Allison Thompson and Casey H. Rawson

When I (Casey) taught seventh grade science, one of my major curricular units was focused on human body systems. My students learned about how the circulatory system delivers oxygen and nutrients throughout the body; how the nervous system detects and processes sensory information; how the digestive system processes food and removes waste; and so on. Toward the end of this unit, I would ask my students: which human body system is the most important? Through discussion, we would come to the conclusion that a healthy body requires the integrated functioning of all its systems. Each is critical on its own, but each also depends on the others. 

Schools in the United States have a long history of dividing instruction into a set of discrete subject areas, kept apart from one another by scheduling, physical location, and instructor. A student may go to math, then language arts, followed by social studies, science, and “electives” such as art, physical education, or Spanish. In part these divisions among subject areas are justified by decades of research showing that there are unique pedagogical best practices in each area. However, this division can also mean missed opportunities to teach students how interconnected each of these subjects is to the others. Just as all human body systems work together to sustain a healthy body, so too do multiple subject areas work together to contribute to a healthy society. As the Committee on Integrated STEM Education (2014) noted in relation to science, technology, engineering, and math, 

scientists use technological tools to conduct experiments and mathematics and statistics to interpret the data produced by those experiments; engineers draw on scientific knowledge and mathematical reasoning to develop and model potential design inventions and solutions; technologists who build and maintain the products and systems designed by engineers must understand the scientific and mathematical principles governing their operation. And these professionals interact with one another in increasingly diverse and multidisciplinary teams. (p. 20)

STEM, and later, STEAM, were developed in part to remove what some consider to be artificial boundaries between the subjects of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts. The challenges that face today’s societies – challenges such as climate change, food insecurity, and pollution – cannot be addressed with contributions from one subject area alone. Similarly, challenges faced by individuals, such as choices about which car to drive or which doctor to visit, must also be approached in a multidisciplinary fashion for best results. For these reasons, experts recommend that STEAM be thought of and taught not as a collection of five distinct subject areas, but as a single integrated entity. In this chapter, we will explore what such integrated instruction might look like in the public library context. We will start by exploring STEM integration before discussing the more recent integration of the arts. 

STEM Integration

Imagine that you have an assortment of fruit that you’d like to serve to your friends. There are a few options for how you might choose to prepare and present the fruit: 

  • You could make a fruit tray, with each fruit occupying a separate space on the tray; friends can pick and choose which fruits they would like. 
  • You could make a fruit salad by mixing all of the fruits together; friends will likely get a diverse mix of fruit with each scoop, but individual fruits remain separate from one another. 
  • You could make fruit smoothies; in this case, all of the fruits would come together (perhaps with some additional ingredients) to make something new. 

In the education field, this metaphor is similar to how some researchers talk about different ways to integrate subject areas in K-12 instruction. One option is to connect two or more subject areas under a common thematic unit. For example, a team of sixth grade teachers might decide to adopt the common theme of climate change for a three-week unit. Each teacher works that theme into their lessons during that period: in math, students graph changes in global sea temperatures and atmospheric C02 concentrations; in science, students learn about the greenhouse effect and its relation to weather and climate; in language arts, students read first-hand accounts from climate migrants; in social studies, students learn what policies are being adopted by various governments to address the threats posed by climate change. This is a multidisciplinary approach and is similar to the fruit tray metaphor above: multiple subject areas are involved, but they remain distinct from one another, and learners are not necessarily encouraged to draw their own connections among them (Adams & Forin, 2014). 

Another option for connecting subject areas in K-12 education would be to frame instruction around a shared problem or question, which is then investigated using tools from multiple subject areas. For example, consider a sixth grade unit that is framed around the essential question, “What are the current and future impacts of climate change?” This is an intentionally broad question; “impacts” could include impacts on humans, impacts on plant and animal life, impact on economies and governments, etc. There are also multiple possible answers to the question of climate change’s future impacts, in part depending on how nations, corporations, and individuals respond to its threats. Thus, to answer this question fully, students will need to synthesize material from multiple subject areas, perhaps through the completion of a culminating project such as a poster fair or public service announcement videos. While discrete instruction about this issue will still likely happen within individual classrooms divided by subject area, in this case that instruction is connected by a single goal and a common question. This is an interdisciplinary approach and is similar to the fruit salad metaphor above: there is a holistic mixing of perspectives, methods, and tools applied toward a common goal (Adams & Forin, 2014). 

A final option for teaching about climate change in a cross-disciplinary manner would involve reaching beyond the school environment to take an action-oriented approach to learning that invites perspectives from people who are actually affected by the phenomenon being explored. To extend the question-focused example described above, teachers might collaborate with local government officials or city planners to help students understand how climate change is impacting their own communities and what their elected officials are doing about it. Students might advocate for one or more additional steps their officials might take through letter writing or presentations at a city council meeting. Student learning during school hours might be framed around individual student questions, and rather than having students pursue the answers to those questions within the confines of subject-area periods, instructors may take on a team-teaching approach where students can work within and across multiple domains fluidly throughout the school day. This is a transdisciplinary approach; like the smoothie example in our fruit metaphor, this approach eliminates the barriers between constituent domains to create something new (Adams & Forin, 2014). 

As you might expect, implementing a transdisciplinary approach to instruction within a typical K-12 school is logistically challenging, especially given the reality that students in public schools are tested on subject area specific content at the end of each grade level, beginning no later than 3rd grade. Learning standards, which specify what students in each grade should know and be able to do by the end of the year, are not often conducive to the type of cross-disciplinary instruction we’ve described above, even at the multidisciplinary level. Even the physical layout of most school buildings, infamously compared to egg crates by sociologist Dan Lortie in 1975, discourages cross-disciplinary instruction by placing literal walls between subject areas and teachers. 

In the library, however, many of those physical, logistical, and curricular barriers to cross-disciplinary instruction are not present. There are no standardized tests for which we must prepare our learners; we don’t have a daily schedule that is divided into subject area periods; our instructional standards are broadly defined and can be taught in the context of any or all subject areas; our space is often flexible or modular. That means that we can dream big when it comes to possibilities for integrated instruction in the library. Table 1 below provides some examples of cross-disciplinary STEM programs and other forms of instruction at each level discussed above (multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary). In the following section, we will discuss how and why the arts can be integrated into this framework. 

Table 1. Cross-Disciplinary Approaches
Approach Library Examples
Multidisciplinary (involves multiple, but distinct, subject areas) 
  • STEM Fair: Participants are invited to visit tables which have been set up with a variety of mini-activities or demonstrations focusing on science, math, engineering, or technology. 
  • STEM Career Panel: Library hosts a career panel featuring a scientist, a technologist, an engineer, and a mathematician.   
Interdisciplinary (holistic mixing of perspectives, methods, and tools applied toward a common goal) 
  • Design Challenge: Participants are challenged to design the strongest bridge using provided materials (addresses primarily engineering and math).
  • Robotics club: Participants meet regularly to learn about robotics and design and build robots to perform simple tasks (addresses 
Transdisciplinary (action-oriented instruction centered on learner questions; barriers between approaches are eliminated)
  • Community Discussions: Teen Advisory Board plans and hosts a community discussion on climate change and its current and future impact on their town. 
  • Make a Difference series: Participants use the library makerspace to design and create products that will help community members (see the Spotlight box in the introductory chapter for more about this program). 


Inserting the “A” 

The tech boom of the 1990s and 2000s brought new attention to growing fields of technology and engineering, demanding educators to focus their attention on training the next generation of innovators and inventors (Gunn, 2017). Since then, STEM has become a buzzword for progress. The introduction of STEAM in the mid-2010s provided new opportunities for teaching, focusing on cross-disciplinary learning, applying knowledge, and acquiring multiple skill sets. While the arts are now a more-or-less accepted addition to STEM, there was significant controversy about the addition of this domain from people who argued that the addition of an arts component would detract from a focus on hard sciences and hurt national efforts to maintain global competitiveness in STEM (Feldman, 2015). However, proponents of STEAM argue that incorporating an emphasis on design, creativity, and aesthetics into STEM instruction doesn’t dilute STEM fields, but instead enriches them by encouraging innovation, collaboration, creative problem-solving, and accessible design. As life coach and motivational speaker Anna Feldman wrote, 

Ultimately, STEAM is people-centric, not subject-centric; it puts student personality and individuality at the forefront. With STEAM, the pressure is off to become a scientist or engineer—you can be a designer, digital artist, coder, art director, and scientist and engineer all at the same time… . In STEAM, creativity is the central tenet. It not only revives and modernizes STEM, it actually addresses, through real-world projects, why the STEM subjects should matter to everyone. And that’s how we should all be learning. (para. 13)

Integrated arts and STEM instruction brings together learners of different ages, skill sets, interests, and levels of education. Whether it’s parents and children learning how yeast works while making a pizza or a group of teenagers writing their first line of code for a website, STEAM has the potential to bring people together. Learners work together as a class or in small groups to engage with the lesson, sharing knowledge and experience while improving cooperative skills.

The creative elements of mixed arts and STEM instruction are particularly attractive to youth who enjoy hands-on activities. These can boost attendance rates for library programs, especially those involving food, solving a puzzle or challenge, or offering a craft-type item to take home with them. While this may sound like a gimmick, it functions as a strategic element of instructional design. Programs or other library services that deliver fun, engaging projects can also be terrific opportunities for learning. 

The most important element of combining arts and STEM instruction is considering where different fields intersect. This takes a little out-of-the-box thinking, but once you begin reframing your approach to instruction it becomes easier to see the opportunities in each program or lesson. Arts and STEM have long been elements of a well-rounded education and together they create powerful opportunities to apply skills like creativity, problem solving, and logic. Most importantly, these programs can be empowering for youth with intelligences that aren’t often exercised in a classroom setting. Giving musical or spatial learners opportunities to use their skills among their peers to solve problems and acquire knowledge can be a valuable experience for all.

Below, we’ll talk about three different possibilities for STEAM programs that integrate the arts and STEM. Please remember that each of these combinations may potentially be reconfigured or expanded to be taught to learners of different ages. 

Math and Music

From an early age, most children find themselves engaging with music, whether it’s playing a recorder in the classroom or singing along to music on the radio. Music is a language all its own, with the power to engage your mind, memory, and emotions. Studies show that learning about music can improve memory and test scores (Spread Music Now, 2019), improve spatial-temporal skills (Brown, 2012), boost IQ (Hille, Gust, Bitz, & Kammer, 2011), and build teamwork and study skills. 

Music can be an aspect of a child’s development from a very young age. Even babies and toddlers can take part in music-based library programs, especially those focused on rhythm and movement. Such programs also present an excellent opportunity to integrate basic math skills such as counting, pattern recognition, and sequences. Certain patterns of notes and rhythms are particularly appealing to the human ear, and music notation is organized into scales and time signatures. Since music tends to be both countable and standard, its very regularity makes it perfect for teaching the basics of mathematics. As children get older, instruction can integrate elements like history, emotional understanding, patterns, imagination and creative thinking, counting, and interpretation. 

Learners attending mixed music and math programming will likely come with a wide variety of experience levels. Based on expressed interest and family situation, children may have experience playing an instrument or reading music. They may also have participated in choirs, bands, or orchestras. Community resources and socioeconomic levels will likely come into play, so librarians should access their learners accordingly and meet them where they are.

Music instruction can come in all shapes and forms. Writing songs, learning an instrument, and singing in a choir are all forms of learning music, but so are low-cost alternatives like bucket drumming, call-and-response songs, and musical chairs. Since library instruction mostly consists of one-off classes, particularly for youth, most forms of musical instruction will focus on short lessons that won’t require too many resources. Story times or preschool programs may be particularly well suited to introducing math concepts in a seamless and engaging manner. 

Activities and Programs

Library instruction integrating music and math should focus on making math approachable and even fun with rhythm and counting activities. Frequently, math can feel distant, cold, and altogether foreign to students learning it in a classroom. In fact, there’s a term for that: math anxiety. Studies report that math anxiety is widespread, and it contributes to low achievement and participation in mathematics (Dowker, Sarkar, & Looi, 2016). 

Lessons in a library space will build on children’s understanding of counting and addition. These could include:

  • Games of musical chairs set to rhythmic music
  • Counting lengths of notes out loud while reading sheet music
  • Bouncing, tapping, or drumming along to music
  • Tossing bean bags to music in a circle
  • Playing ‘conductor’ to music and identifying the time signature
  • Writing short songs on sheet music

Each of the above start with musical concepts and include aspects of mathematical learning. Rhythm itself can be a way of counting for children, and teaching children how to regularly imitate it or identify it in music can be beneficial to their sense of measurement. More structured learning, especially anything related to musical notation, can teach children how to write out equations and how to work within a formula. See the resources below for more ideas.

Math and Music Instructional Ideas
  • Music and Movement as a Tool to Teach Mathematics in Grades Pre-K to 2 ( This collection of activities from Washoe County (NV) School District would be perfect for toddler or early elementary programs. 
  • The Math in Music and Movement by Ellen Booth Church ( These activities, published in Scholastic’s Early Childhood Today, would be perfect for toddler programs. 
  • Mathematics in Music ( This resource from TeacherVision contains lessons and printable activities that integrate music and math across a wide range of age levels. 



Learning music is compulsory in many elementary schools and offered as an elective in middle school and high school. Many of us have fond memories of learning to play the piano as a child, or picking up an instrument for a few years in high school band. Although most librarians will likely have some musical background, it is always worth considering your community’s resources. 

Do you have music teachers that might be interested in working with you? Check with your local schools and musical ensembles including bands, orchestras, choirs, theater companies, and private music teachers. Local musical communities tend to be tight-knit and often refer people on if they don’t have the time or interest in gaining more members/students. A local school or community band/orchestra is usually the best place to start.

Don’t worry about acquiring musical instruments or stands for your learners. Cheap alternatives like plastic buckets and boom sticks work well for informal lessons and have the added benefit of being virtually indestructible (compared to a ukulele or flute). Sheet music can often be found online, both with written music and without.

Food Science

Learning to cook is a universal skill. Almost everyone needs to know basic skills like boiling water and how to cut up a fruit or vegetable without hurting themselves. Besides nutritional benefits, especially for those with dietary restrictions, cooking can help you make budget friendly meals that meet your specific tastes. Or, in other words, those who cook eat better.

Besides the practical aspects, cooking can be a fun way to integrate all of the components of STEAM in a cross-disciplinary manner. Consider a program centered around cake making. Learners can explore questions related to how different chemical compounds interact to make cake (food science, e.g.; they can experiment with different ratios of ingredients to change the texture, moistness, and flavor of the cake (math); they can figure out the best way to support a tiered or sculptural cake (engineering); they can compare text- and video-based online recipe formats (technology); and they can design and decorate their cakes (art). 

Cooking programs have the potential to be enormously popular in the library. Food science has been popularized by famous chefs such as Alton Brown and by video series like Serious Eats ( Cooking and baking channels offer some of the most popular content on YouTube; for example, baker Rosanna Pansino of “Nerdy Nummies” fame has 11.7 million subscribers. Shows like The Great British Baking Show and Bon Appétit’s Baking School have gained cult-favorite status among many television viewers.  

Learners who participate in library cooking instruction will come from a very wide range of skill levels. Some learners may never have set foot in a kitchen, while others may be able to cook entire meals. Family situation and attitudes towards cooking will come into play, with parental time and family food habits playing a significant role in how kids experience the kitchen. Library instructors should be prepared to teach to learners on all levels.


Spotlight: The Secret Science of Ice Cream

As part of an ongoing STEM series at the Fort Vancouver (WA) Regional Library, Student and Youth Partnership Coordinator Kelsey Hudson planned a food science program on ice cream to take place in early summer. Aimed at tweens, the drop-in program attracted 14 participants who were eager to make their own frozen treats. 

Like the other classes in this series, “The Secret Science of Ice Cream” marketed itself with a promise of a fun activity with a lesson carefully slipped in before things got messy or in this case, gooey. This class, like several cooking programs that followed, built on existing skills. Instead of being structured like a recipe or a cooking show, librarians discussed with the kids about states of matter, what the ingredients tasted like, how different parts of the recipe figured in to making the finished product, and how much they should shake their ice cream. On the practical side, the kids worked with fractions to measure their ingredients, tried reading the recipe, and participated in clean up. This allowed the kids to participate in every step of the process and consider the reasoning behind every element.

Kelsey shared that food programming as a whole is a great choice for teaching STEAM concepts, thanks not only to the lure of food but the wide age range these programs can attract. She noted that food programming could be started for children as young as 4-5 years of age and that they can serve as excellent opportunities for family learning. Food science classes also allow for a great degree of customization and experimentation, with individuals or groups altering recipes to suit their own tastes. Learners are free to make mistakes and veer off course, another important element of the learning experience.

In the end, Kelsey suggested that when planning food science programs, a librarian should consider their overall goals—and that not all of them need to be based on competency. Students can also learn lessons like teamwork, familiarity with kitchen skills, and self-confidence. Before that, however, librarians should consider space restraints and health code limitations. She reminded me that all health departments are different, and it is wise to consult them before diving into planning. Space is another important consideration, as refrigeration, heating units, and specialized equipment may not be available in all library spaces. For more on this program, see the Programming Librarian post at


Activities and Programs

Library instruction in food science should be bold and interesting, focused around timely topics that integrate content from as many STEAM domains as possible. Classes on seasonal foods like ice cream in the summer months or soda bread for St. Patrick’s day provide additional appeal and give a context for the lesson. Cooking programs can also connect to cultural heritage months. For example, a February (Black History Month) program might center on chicken and waffles, a dish that traces back to the Harlem Renaissance and the Wells Supper Club (Avey, 2013). Cooking and enjoying this dish could go hand-in-hand with learning about the rich artistic, literary, and social history of Black Americans. 

Successful instruction in food science may feel a little like a magic act: while the learners are having fun making something tasty, the librarian slips a quick lesson on physics or chemistry. More often than not, the learners will come to make and eat the food, rather than bolster their STEAM understanding. However, with careful planning, the instructor can keep the learners engaged and build links between the two halves of the material.

Keep in mind when planning food-based lessons that participants may have dietary restrictions; plan for alternatives to common allergens when possible, and always communicate the ingredients you will use at the start of the program. 


While children are taught most STEAM subjects throughout their K-12 education, cooking is not typically taught in the schoolroom. Ask or assess learners at the start of the program about their confidence in the kitchen and if they have any experience making the dish. While your community may have instructors willing to help you, consider asking your fellow librarians if they enjoy cooking and might be willing to collaborate!

Most importantly, you must consider your cooking space. Do you have somewhere in the library with an oven or stove? If so, is it large enough for a class to move around safely? If you bring in appliances like a blender, slow cooker, or a pressure cooker will everyone be able to see and ask questions as you cook? How will learners participate? Will you have enough adults to ensure proper supervision of appliances and sharp objects? Keep these thoughts in consideration while planning your activities. If the library does not have an appropriate space, consider partnering with a local organization or location that does have suitable resources, such as the YMCA, a nearby neighborhood clubhouse, or a Boys & Girls Club. 

Good Design in Technology

Today’s changing world has seen massive growth in technology. We’re progressing at unprecedented rates, with new innovations coming in all areas of the tech world. Since 2003, the number of information and technology jobs has grown by 37% and is projected to continue growing (Csorny, 2013). Jobs in this field tend to offer high wages and additional benefits, making them attractive to young adults looking towards the future. Besides potential job security, positions in this field have been immortalized in movies and TV shows, with both humorous portrayals and glossy fantasies. Whether or not this is accurate, it has brought it to the attention of today’s youth as a job prospect.

When we consider training the next generation of app designers and software engineers, we often think about skills such as coding and computational thinking. However, we often overlook a vital aspect of information technology: good design. Without strong, consistent design choices, websites can be difficult to read and navigate or inaccessible, hardware such as phones and keyboards can cause physical pain, and users can waste valuable time trying to perform simple tasks (among other problems). Teaching learners about how to make appealing, user-friendly, and accessible interfaces is an important way to invest in the future while also seamlessly integrating multiple STEAM domains within a single project or program.

Good design is a creative endeavor bringing together personal aesthetics and established guidelines for usability. While it will particularly appeal to those with artistic sensibilities it is also useful for non-artists as a tool for communication. No one wants to pour time and effort into a project deemed too unappealing to use. Programs should work to bring learners together with different preferences to build off of one another’s skills. This also has the added bonus of teaching group work skills that will be immensely valuable in the workplace.

Activities and Programs

Library instruction in technology and design should be about learning the basics of technology use, accessibility, and user-friendly design while allowing learners to apply them in their own unique projects. Focusing on design instead of the tricks and tools of programs allows learners to gain ownership of their learning and explore their areas of interest. It humanizes what might otherwise be dry material, while providing new skills that will have many future applications. Learners tend to get the most out of library programs they feel they can personalize and environments where they feel empowered to ask questions. Technology and design classes should make the most out of the learners’ passions, interests, and experiences to create the best possible instruction.

Possible topics for design and technology programming may include:

  • Website design
  • Crafting presentations with PowerPoint
  • Charts, graphs, and other visuals
  • Mini-documentaries
  • Blog posts

Each of the above uses technology to communicate to a wider audience. It’s important to draw attention to the user’s role in whatever is created– just because you can build it or code it, doesn’t mean it’s attractive, usable, or accessible. As human beings we derive a great deal of pleasure from aesthetics and with the world wide web we can be more discerning than ever. It’s principles of good design that convince a reader or a user to stop and take a closer look. Young adults should have no trouble grasping this reasoning, although conforming to written standards of good design may be another thing altogether.


Today’s youth are called “digital natives” (Barlow, 1996; Prensky, 2001) for good reason. Young adults have grown up with technology like the internet and cell phones all their lives, and tend to be well-versed in many programs and applications. Be aware, however, that learners will have varying levels of experience and may not be handy with technology at all. Assess learners as the lesson progresses to see how they understand the material and where they may need a little additional help.

Library instructors should look to their own colleagues for partners for collaboration. Thanks to the library’s many roles in the community, library staff will likely be well-versed in different kinds of applications and programs. Ask around and see if someone can help you learn a new program or maybe even co-teach a class!

Just like with food science, it’s important to consider your library space when it comes to teaching. Think about the potential for collaboration in your computer lab and if learners can easily move around. Can you form groups or work in pairs? Is the computer lab separate from the rest of the library or will you need to move something like a white board to create the illusion of a room? Walk around the space before you start your classes and get a feel for any potential problems you might experience. It will be a little easier to address them if you think about solutions ahead of time!


There’s a reason that we talk about “steam” programming as opposed to “s-t-e-a-m” programming: just as these five letters combine to form a single word, the five domains they stand for can also combine to create instruction and programming that is more than the sum of its parts. Whether your library integrates just two of the STEAM components in a program or all five, encouraging children and teens to see the connections among them, and to make new connections themselves, needs to be at the heart of your work. The challenges issues facing today’s youth will require cross-disciplinary approaches to solve. And, on a more positive note, the interests and passions of these children and teens can also be enriched when they are equipped to make connections across subject areas, as illustrated by the many program and activity examples shared in this chapter. 

In the following five chapters, we will explore each of the five STEAM domains separately, looking at how these subjects are taught in school, their relation to information literacy and other library-related content, and considerations for integrating this content into library instruction. As you read these chapters, we encourage you to keep the connections among them in mind. 



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Barlow, J.P. (1996). A declaration of the independence of cyberspace. Retrieved from 

Brown, L.L. (2012, May 7). The benefits of music education. PBS for parents. Retrieved from

Committee on Integrated STEM Education (2014). STEM integration in K-12 education: Status, prospects, and an agenda for research. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. 

Csorny, L. (2013). Careers in the growing field of information technology services. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Beyond the numbers. Retrieved from 

Dowker, A., Sarkar, A., & Looi, C. Y. (2016). Mathematics anxiety: What have we learned in 60 years?. Frontiers in psychology, 7, article 508.

Feldman, A. (2015). STEAM rising: Why we need to put the arts into STEM education. Retrieved from 

Gunn, J. (2017, November 3). The evolution of STEM and STEAM in the U.S. Room 241 (blog). Retrieved from

Hille, K., Gust, K., Bitz, U., & Kammer, T. (2011). Associations between music education, intelligence, and spelling ability in elementary school. Advances in cognitive psychology, 7, 1–6. 

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6. 

Spread Music Now (2019). Why music? Retrieved from


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