsecondary and into the workforce. Although many policy initiatives and reform efforts are aimed at creating seamless transitions, these junctures behave like cracks through which students drop out, either voluntarily or because they are forced to. In this way, one may hear the pipeline commonly described as “leaky,” especially when it comes to retention in STEM. Unfortunately, as noted, research has shown that certain populations leak out more than others. The effect of this differential leaking creates the imbalances seen in the STEM fields today.

As we consider equity in STEM, we must also acknowledge the intersectional effects of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and other elements of identity such as sexual orientation or religion. While we have discussed some of these issues individually above, we must remain aware that these identities and systems interact and may compound each other. The best solutions to address the “leaky pipeline” will be intersectional ones that acknowledge this reality (Liu, Brown, & Sabat, 2019). 

Bridging the Gaps: Why is it Important?

One would hope everyone can recognize the importance of closing these gaps from the philosophical and moral perspective of promoting well-being for all. But the narrative surrounding the push for improved STEM and STEAM education appears to be a primarily economical one, as educational attainment is viewed as capital. In general, “high levels of attainment are related to higher incomes for individuals and thus to tax revenues and economic activity” (Ewell et al., n.d., p. 1). The average wage for STEM jobs ($87,570) is nearly double the national average for non-STEM ($45,700); however, 99% of STEM jobs require some type of postsecondary education for entry, compared with 36% of overall employment (Fayer et al., 2017, p. 6 & 13).

The need to improve educational attainment in STEM, specifically, is becoming a priority as demanded by the labor market. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed above average growth in STEM occupations between 2009-2015 (10.5% versus 5.2% in non-STEM) and is projected to continue rising (Fayer et al, 2017, p. 7). This growth has garnered attention from the U.S. government not only for boosting the domestic economy and quality of life for citizens, but for maintaining international competitiveness. Comparing student assessment results from 2015 across 71 countries, the U.S. ranks low at 38th in math and 24th in science (DeSilver, 2017). A STEAM literate populace is necessary for regaining a global competitive advantage.

The inequities in STEAM “threaten the nation’s ability to close education and poverty gaps, meet the demands of a technology-driven economy, ensure national security, and maintain preeminence in scientific research and technological innovation” (U.S. Department of Education, 2016, p. i). While there are many national and state efforts to promote STEAM education in schools, there are other players who share the instructional space that are contributing to the cause: public libraries.

Beyond its utility for obtaining a high-paying job, STEAM literacy is also valuable in terms of helping individuals understand and respond to challenges facing themselves, their communities, and the world. Critical scholars of education such as Paolo Friere and Henry Giroux assert that teaching is a “political and moral practice that provides the knowledge, skills, and social relations that enable students to explore the possibilities of what it means to be critical citizens while expanding and deepening their participation in the promise of a substantive democracy” (Giroux, 2010, p. 716). This view is one of the central tenets of “critical pedagogy,” a social justice centered approach to teaching and learning that esteems education not for its value to corporate or governmental entities but instead for its value in awakening the critical consciousness of learners, allowing them to act upon the world in ways that lead toward equity and inclusion. In other words, education is power, and it is our job as educators to make sure that power is being distributed equitably. 

Social Justice in Public Libraries

When discussing STEAM programming in libraries from a social justice perspective, some may at first wonder what role libraries have to play in diminishing this “leaky pipeline” effect. Is it really libraries’ place to actively address and confront the inequity in access for a specific career field? 

Public libraries occupy a unique space within the framework of education and library institutions. Generally speaking, public libraries are open to all community members; one does not have to reside within a certain school district’s boundaries to access the resources and programs a public library has to offer. STEAM instruction in a public library therefore has the potential to reach a wide range of learners—some of whom may not be receiving the same access to resources in their own schools. Public libraries can therefore attempt to help “even the playing field,” so to speak, in regards to access to programs, information, and resources. Furthermore, there are no set instructional standards public librarians must reach with their curriculum. This flexibility allows public librarians to be creative and innovative in developing STEAM programming and instruction that would best serve the needs of their specific community. Patrons at a public library are not being graded for their efforts; they do not have to fear what happens if they get a question wrong or make a mistake. They are free to explore STEAM topics without the pressure of a graded academic environment. 

ALA Core Values & Role of Instruction at Public Libraries

Indeed, addressing inequity in the world and in STEM is not merely a tangentially related topic for public librarians. Rather, public libraries are tasked with helping address inequity in regards to access, diversity, and much more. The American Library Association’s (ALA) core values form the foundation of the library and information science fields. These core values therefore apply not only to school librarians, or academic librarians working at a four-year institution; they also apply to public librarians. The following core values are particularly relevant and applicable when considering social justice in public libraries: 

  • Access
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • The Public Good
  • Social Responsibility

More specific to public library staff working with children and teens, the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) emphasizes diversity and inclusion throughout its competencies framework document for librarians serving children in public libraries. For example, under the first competency domain (Commitment to Client Group), ALSC states that a competent librarian: 

  • Demonstrates respect for diversity and inclusion of cultural values, and continually develops cultural awareness and understanding of self and others;
  • Recognizes racism, ethnocentrism, classism, heterosexism, genderism, ableism, and other systems of discrimination and exclusion in the community and its institutions, including the library, and interrupts them by way of culturally competent services;
  • Recognizes the effects of societal factors, new knowledge and tools, income inequality, health and food insecurity, etc., on the needs of children; and
  • Cultivates an environment for enjoyable and convenient use of library resources, specifically removing barriers to access presented by socioeconomic circumstances, culture, privilege, language, gender, ability, and other diversities (ALSC, 2015, “Commitment to Client Group”). 

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) also recommends Core Professional Values that should be incorporated into practice, two of which directly relate to social justice: inclusion and social responsibility (ALA, 2015). These values are meant to inform all of our practice as library staff, meaning that to the extent we offer STEAM resources and programming at all, equity and inclusion concerns should be a core part of those offerings. 

As the research described above discovered, there is still inequity both in the number of underrepresented groups in STEM fields as well as in the treatment of those groups once they reach the workforce. As ALA describes the value of social responsibility, 

The broad social responsibilities of the American Library Association are defined in terms of the contribution that librarianship can make in ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem. (“Core Values of Librarianship”, 2006)

Therefore, for librarians working in any sector or type of library institution, social justice is not relegated to only one component of their work. Rather, social justice is intricately intertwined with every aspect of this field. As ALA’s core values show, social justice and social responsibility form the foundation of the library science field, and therefore should be reflected and considered in every aspect of the work—including libraries’ promotion of equity and diversity in STEAM programs and STEM fields. 

Spotlight: The Maker Movement in Public Libraries

“The maker movement in libraries is about teaching patrons to think for themselves, to think creatively, and to look for do-it-yourself solutions before running off to the store. In short, a makerspace is a place where people come together to create with technology” (Bagley, 2012). As such, makerspaces are becoming a popular venue for delivering STEAM programming in public libraries. They can cultivate an interest in STEAM topics through play while simultaneously empowering youth through peer-to-peer learning that organically develops in these informal spaces (Britton, 2012). 

Makerspaces can look different depending on the public library’s resource availability and audiences; there is no one right way to configure them, but there are some exemplary models, such as the MakerLab at the Durham County Public Libraries in Durham, North Carolina. The MakerLab is promoted as a “hybrid, creative space—think art studio meets technology meets community learning lab. The lab works to connect the community with new and emerging technologies while encouraging creative and artistic discovery” (Clobridge, 2016). Its goal is to create broad access across the community to STEAM opportunities, and it originated as a result of observation and commitment to community needs and wants. “Watching those students transition from consumer to creator of content was so powerful,” stated Faith Burns, the Interim Manager of the Main Library. 

The Main Library branch is currently undergoing renovation and, due to demand, the new space will have two MakerLabs: one for adults and one for youth. They will offer access to technology such as 3D printers, Cubelets, and BeeBots, programs, and space/time for self- discovery. Their current programs vary from designing clothes to making rain gardens in bottles to engineering with LEGO. When determining instructional topics, Burns says they look to the teens for input. This ensures the programming is of interest and relevant to them. They are also careful to consider and work around barriers to teens that may prevent or limit their participation, such as scheduling and transportation. “We are very cognizant of their needs and the best ways to provide access,” states Burns.

In addition to offering librarian-led programs, they often partner with community members who are experts in STEAM fields to lead workshops. This allows teens to learn personally about what it is like to have a career in STEAM and grow their network of connections. The MakerLab serves as a space to bring diverse groups of people together and foster mentorships. Burns also recognizes the importance of these experts having different backgrounds for the purposes of relatability. This provides exposure and opens a world of careers, ideas, and opportunities that may not have been previously considered within reach. “The empowerment piece is so important for STEAM in libraries.”

Potential Barriers

Authors and librarians Cherie P. Pandora and Kathy Fredrick (2017) identified some of the barriers library science professionals must remove in order to help encourage women and people of color to pursue opportunities in STEM. The obstacles they identified included adult perceptions, geography, and vocabulary, and they discussed some of the ways public librarians could help address these barriers. In regards to geography, Pandora and Fredrick recommended librarians utilize Skype and other video-conferencing applications to bring in experts and other scientific role models. Even if you are not near major research hubs, through technology it may still be possible for librarians to help facilitate access to these experts. From a social justice perspective, letting young girls and students of color see people who look like them succeeding and thriving in STEM fields may help them envision themselves that way as well. As for adult perceptions, Pandora and Fredrick acknowledged that parent perceptions may impact students’ access to library STEAM programming. A recommendation could then be to incorporate parents into the STEAM programs aimed at children and make them part of the process and program. If a student’s entire community, including their family, friends, and instructors, believe in their pursuit of a STEM degree/career, that can make a huge difference in diminishing the “leaky pipeline” effect. 

Another challenge that Pandora and Fredrick identified was the vocabulary used to describe STEM programming, which might sometimes be overly technical or dry. Pandora and Fredrick write, “We need to put a positive spin on these courses and make them sound desirable, doable, and intriguing” (Pandora and Fredrick, 2017, p. 45). A public library located in Concord, Massachusetts, was able to present STEAM programming to their patrons that met the above criteria of desirable, doable, and intriguing. 

Spotlight: STEAM Programming 

At the Concord Free Public Library in Concord, Massachusetts, magical gardens were popping up across the library grounds. While a casual passerby may have wondered how fairies and superheroes had made their way into tiny pots, the young patrons of the library knew. While this may sound like a picture book, or a juvenile fantasy novel, children’s librarians and staff members Fayth Chamberland and Fiona Stevenson made these “secret gardens” a reality. Chamberland and Stevenson were instrumental in developing a “Secret Garden” summer program at the Concord Free Public Library. This “Secret Garden” summer program featured a wide range of activities, inspired by Frances Hodges Burnett’s classic novel The Secret Garden. This program was funded by the Full STEAM Ahead Grant, which was awarded to CFPL by the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences. 

Both Chamberland and Stevenson noted that creating engaging and interactive STEAM programs was essential. Programming that is fun and appealing to children will encourage them to continue to explore libraries as a whole, as well as explore STEAM topics specifically. Chamberland is motivated in ensuring that the Concord Free Public Library’s youth programs, including their “Secret Garden” Program, are rooted in providing fun and engaging experiences for all of their patrons. 

Chamberland says that Concord Free Public Library’s STEAM programs are centered around being “very play-oriented, creativity, imagination, make-believe. It’s something they don’t get a chance to do too much. They don’t get a lot of that social play through things like STEAM that are just fun and hands-on- and then they want to come back.” Showing that STEAM programs can be enjoyable and open to all helps diminish the vocabulary obstacle described by Pandora and Fredrick above. Public libraries and engaging STEAM programming, like the Concord Free Public Library, can help show lower the “intimidation” factor of STEM; this can also then help address the “leaky pipeline’ for girls and students of color for STEM fields. 

Chamberland’s advice for librarians considering implementing a similar STEAM program? Ensure that you have your library director’s support, as well as staff member support. Stevenson also recommended that librarians recognize if a certain area of STEAM programming is not in their expertise, and to not be afraid to reach out for support and ideas from fellow librarians and resources. Therefore, even as public librarians themselves may not be fully comfortable with the sciences themselves, there are a multitude of resources available, both online and in-person. As we discuss throughout this chapter the importance of STEAM programming and instruction in public libraries from a social justice perspective, Chamberland and Stevenson’s innovative programming can inspire public librarians from all over the country to create programming that is “desirable, doable, and intriguing”.  

Additional Resources Spotlight

There are a great number of helpful resources available for public librarians to consult when developing inclusive STEAM programs and instruction sessions for their patrons. 

  • The Idaho Commission for Libraries (ICfL) compiled a guide of resources for librarians interested in pursuing STEAM programming at their libraries. These include websites like “Role Models Matter”: a website dedicated to resources for girls interested in STEM, as well as a STEAM Multicultural Booklist from Reading Is Fundamental, a non-profit. Access the guide online at
  • The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of ALA developed a STEAM Programming Toolkit for youth librarians. This toolkit, created specifically by a STEM Resources task force, features a multitude of resources for youth services librarians, including but not limited to reports conducted about STEAM, marketing tips for programs, as well as information about makerspaces. One of the reports referenced in the YALSA toolkit is the report “Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” by the Girl Scout Research Institute. This report offers support to girls interested in pursuing a career in STEM. Find it at
  • In American Libraries Magazine, Meredith Farkas wrote an article about STEAM resources with girls and students of color in mind. Aware of the lack of diversity in STEM fields, Farkas considered how to get children excited about both the sciences and the arts. Farkas also recommends some low-cost tools and resources for librarians who may be concerned about the cost of developing a STEAM program. These low-cost options may help increase the ability for public librarians to invest in STEAM programming, and provide greater access to a wider variety of patrons. Read it at


Mae Jemison is undoubtedly a trailblazer; now, the work to support and promote underrepresented groups in STEAM continues for educators and librarians equally. As discussed throughout this chapter, a social justice lens, while applicable to all of the work public librarians do, is particularly relevant when considering STEAM programming and instruction in public libraries. As STEM continues to be a field and a workforce that faces diversity and representation issues, the work to support greater equity and access is not solely for educators from formal institutions.

Public and youth services librarians can help form a foundational and formative interest in STEAM through innovative, engaging, and fun programming and instruction. Furthermore, youth services librarians have the great opportunity to help inspire self-confidence in their young patrons through these programs. Equal opportunity and access is the goal, and public libraries can play a very important role in facilitating the process of achieving equity, diversity, and representation in STEAM. 


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