by Isabel Crevasse & Kristen Stockdale
One of the guiding philosophies of public libraries is to strengthen community ties and foster a sense of connection among the people they serve. Collaboration is a concrete way to bring community members together and combine the strengths of people who might otherwise not have the chance to interact. Collaborations don’t just serve the library or the collaborators; they contribute to building a stronger community through connection. Although leveraging community partnerships might sound transactional, overly businesslike, or even calculated, the reality actually speaks to a collaborative process that is mutually beneficial for public libraries and their community partners.
Public librarians, of course, often want to offer STEAM instruction and programming that they might not be qualified to lead on their own, and they are always seeking to strengthen community ties. Similarly, however, members of the STEAM community and scientific industry want to share their work with communities in a way that is credible, accessible, and fosters enthusiasm for scientific endeavors. These complementary goals and shared interest in collaboration lay a strong foundation for public libraries and STEAM community members to establish fruitful partnerships that further the goals of both groups and ultimately serve to uplift the community as a whole.
Benefits to Collaboration in the Library
Creating relationships with STEAM-related organizations within a community can benefit the library in a number of ways. More practical reasons to collaborate may first come to mind, like saving money and/or pooling resources that may be dwindling, or creating successful programs despite not having area expertise. Opening up a physical space and inviting young patrons to come learn can foster a mutually beneficial relationship that extends beyond STEAM learning.
However, other benefits that might not be as obvious include evaluating whether an initiative has successfully met its goals, increasing knowledge of what is happening inside and out of the library, and learning new ways to implement better teaching (Shortley, 2018, p. 174). As with all successful collaboration, working with someone else whose expertise complements that of a librarian allows the opportunity for new ideas, knowledge transfer, and peer feedback, among other things.
For children and teens, collaboration that takes place in the library can supplement their exposure to STEAM learning outside of their school setting. A study by Amy VanMeter-Adams and colleagues (2014) indicated that a majority of high-performing students are initially attracted to the STEAM field by their extracurricular experiences. With this in mind, library and community based collaborations can create awareness about STEAM to ignite young people’s interests. Once their interest has been sparked, incorporating STEAM subjects into library programs can make programs appealing for teens entering a highly STEAM-driven workforce, or can keep them engaged with STEAM for a future that will be largely STEAM based, even if they choose to not go into a directly related field (States, 2015, p. 106).
The need for interest in the STEAM workforce is ever-increasing, as the challenges seen in today’s society, such as rapidly growing technological advances and climate change, are addressed through the integration of these disciplines (Semmel, 2015, p. 1). Lopez et. al, (2019) stated that
with shortages of math and science teachers in most states, schools struggle to close persistent achievement gaps that exist by race, ethnicity, and gender in STEM subject areas. STEM education disparities are of national concern, because without a diverse and robust STEM workforce, the United States will be unable to meet the demands of our increasingly technology-driven economy, ensure national security, and maintain our global competitiveness in scientific research and innovation. (p. 3)
Beyond shortages of teachers, it is known that women and people of color are underrepresented in STEAM fields (Semmel, 2015, p. 1). Public libraries have a responsibility to serve as a platform for equitable STEAM learning opportunities to take place.
Finally, libraries have the opportunity to connect STEAM learning to both children and their families. In doing so, STEAM becomes more equitable for children, connects formal and informal learning, creates an avenue for youth voice and leadership, and engages parents to learn alongside their children (Lopez, Jacobson, Caspe, & Hanebutt, 2019).
The Rancho Cucamonga Public Library, recipient of a 2018 YALSA Teen Read Week Grant shows us just how fun, engaging, and educational a stellar partnership between public libraries and the STEAM community can be. Their theme—It’s Written in the Stars… READ—allowed them to bring together science fiction, astronomy, and technology through a series of STEAM workshops and programming events. Workers and volunteers from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) hosted a Q&A session, and the Planetary Society led an outdoor stargazing event that combined telescopes and augmented reality applications to create an immersive experience. In case of inclement weather, they also had Google Expedition Virtual Reality headsets prepared. A spaceship modelling program that allowed teens to explore both physical and virtual modelling processes gave teens the chance to explore STEAM in a hands-on, exciting capacity. And, of course, what Teen Read Week would be complete without a little reading? Rancho Cucamonga librarians and staff members came together with their teen patrons for a book club that focused on Philip Reeve’s Railhead, providing an opportunity not just for teens to get into science fiction but for library staff and teen patrons to strengthen their interpersonal bonds.
For more information, please visit http://bit.ly/2WqIRSY.
STEAM Partnership Goals
The STEAM community is actively interested in cultivating strong networks of collaboration to support and uplift communities. Where public libraries seek connection with the STEAM community to better serve their patrons by providing access to expert knowledge and to strengthen community ties, members of the STEAM community are looking to share their knowledge in credible, accessible ways and foster scientific curiosity among the public. At the 2018 Science in the Public Eye Symposium, iSWOOP (Interpreters and Scientists Working on Our Parks) leaders expressed their desire to engage the public with scientific endeavors and advancements, but anxiety about “shoulder[ing] the responsibility for public engagement alone” (Mersen, Allen, & Hristov, 2018, p. 53). Rather than working insularly or in solitude, the STEAM community is seeking partners with complementary skill sets working in public positions who are perceived as trustworthy, communicative, and accountable to public interests.
Though iSWOOP specifically is focused on collaborations between scientists and park rangers, their reasons for choosing park rangers apply to public librarians as well. They assert that park rangers:
don’t benefit financially from their interactions with the public. They do not get ahead by misrepresenting research…. Whereas scientists have an allegiance to data, to their subject, or discipline, [park rangers’] stature and success are inextricably linked to visitors’ experience. If visitors are satisfied, comment positively, and return for more, the [park rangers] are successful. (Mersen, Allen, and Hristov, 2018, p. 54)
Public librarians are similarly positioned within society to garner this exact sort of goodwill from the public, lending the STEAM community the credibility they are seeking. Like park rangers, public librarians are considered successful when they are meeting the needs of their communities and bringing satisfaction to their patrons.
Fortuitously, the primary collaboration goals of the STEAM community as outlined by iSWOOP are to clearly communicate to the public that:
- Science is about questions, finding, and exploring the next question
- Scientific research is full of compelling stories of how we know what we know
- Science is about constant revision; the facts will change
- Science matters when we, collectively, use it to inform decision (Mersen, Allen, and Hristov, 2018).
The view set forth by these assertions of science and STEAM efforts as continuous processes of exploration, critical thought, and growth that ultimately contribute to the formation of an empowered public aligns incredibly well with the goals of public libraries and public library collaboration efforts, setting public libraries and members of the STEAM community up as natural partners.
That iSWOOP makes no mention of public librarians despite such promising potential for collaborative efforts, however, indicates that the lines of communication between public libraries and the STEAM community are perhaps weaker than they should be. Public librarians, being, as a group, perhaps more practiced in public-facing collaborative efforts than members of the STEAM community, must take the initiative to build relationships with the STEAM community and make it clear that they could be valuable partners. In order to begin strengthening these bonds, public librarians should keep in mind the STEAM community’s desired outcomes from collaboration as laid out by iSWOOP:
- Changing perceptions of scientists’ motivations; honesty; warmth;
- Increasing excitement/interest/motivation in STEM;
- Changing sense of efficacy related to science learning;
- Increasing knowledge/awareness;
- Reframing how a person thinks about an issue, influencing policy (Mersen, Allen, & Hristov, 2018).
By keeping these desired outcomes in mind, public librarians can better design their outreach to the STEAM community to generate interest in partnerships. Fortunately, as with previously noted goals, public librarians and the STEAM community share very similar desired outcomes from their ideal partnerships. The desires to generate excitement for STEAM, encourage efficacy, and foster a desire to enact change in the world are particularly strong points of overlap as they point not just to shared goals or interests but to core values held by both groups. By shaping their outreach efforts around these shared interests and values, and by ensuring potential partners are aware of positive perceptions of libraries, public librarians can begin to establish strong, mutually beneficial relationships with STEAM partners.
STEM Learning Ecosystems
One way that public librarians can begin to strengthen these partnerships is by looking into local STEM Learning Ecosystems, if they are not already involved in such efforts. The purpose of STEM Learning Ecosystems is to build “rich, multi-stakeholder environment[s] committed to creating learning opportunities. In addition to providing a variety of opportunities and resources, an ecosystem may be able to overcome limitations that would stifle an individual program” (Baker, 2018, para. 3). Though the range of STEM Learning Ecosystems might sound unhelpfully nonspecific, that breadth is actually the point of the STEM Learning Ecosystem initiative: each ecosystem must be tailored for and by its community to ensure the creation of strong, supportive efforts that are more than the sum of their parts. It is absolutely essential that public libraries integrate themselves with these systems, and, for those located in areas yet to establish their own ecosystem, that they become leaders in forging these community networks. Some of the key goals of the STEM Learning Ecosystems, as delineated by Jan Morrison and William Fisher Jr. at the 2018 Journal of Physics Conference Series, are to:
- Engage young people historically under-represented [sic] in STEM to participate in high-quality, diverse and interconnected STEM learning experiences;
- Design and connect STEM learning opportunities to reflect the reality of young people’s lives….;
- Provide experiences in multiple settings that enable young people to build complex skills, including how to design, test and revise solutions to real-world problems, and to work collaboratively with adults and peers;
- Encourage young people to experience the joy of learning and the rewards of persistence through unhurried opportunities to tinker, experiment, and explore areas of interest….;
- Nurture young people’s… self-perception of competence in STEM….;
- Assess what young people know and are able to do in diverse ways that are understood and respected across settings….;
- Ensure young people have opportunities to meet and build mentoring relationship with STEM professionals from similar backgrounds who serve as role models (Morrison and Fisher Jr, 2018, pp. 2-3, emphasis added).
These goals clearly point to a shared vision between public libraries and the STEM Learning Ecosystem initiative regarding the purpose of collaborative efforts and the role STEAM education and experimentation plays in communities. The interest in “encourag[ing] young people to experience the joy of learning and the rewards of persistence through unhurried opportunities to tinker, experiment, and explore” in particular is remarkably well-suited to public library makerspace programming (Morrison and Fisher Jr., 2018, p. 2). However, even in libraries without makerspaces, many, if not all, public libraries and public library programming aim to provide the opportunity for this sort of low stakes, open exploration. The STEM Learning Ecosystem initiative’s investment in nurturing the sort of enthusiastic curiosity and exploratory attitude that lead to the formation of lifelong learners marks it as a program that offers immense potential for impactful community collaboration; public libraries would be doing their patrons a disservice to refrain from involving themselves in such efforts. Even if the Ecosystem program itself is unsuitable to a particular community, public librarians can tailor its model to suit local needs.
For more information on STEM Learning Ecosystems, please visit https://stemecosystems.org/
The Atlanta Science Festival is an annual two-week event dedicated to “engag[ing] the public in a celebration of [their] local science community and the ways science, technology, engineering and mathematics help us to better understand and improve our world” (Atlanta Science Festival (ASF), 2018, p.4). The festival is committed to bringing together as many different sectors of the community as possible, from elementary schools to universities, museums to private businesses, to create two weeks of engaging, interactive, and interdisciplinary STEAM exploration. Their goals—to “build a curious community, foster connections, [and] highlight Metro Atlanta”— reflect those of both iSWOOP and the STEM Learning Ecosystems (ASF, 2018, p. 4). Their 2018 festival drew in 53,000 attendees and was made possible through the work of 80 partners, 310 volunteers, and 30 sponsors (ASF, 2018). It offered 120 events spanning 70 venues, including outdoor archeology events for children and families, robot battles, and adult programming that explored the science of beer and coffee.
Atlanta Science Festival’s contribution to the Atlanta STEM ecosystem isn’t just limited to two weeks a year (although those two weeks would be fabulous enough to stand on their own): they also created Science ATL (https://scienceatl.org/), an organization that aims to “[extend] the excitement of Atlanta Science Festival throughout the year with new programming and community-building activities to strengthen Atlanta’s STEM ecosystem, and improve access to science learning opportunities” (Science ATL, 2019, np). The work of ASF and Science ATL give us a glimpse of what a successful, thriving STEM ecosystem can do to transform its community and foster enthusiastic curiosity in the public.
For more information, please visit https://atlantasciencefestival.org/
Establishing Community Partnerships
Your library may or may not have a plan in place for establishing a community partnership. In any case, creating a formalized process can help guide staff on how to identify potential partnerships, make a connection with them, and ask for a commitment in order to begin working together. Furthermore, once a plan of action is created and implemented, leveraging partnerships in the future will become easier over time.
While the timeline for creating a partnership varies from case to case, it can be assumed that it will take a moderate amount of coordination between both organizations to find time to plan a collaboration. With this in mind, planning a time frame for when you’d like to have a partnership established by can be helpful.
Finally, it is crucial that these partnerships are reflective of the community being served and its needs. In the public library, potential groups to collaborate with could include K-12 schools and universities, museums, theaters, technology businesses, art councils, nonprofit organizations, and so forth.
- Identify: The first step of leveraging a community collaboration is to identify what the needs of your community are, and whether or not they are already being met outside of the library. It is important to create partnerships that meet a unique need or complement an ongoing service in order to avoid replicating work that is already being done. Next, think about what type of organization the library would like to collaborate with. In this case, organizations within STEAM fields that focus on instruction for children and teens are the focus (for example, interactive science museums). Then, try to determine what the organization’s mission are, and whether they align with your library’s mission. Who do they serve? What services do they provide? What are their professional goals? Additionally, research what policies they may have about working with groups, and what resources they have available (visit the VISTA Campus guide to leveraging community partnerships at http://bit.ly/34jGJPN for ideas on how to accomplish this). If possible, get out into the community and visit the prospective organization to get a better understanding of the type of work they do. Of course, make sure the organization is located within your community, in order to establish an ongoing, sustainable partnership.
- Make a “warm introduction:” A “warm introduction” is making first contact with a prospective organization through someone who has an existing personal or professional contact within that organization (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2012). Within your library’s system, this can be as simple as reaching out to staff to see if they are familiar with the prospective group. Perhaps they’ve had professional and/or personal experience with the organization, or know someone that could assist with initially contacting that group’s point person. This establishes a personal and authentic connection and demonstrates that you’ve done research on the organization.
- Reach out: When reaching out to the prospective organization, make sure that you’ve provided enough information about background information about the library, what the your goals are for STEAM collaboration, and what resources you’re able to provide. It is also important to highlight the value of the partnership for both organizations. Most public benefit institutions (like museums, zoos, and parks) have a mandate to do local community outreach, and libraries provide a venue that these institutions would like to visit (Dusenbery, 2016). This initial contact is fairly informal, and could be conducted over the phone.
- Interest meeting: If the prospective organization expresses interest in a collaboration, an in-person meeting should be planned. This meeting is more formal, and is used to create an outline of what both organizations would like the partnership to look like.
- Establish guidelines: During this time, a set of guidelines are established for both parties. Some of these guidelines could include how work will be distributed, how frequently communication will take place, and how collaborative goals will be measured. Both organizations should have a focus that is clear, specific, and mutually agreed upon. If the partnership is short-term instead of ongoing, include a time frame in which the collaboration will take place. It is important to document the agreed upon guidelines so that both parties can reference them in the future if needed.
- Ask for a formal commitment: After creating guidelines and before planning STEAM instruction activities, ask for a formal commitment. Like the guidelines, this should be a formal document that solidifies the collaborative partnership. At this step, any additional formal paperwork should be completed as well.
- Communicate: Having an ongoing, consistent mix of formal and informal communication with designated liaisons is incredibly important for the success of maintaining a partnership. ALA’s Public Library & School Library Collaboration Toolkit (http://bit.ly/2WpIWGD) suggests using project management tools, such as Google Docs, Sheets, Calendars, and Hangouts to communicate when planning a specific program. Additionally, keep in touch informally by letting the organization know about related library events.
The public library is playing an increasingly important role in STEAM education, especially when it comes to ensuring that all members of the community are able to access the kind of exploratory learning designed to foster curiosity and enthusiasm. Because public librarians themselves might not be equipped to lead this kind of programming or instruction, establishing partnerships with members of the local STEAM community is critical. Fortunately, the STEAM community is just as interested in collaboration. They, just like public librarians, want to share STEAM knowledge with the community, generate enthusiasm for STEAM topics, and foster a desire to use knowledge to meaningfully shape the world we live in. By following best practices for collaboration and focusing on shared goals, public libraries and members of the STEAM field can come together to build networks of education and encouragement that will uplift their communities and empower the public to impact what their future will look like.
To see another extended example of community partnerships in action in a public library, read the interview below.
Children’s Librarian Interview: Jen Pace Dickenson, Youth Services Librarian at Polk County Public Libraries in Columbus, North Carolina
Interview conducted by Isabel Crevasse and Kristen Stockdale in 2019.
I read about your library’s program, “Elementary Explorers”, which is related to STEAM learning. Can you tell me how that program was initially planned?
When I first started at Polk County Public Libraries 6 years ago, the only regular programming offered was a preschool storytime. Elementary Explorers is a K-5 weekly program that runs at both Columbus and Saluda, and was started with help from a grant from Polk County Community Foundation.
Describe the program itself.
Each month there was a theme we follow, such as: gaming, science, food, community, fitness, books, nature, art, and animals. For example, for the science month, we ran programs like “Grossology,” where we dissected owl pellets, and “Magnet Magic.” Anywhere from 5-70 people attend Elementary Explorers, with an average of 10-15 attending each week.
Did you set any specific learning goals for the program?
When it first began it was simply to provide a free after school program for elementary school students, and to offer activities that families might otherwise be able to experience due to finances. The program has evolved since then and now aligns with the goals in our strategic plan.
What are these goals? Even if you didn’t make them explicit, did you have ideas in your own mind about what you hoped participants might learn from your program? Were your goals related to the STEAM content, information literacy skills and content, or both?
Some of the goals for Elementary Explorers were that programs involved active play, social interaction, hands on activities, making tangible products, and interaction with technology.
Did you partner with anyone / any other organization to plan or implement the program, and if so can you talk about that process?
When considering collaboration, we define partnership as a collaboration where we are not paying for services. We’ve worked with Conserving Carolina, who initially reached out to install a butterfly garden. I communicated with one point person over time, and eventually it grew into a larger collaboration. We have guided hikes twice a year where naturalists teach participants about flora/fauna and birds. We’ve also created community partnerships with KidSenses Children’s INTERACTIVE Museum in Rutherfordton, ecoEXPLORE in Asheville, and Chimney Rock State Park.
Do you assess the program itself at all? How?
We assess if the program meets goals from our strategic plan, and we conduct occasional marketing surveys and receive informal feedback.
What advice would you give librarians interested in offering a similar program at their library?
See if you can get a grant if there’s no room in budget, and build partnerships with people who can give you expertise for free. Take advantage of social media resources, in-person workshops/staff development, and share ideas with others.
What do you think the role of libraries in STEAM education is today? What do you think it should be?
STEAM is focused on in school curriculum, so it’s important to support that in our collections and in programs to reinforce those ideas in a fun way. Programs can be enjoyable and educational.
For more information, please visit https://polklibrary.org/ecoexplore/
Atlanta Science Festival (2018). 2018 Report. Retrieved from https://atlantasciencefestival.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/ASF2018report.pdf
Atlanta Science Festival (2019). About ASF. (2019). Retrieved from https://atlantasciencefestival.org/about/
Baker, A. (2018). Making connections with the STEM learning ecosystem initiative. Scientific American Blog. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/budding-scientist/making-connections-with-the-stem-learning-ecosystems-initiative/
Lopez, M. E., Jacobson, L., Caspe, M., & Hanebutt, R. (2019). Public libraries engage families in STEM. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/GFRPSTEMBrief
Merson, M., Allen, L.C., & Hristov, N.I. (2018). Science in the public eye: leveraging partnerships—an introduction. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 58(1), 53-57.
Morrison, J., and Fisher Jr., W.P. (2018) Connecting learning opportunities in STEM education: ecosystem collaborations across schools, museums, libraries, employers, and communities. Journal of Physics: Conference Series.
Public libraries and STEM: An interview with Paul Dusenbery and Keliann LaConte. (2016). Young Adult Library Services, 14(2), 10-13.
Rancho Cucamonga Public Library. (2018). Teen Read Week at Rancho Cucamonga Public Library. YALSA Blog. Retrieved from http://yalsa.ala.org/blog/2018/10/25/teen-read-week-at-rancho-cucamonga-public-library/
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (2012). How to leverage community partnerships. Retrieved from http://forces4quality.org/af4q/download-document/5265/Resource-Leverage%20Community.pdf
Science ATL. (2019). About Science ATL. Retrieved from https://scienceatl.org/about/
Semmel, M.L. (2015). “Collective impact” and STEM learning: joining forces to make a difference in communities. Public Libraries and STEM: A National Conference on Current Trends and Future Directions. Retrieved from http://ncil.spacescience.org/images/papers/Semmel_CollectiveImpact.pdf
Shortley, N.C. (2018). Chapter 9: Collaboration: The power (and the price) of working together. In Rawson, Casey (Ed.), Instruction and Pedagogy for Youth in Public Libraries (pp. 169-189). Creative Commons.
States, D. (2015). Out of the pickle: Promoting food science and STEM in public libraries. Pennsylvania Libraries, 3(2), 102-114. Retrieved from http://palrap.pitt.edu.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/ojs/index.php/palrap/article/view/103
VanMeter-Adams, A., Frankenfeld, C.L., Bases, J., Espina, V., & Liotta, L.A. (2014). Students who demonstrate strong talent and interest in STEM are initially attracted to STEM through extracurricular experiences. CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(4), 687-697.