By Kat Zimmerman and Casey Rawson

“[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world…”

—President Barack Obama, March 23, 2015

Science is one of the key building blocks of our world. It shapes almost every aspect of who we are as a species. It affects everything from the places we live, to the products we purchase and use, to the clothing we wear. Including science-based programming in your library is important for multiple reasons: it helps children and teens understand how and why the world around them works the way it does; it educates the next generation about planet-saving subjects like clean energy, waste clean-up, and space exploration; and it can help bridge race- and gender-based equity gaps in formal science education environments (Morgan, 2018; Speer, 2019).

In this chapter we will discuss what the term science entails; guide you on how to design your own science-specific STEAM programming that will meet the learning goals and/or competencies of the NGSS, the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA); and give some examples of science-specific STEAM programming. Science is already commonly included in library programming, and with additional intention and knowledge you can “level up” your science programming to ensure that it is not only fun, but also empowering and equitable for young learners. 

The Case for Science

While science may seem to some like the cornerstone of the STEAM movement, there are some who argue that it may be the least important of the STEAM domains. “Most employers aren’t looking for STEM. They’re looking for TEM,” wrote current Institute of Education Sciences Director Mark Schneider (2013, para. 14). Schneider argued that “the S in STEM is overrated,” noting that national wage data show that “while students in technology, engineering and math earn more, on average, than other students, graduates in the “S” fields in STEM do not” (para. 6). 

This argument may be persuasive for those who believe that the primary purpose of STEAM education is to help learners obtain high-paying jobs, or to fuel the national economy. However, it ignores other, arguably more important, reasons for science education. As a witness in a U.S. Senate hearing focused on scientific research funding, former Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina testified to the less economic, more humanistic impact of science: “Our nation’s ability to handle today’s pressing issues, from providing energy security to curing illnesses to living sustainably in a finite world, will require the innovations that arise from basic research. Science is a system for exploring, and for innovation…. it can fire our imagination (DiChristina, 2014, np). The National Education Association (2018) noted that science education is also critical in terms of ensuring that children develop critical thinking skills that will help them and their communities thrive. As they wrote, 

Science requires us to observe, question, test and evaluate—then question again and revise our opinions as needed.Science is about continually acquiring new knowledge and holding ourselves and others accountable. Most importantly, it’s about keeping an open and curious mind. In a world with an overwhelming amount of information, the scientific method of learning is more important than ever. (National Education Association, 2018, para. 1-2)

Some librarians may avoid science not because they think it lacks value, but because they feel personally unequipped to lead science-focused programs. Science can be very technical and complicated, and professional scientists spend years obtaining specialised degrees in their scientific fields. For most of us, when we think about the term science it brings things like laboratories, NASA, chemistry, and science fair projects to mind. We think about things that require finely tuned knowledge and specialized tools. However, while science can seem like something that isn’t for the everyday person, we say it is! Planning and facilitating successful science instruction in the library is possible for non-experts, as we will see later in this chapter. 

What is Science?

According the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, science is defined as:

  • 1: the state of knowing
  • 2a: a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study the science of theology
  • b: something (such as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge have it down to a science
  • 3a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method
  • b: such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena: natural science (“Definition of SCIENCE,” n.d.)

Simply put, this means that science is learning something and then putting that new knowledge into action! All you have to do is develop a hypothesis, or a question you’d like to answer, and try to answer it through the scientific method. Can we capture the sun’s energy? Let’s build a simple solar oven and cook some s’mores! What is sand made out of? Let’s gather some up and look at it under a microscope! Can humans fly? Let’s jump off something and see! Okay, let’s not really try that last one, but you can see what we’re getting at. What science really is, is an inquiry-based way of examining the world around us that can be done both formally and informally. You don’t need years of schooling to be able to perform and teach science—just a curious mind and some basic science knowledge.

In K-12 schools, science instruction is guided by a set of learning standards that specify what students should know and be able to do by the end of the school year. Over the past decade, many states have adopted science standards that move away from rote memorization of science facts toward more process-based standards that aim to help students learn how to use science to solve problems and answer questions. One prominent example of this type of standards framework is the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, Developed by a consortium of 26 states and currently used as the standards framework for approximately one-third of U.S. public school students, the NGSS are organized around three dimensions of science learning: 

  • Cross-cutting concepts, such as cause and effect, that underlie and connect all scientific disciplines;
  • Science and engineering practices, such as developing and using models, that engage students in the real-world processes of scientific work; and
  • Disciplinary core ideas that represent key organizing concepts within life science, earth and space science, physical science, and/or engineering (for example, heredity is one core idea within the life science domain).   

This focus on the “big ideas” within science and on science as an active process instead of a collection of facts aligns well with the types of instruction we already offer in public libraries. Consider, for example, the NGSS Science and Engineering Practice of “asking questions and defining problems.” A library program that engages children in the chemistry of slime can easily incorporate instruction related to this practice by inviting participants to experiment with the ratios of slime ingredients to ask and answer questions like “why does some slime rip easily?” or “why is some slime sticky?” You don’t need to be an expert in chemistry to lead a program like this; you simply need to be willing to experiment alongside participants and collaborate with them to ask questions and find the answers. 

Science Instruction in the Library

Science instructional programming can come in many forms and flavors. Programs can range from a simple one-shot to a large-scale, multi-session series. For example, the Rochester Public Library in Rochester, MN created a monthly Science Storytime that combines stories, finger puppets, and hands-on activities (, while the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, ME ( developed an annual seasonal lecture-series with hands-on projects, such as creating a solar dehydrator, called Sustainable ME. It’s up to you how you want your program to look, but we can provide some guidance, tips, and tricks to create smoother and more successful science programming.

If you’re just getting started, our advice is to start small and go slow. Programming can have a lot of variables that will influence what you can and cannot do, such as community interest and needs, your personal experience and knowledge of the subject material, the library’s community collaborators and partnerships, and your library/department’s supplies and budget. Take your time to consider each aspect as you design your science programming. Using a framework such as the Backward Design model for instructional design can help you more clearly create and design your programming to meet your desired learning goals, and still take into account things like budget and collaboration options (see Chapter 9 for more information on instructional design models).

Another framework that might help you design effective science programming is the 5E Instructional Model, developed in 1987 by a team at BSCS Science Learning ( The 5E model facilitates more efficient planning of inquiry-based science instruction by breaking that instruction down into five stages: 

  • Engage: Activate learners’ prior knowledge on the topic and make them interested in learning more. 
  • Explore: Learners are given the opportunity to interact with the material through hands-on activities, data gathering, model development, or other active learning techniques.
  • Explain: Learners are asked to communicate what they have learned, using evidence to support their claims. 
  • Elaborate: Learners extend their understanding by applying their knowledge to new scenarios or making connections between the new content and their prior knowledge. 
  • Evaluate: Learners reflect on their new understanding and on the process that got them there. 

Although originally proposed as a linear model, the 5E framework does not have to be a rigid checklist (Vigeant, 2017). You can simply use it as a tool to structure your science programs in a way that is both fun and educational. An example of a public library program planned using the 5E model is described in the table below. 

Table 1. 5E Instructional Model Sample Program 

5E Paper Airplane Program
Engage Ask participants if they have ever made a paper airplane. What makes some airplanes work better than others? Ask how far they think it’s possible for a paper airplane to fly. Share that the world record for longest paper airplane flight is 226 feet, 10 inches, set in 2012. Show a video of the record-breaking flight: Then challenge participants to see how close they can come to this record. 
Explore Provide participants with a variety of paper types and sizes. You may also choose to provide participants with additional supplies such as tape, scissors, or paper clips, and/or instructions for folding various airplane designs (such as those available at Give participants 15 minutes to design and fold their first plane. Then test the planes, using a strip of tape as the starting line and measuring each plane’s distance flown (do this outdoors if possible or in a large room). 
Explain After the first round of tests, get participants talking about which designs were most and least successful and why they think that might be. Compare design features of various planes and get the participants to make hypotheses about how to improve their initial designs. 
Elaborate Participants are given another 10-15 minutes to design a new plane, using the knowledge gained from their first round. 
Evaluate Test the planes again. Who was able to improve their design from Round 1 to Round 2? What would participants do next time to make their planes fly even farther? How close did we get to the record? Send participants home with folding instructions for the world record holding plane (


Science Programming Ideas and Examples

“To children the world is a vast experiment, a laboratory of how things interact with one another, how animals live and eat each other, how plants grow and die. Every child is born a scientist, testing hypotheses and pushing things to the limit to see what happens.” (Gleiser, 2013, para. 8)

As we said earlier in the chapter, science is all around us, and therefore inspiration for science-focused library programming is also all around us. In this section we will provide both formal and informal programming ideas and examples.

Formal Programming

Formal programming is designed in detail ahead of time and often has specified learning objectives, planned activities, and adult/expert-led instruction. In the library, this often takes the form of a one-hour (or longer) program offered to a specific user population, such as preschool children or teens. Here are some ideas that can be used for programming that is a little more formal:

  • Learn about chemical bonds and states of matter by using household items to create slime, oobleck, or snow.
  • Create differently shaped wands out of pipecleaners and blow bubbles with them. Discuss how the bubbles are always spherical.
  • Learn about the senses by creating sense stations.
  • Plant kid-friendly seeds such as beans or pumpkins in small containers and document their growth.
  • Learn about chemical reactions by creating mini rockets out of
    • Alka seltzer + water + film canisters, or
    • Mentos + bottles of coke
  • Catch rain in two separate containers (one with a lid and one without) and let the water evaporate and/or condensate to discuss the water cycle.
  • Collect leaves from different types of plants and to compare shape, size, and color.
  • Create and set up a DIY weather station.
  • Raise butterflies.
  • Look through a telescope at the stars and moon.
  • Build terrariums.
  • Involve the library in an official Citizen Science initiative, such as water quality monitoring, identification of invasive species, or air pollution analysis ( 
For More Ideas…

Visit the National Information STEM Education Network’s homepage for more programming and activity ideas designed with informal learning environments in mind:

Informal and Passive Programming

With informal or passive science programming, your library can offer science instruction without having to have an expert on hand to facilitate activities. Here are some ideas for activities that you could use in and or add to your library as informal science focused STEAM programming:

  • Have a library pet such as a goldfish, bunny, or hamster to teach about animal biology.
  • Have backpacks available for checkout containing nature walk supplies such as binoculars, bird and plant identification booklets, and local trail maps. 
  • Build an outdoor sandbox/digging area for children to play in. Add a few tools such as shovels and rakes. Consider turning it into a dinosaur dig by hiding a few plaster bones or plastic toys and brushes.
  • Place some crayons and paper near the door for children to take outside to create nature rubbings. Display their rubbings near this station.
  • Set up a microscope and a variety of items for children to look at nearby. Encourage children to bring in their own items to examine.
  • Download science-themed games or apps on your in-library technology. PBS Kids offers free, well designed science themed games and apps.
  • Curate rotating book displays that are science themed (i.e. plants, spring, bugs).
  • Have a set of nature-themed toys (i.e. finger puppets, plastic figurines) available for children to play with.
  • Have a set of snap circuits available for children and teens to play with.
  • Plant a pollinator garden.

See the spotlight box below for one example of a public library initiative that combines both formal and informal programming to bring science instruction to its community. 

Spotlight: Explore More In Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Pritchard Park is a 34 acre woodland located in the heart of Chapel Hill, North Carolina that also happens to be the home of Chapel Hill Public Library. For the past two years, the Assistant Director of CHPL, Meeghan Rosen, has been working on bringing instructional STEAM programming to her library as the Project Lead of the Explore More Initiative. The program is grant funded and designed to engage people with the natural world around them and to extend the library’s mission (Sparking curiosity, Inspiring learning, Creating connections) outdoors into the park that surrounds the library. Explore More has three main goals: to provide opportunities for nature play outside, to provide opportunities for people to participate in citizen science programs, and to conduct environmental education. Sometimes Explore More reaches those goals formally through a set program, and sometimes they are reached informally.

Explore More relies heavily upon community partnership and collaboration. In fact, Meeghan says, “Partnerships are what it’s all about. We don’t operate programming without partners.” How involved those partners are can vary. Sometimes the partners design the activities and provide staff and supplies, while other times there are levels of knowledge and expertise that these partners bring to the table. For example, CHPL recently hosted a Star Party in which the library provided the space and facilities while their partners, the Morehead Planetarium and local astronomers, provided the activities, supplies, and staff.

The Explore More program currently provides outdoor nature play areas, nature backpacks for kids & families to check out and bring home, environmental, science-based programs, and tools and resources for citizen science projects (including a weather station). In the next year they are installing an informal outdoor classroom to support field trips to the park.

While many of the informal and formal activities above can easily be used for one-shot programming, or a weekly or monthly program, there are definitely programs that intentionally are designed to go beyond that. Some programs are designed to be recurring or to cover large topics by small increments at a time. Many science programs that span long time periods (either year round, seasonally, or annually) are the result of collaboration with community organizations. Seeking out and building relationships with these organizations can lead to all sorts of programming opportunities that your library might not be able to do on its own (see Chapter 11 for more guidance on this). Below are some examples of successful programs that are a result of collaboration with passionate community organizations.

  • The Loudoun County (VA) Public Library partnered with their local office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) and the Loudoun Master Gardeners to create a series of programs dedicated to educating the community on horticulture, gardening, and farming. The successful partnership has been running for multiple years and provides programming for a variety of ages and horticulture interests. Learn more about the program at
  • The Saratoga Springs (NY) Public Library designed an Astronomy Week program that runs for five days in March. They partnered with their local planetarium, Seminole State College’s Emil Buehler Planetarium , and the local Astronomy Society to design and staff their event. For the event they rent out a portable planetarium for star shows, star gaze through telescopes, and provide fun crafts and activities for participants. Learn more about the program at
  • The St. Louis County (MO) Library hosts an ongoing program series called Science in St. Louis that features local scientists presenting on their research projects. The program has been running since 2015 and has featured topics such as forensics and Missouri’s Ozark dinosaurs. Learn more about the program at


At its foundation, science is about curiosity. Science instruction encourages learners to ask questions about the world and about their impact on it, and then to devise ways to answer those questions. The library, too, is concerned with fostering curiosity among its users, making science programming a natural fit for our organizational missions and goals. Despite arguments that position science as the least profitable and therefore the least valuable of the STEM domains, we believe that scientific literacy is vital for a healthy society and a healthy planet. Libraries can be a critical piece of the science instruction ecosystem—a place where all children and teens can both ask questions and find the support they need to answer them.

Resources List



Definition of SCIENCE. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2019, from Merriam-Webster website: 

Gleiser, M. (2013, October 30). Every child is born a scientist. NPR. Retrieved April 29,

2019, from   

Morgan, A. (2018, April 5). Beyond the pipeline: Fighting for women and girls of color in STEM. Ms. Magazine. Retrieved from

Speer, J. (2019, November 9). Bye bye Ms. American Sci: Women and the leaky STEM pipeline. Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, 41st Annual Fall Research Conference. Denver, CO. Retrieved from 

Vigeant, F. (2017, May 14). What is the 5E instructional model? KnowAtom (blog). Retrieved from


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