By Alyssa Putt

You’re ready to bring STEAM instruction into your library and there are ideas swirling in your head. But how do your ideas translate into effective STEAM instruction? Why, through every librarian’s favorite task: lesson planning.

Okay, maybe you do like lesson planning, and maybe you do actually call it that. But for most public librarians, that’s probably not the case. Lesson planning is something teachers do, and we are not teachers… right? Not quite. As we have discussed earlier in this book, public librarians are educators, though we work in informal or nonformal settings and therefore don’t usually have the same requirements for formal lesson planning as classroom teachers. 

There are many ways to plan instruction, and you may already be familiar with some of them. In this chapter, we will focus on an approach that is especially well suited to STEAM instruction in the public library: Backward Design (BD). As its name implies, Backward Design focuses on instructional planning from a design perspective, aimed at imagining and planning for effective, goal-based instruction. This design focus makes BD a natural fit for use with STEAM domains that also emphasize iterative, goal-oriented problem solving and innovation. Backward Design is also flexible; you can start with nearly any idea, and with enough finesse and a strong instructional approach, plan your way to an effective and educational STEAM program.

In this chapter, we will explore the Backward Design model and a few other useful frameworks for planning effective and engaging STEAM instruction in the public library. Each of the theories and instructional approaches discussed here are worthy of their own dedicated tomes—and they have them! We are just scratching the surface, and there are additional suggested  resources at the end of this chapter. See 2018’s Instruction and Pedagogy for Youth in Public Libraries ( for even more in-depth information about how these theories and approaches mesh with instruction in the public library.

Backward Design – Knowing You’re Going to Want a Cart Before You Buy That Horse

Backward Design is a concept that was introduced by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design, first published in 1998, and has been a touchstone of teacher education ever since. While it is a standard in formal education settings — especially in science and math courses — backward design is also a method that lends itself to instruction in the public library.

In short, Backward Design encourages a focus on learning rather than on instructing by requiring that the goals of instruction be established before considering the learning activities or assessments that will take place along the way. There are three steps to backward design, according to Wiggins and McTighe (1998):

  1. Identify desired results.
  2. Determine acceptable evidence.
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction (p. 17-9).

While the term backward design suggests something “backward” about this method, it’s actually quite intuitive and may even be something that you may already be doing in your library. If you have ever selected a book that you wanted to read for storytime and then planned activities based around the concepts covered in the book, you’ve already been practicing elements of backward design! Now, we will examine each step a little more closely and discuss what it could look like in a STEAM program at your library.

Step 1: Identify desired results

Think back to the last time you got into a vehicle. Did you know where you wanted to go beforehand? Unless you were feeling like driving around for driving’s sake, you knew where you wanted to go before you even got into your car. The first step of Backward Design is a bit like this; before you ever put the key in the ignition, you already know where you want to end up. In the case of instruction, your endpoint is defined by one or more learning goals: statements that describe what learners should know or be able to do as a result of your instruction. 

How you develop your learning goal for a particular lesson will vary. Perhaps you begin with a YALSA standard and then work backward from there; perhaps there is a particular early literacy skill you’d like to work on during next week’s story time; or perhaps a film adaptation of a book has been announced and interest in that book has suddenly piqued with your school-aged patrons. Wherever the inspiration originates, it can be translated and refined into a goal to be used in backwards design.

For a comprehensive guide to writing learning outcomes in the library setting, visit

Wiggins and McTighe (1998) give us three questions to ask ourselves during step one:

  • What should learners know, understand, and be able to do after instruction?
  • What content is worthy of understanding?
  • What enduring understandings are desired? (p. 17)

Thinking through these three questions gives us a chance to clarify the goal of our instructional session early on. One caution, however: while verbs like “understand” or “know” may be the first to come to mind, avoid using them in your established goal. Is there truly a way to assess whether or not your participants understand or know something at the end of a program? Verbs like “create,” “compare,” “explain,” “analyze,” or even “define” will create clear goals that can be assessed throughout and then at the end of your program. (Check out the box below for a list of verbs that can help you break free from understand or know, and the resources list at the end of this chapter for other sources of verbs.

Verbs to Use Other than “Know” or “Understand”
  • Identify
  • Produce
  • Predict
  • Summarize
  • Describe
  • Assemble
  • Solve
  • Design
  • Reconstruct
  • Compare
  • Distinguish
  • Test
  • Evaluate
  • Propose
  • Organize

Find more comprehensive lists at:

Step 2: Determine acceptable evidence

For classroom teachers, step two is often tied to assignments and grading: what evidence, in the form of student work or observational data, will show you that students have achieved the learning goals? One of the best parts about instruction in the public library is that we do not assign grades or evaluate learners’ work in traditional ways. So, how does step two translate to our practice?

The basic question posed in Step 2 does not have to be much different in the public library than in the classroom: how will you know if participants in your program have reached the learning goals you set in Step 1? But without grades and testing, how we answer this question in the library may look different. “Assessment” in the library means that your participants can demonstrate knowledge gained from your program. Perhaps that means they will be able to discuss the changing of seasons and why the trees lose their leaves in the Fall after reading Leaves by David Ezra Stein. Or maybe they will be able to build a structure out of paper tubes and masking tape that can support the weight of the entire Harry Potter series. Maybe you will observe them sharing ideas and responding positively to peer contributions in a group brainstorming session. The forms that this assessment could take are as varied as the learning goals themselves. See Chapter 12 in this book for more on assessment in the library.

Step 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction

The final step of Backward Design is where many instructors begin when planning lessons, hence the phrase Backward Design: planning the activities in which learners will engage during the instruction. Unlike in traditional lesson planning where a fun activity comes first and learning objectives are considered as an afterthought (if at all), in BD your learning activities are planned last, and must align with the learning goals you set in Step 1 and the evaluation methods you determined in Step 2. In this step, you plan your activities, determine what materials will be necessary, and think through where learners will benefit from more support or from more independence. This is also where you create or prepare any instructional materials you may use in your program, whether that be a handout walking learners through the challenge they must program their Ozobot to meet, a giant model circuit, or a take-home sheet with information for participants’ parents to extend the concepts covered during your program. See the Backward Design Lesson Plan template at the end of this chapter for a simple guide that you can use to implement the BD process in your library. 

As you can see, Backward Design is a straightforward method for planning an instructional session or sequence. However, BD doesn’t necessarily help with deciding what to actually do with learners during instruction. In the remainder of this chapter, we will share some additional frameworks and approaches that you can use to expand your instructional toolkit and add more variety to the types of instruction you offer in the library. 

Instructional Approaches

While Backward Design walks you through your plan from goals to activities, instructional approaches are methods that can be used to plan the details those activities and experiences. Three instructional approaches will be discussed here: inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, and experiential learning. Understanding the intricacies of each and difference between the three approaches is not critical; instead, consider how elements of these approaches can lend themselves to STEAM instruction in your library. Most of the literature on instructional approaches is developed with the traditional classroom environment in mind. We will explore each of the three instructional approaches in both the traditional context and the contexts of the public library. 

For more information about these approaches and their applications in the public library setting, see Chapter 6 of our previously published book, Instruction and Pedagogy for Youth in Public Libraries ( 

Experiential Learning

At its core, experiential learning is exactly what it sounds like: learning through doing. Experiential learning has been researched, critiqued, and expanded by many scholars, but was originally the brainchild of David A. Kolb. Kolb (1984), heavily influenced by the research of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Kurt Lewin, proposed that “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience (p. 41).” Kolb holds that “learn[ing] is not the special province of a single specialized realm of human functioning such as cognition or perception. It involves the integrated functioning of the total organism — thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving.” (1984, p. 31). Thus, experiential learning is an active and  multi-sensory approach.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning model relies on a cyclical four-stage process. The four stages according to Kolb are concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation (Kolb, 1984, p. 40). In other words, experiential learning requires that:

  1. The learner is engaged by and involved in the experience (concrete experience).
  2. The learner is reflective of the entire experience and process, not just on the outcome or product (reflective observation).
  3. The learner is analytical of the process and can create meaning from their observations and experience (abstract conceptualization).
  4. The learner uses their decision making and problem-solving skills to use the ideas they developed through their experience (active experimentation).

Did you notice that nowhere in the four stages is an instructor mentioned? That is because experiential learning does not require an instructor! Experiential learning can certainly be facilitated by an instructor, but the heavy lifting is done by the learner. Experiential learning is how we have all learned so many things; we just maybe haven’t assigned a title to the process. While you likely saw someone cook an egg many times before it came time for you to cook an egg yourself, it’s likely that you learned your preferred method for egg preparation through doing … and probably through experiencing a lot of dry or overcooked eggs. Experience truly is an egg-celent teacher!

Although experiential learning can and does occur in our lives and the lives of our learners without instructors, librarians do have a distinct role to play in experiential learning: facilitating reflection and providing feedback.  Micah Jacobson and Mari Ruddy (2015) provide five questions to facilitate reflection during experiential learning:

  • Did you notice?
  • Why did that happen?
  • Does that happen in life?
  • Why does that happen?
  • How can you use that?

Using these five questions during a hands-on activity encourages learners to slow down and make connections between what they are experiencing in the library and how that connects to their lives beyond the program.

Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) is connected to Experiential Learning, but goes beyond simply experience in terms of engagement. In IBL, learners work to answer a question that has either been presented to them or established by them. “Inquiry-based learning, if front-loaded well, generates such excitement in students that neurons begin to fire, curiosity is triggered, and they can’t wait to become experts in answering their own questions.” (Wolpert-Gawron, 2016, para. 4).

In her 2016 article “What the Heck is Inquiry-Based Learning,” Heather Wolpert-Gawron outlines four steps of inquiry based learning:

  1. Students develop questions that they are “hungry to answer” (para. 12).
  2. Research the topic. In the library, this research could be done using print or digital resources, but it could also be done by talking to community members or gathering original data. 
  3. Have students present what they’ve learned. This can be as informal as a turn-and-talk partner discussion, or as formal as a community event with invited guests (or anything in between!). The key point is that learners have an opportunity to synthesize and share what they have learned. 
  4. Ask students to reflect on their learning and on the process itself. What worked well, and what didn’t? 

School Librarian Collette Cassinelli (2018) suggests opening any inquiry-based learning experience with a powerful introduction. In the public library, this could be an entire or excerpted nonfiction or fiction novel, a video or film clip, a TED talk, a song, or even a question or quotation that will get participants thinking and speaking. In her 2018 book Inspiring Curiosity: A Librarian’s Guide to Inquiry-Based Learning, Cassinelli discusses four levels of inquiry. The first, Confirmation Inquiry, occurs when the learner is provided with a specific inquiry and proposed methods and resources for information gathering. This method would be best for learners who are new to the research process, but may prove less engaging for those with research experience, or in instances where an experiment is being performed and a series of steps must be performed in a particular order. Similar to Confirmation Inquiry, in Structured Inquiry the learner is again given a question, but then uses their own methods and selects their own resources to provide answers. This would be appropriate for experiments or tasks that are more exploratory in nature, but seek to answer an established question, or for programs where participants will select their own library resources. In Guided Inquiry, the learner is provided a general theme by the instructor, but either individually or as a group develop their own questions and then determine how to answer their question individually. This could take place in the public library setting as small-group inquiry, or as a whole-group if the group is small enough. Open Inquiry is the most learner-controlled, as they select the topic and question to be explored as well as the means by which they will answer their inquiry. This is sometimes called “genius hour” in traditional academic settings, but can also be brought into the public library through ongoing programs or events, where participants continually work to solve an inquiry over a period of time (Cassinelli, 2018).

While Inquiry-Based learning is often used to plan extended units in a classroom setting, it can be used during one-shot instruction as well! With younger participants, you could pose the question of which shape is the most structurally sound and then have them experiment with materials you have provided to come up with an answer. You could plan a lesson where participants have to determine what ingredients make slime stick to surfaces — especially engaging to participants who have experienced slime stuck to their clothes and perhaps even your library books! For longer-term, more structured programs with older participants, you could support them in open inquiry as they search for answers to a question that they are passionate about. 

Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning is a strain of inquiry-based learning, and is likewise connected to experiential learning. Although the roots of PBL, like experiential learning, are in the work of John Dewey, PBL made its debut as an official instructional technique to train doctors during the 1980s. After realizing that no amount of rote memorization truly prepared doctors for the real world, Howard Barrows — a Canadian physician and medical school instructor — developed a method of instruction where doctors would “integrate, use, and reuse newly learned information in the context of patients’ problems” (Barrows, 1985, p. 278). Barrow’s instructional method was then adopted and implemented by K-12 schools seeking to foster higher-level thinking.

Just as problem-based learning connected the academic with the realistic in medical training, it connects the academic with the realistic in schools, or in our case, the instructional with the realistic. To be truly engaged, most of us need to understand how the information being presented connects to our life outside of that context. (Think about the last time you attended something that was required but not relevant to you. How much of it do you really remember?) This is especially true for school-aged children, and is illustrated by the age-old questions: “Why do we need to learn this?” “When do we ever need to know this?” “Why does this matter?” “What does this have to do with real life?” By creating programs that invite the real world into instruction, you are simultaneously avoiding and answering those questions.

While inquiry-based learning centers around a question to be researched, problem-based learning centers around a real-world problem to be solved. In PBL, the problem can be proposed by the instructor to be solved by the participants, or the problem can be identified by and solved by the participants. PBL has three main phases that are broken down into six total steps. Learning is Open ( breaks it down this way:

  1. Make it Real: identify a real problem in the local community.
    • Brainstorm: think through what you already know about the problem and then about what you will need to research.
    • Define: explore the causes of the problem and the impact in the community.
  2. Make it Relevant:
    • Field Studies: gather information about the problem from resources in the community including community members.
    • Plan: analyze the information gathered so far and create a plan of action.
  3. Make an Impact
    • Create: create a “product” aimed at solving the problem; your product could be a website, a presentation, an awareness campaign, or an item.
    • Advocate: share what you have learned and the solution you have developed with the larger community.

For a full explanation of this process, visit the Learning is Open Problem-Based Learning Toolkit at

Synthesis: What are the overarching tenets of these approaches?

Although popularized through their use in classrooms, experiential learning, inquiry-based learning, and problem-based learning can all lend themselves to instruction in the public library. They all:

  • are participant-centered,
  • bring the outside world into the activity,
  • make the otherwise abstract accessible, and
  • can inform step three – plan learning experiences – of backward design.

See the spotlight box below for an extended example of effective instructional planning in a public library setting. As you read, think about which elements of the frameworks shared above are present in this case. 

Spotlight: Effective STEAM Instruction in the Wild

NeuronAt Skokie Public Library in Skokie Illinois, there is an entire team of people who collaborate to deliver engaging and educational STEAM instruction for kids of all ages. To ensure that their younger patrons are interacting with concepts and activities that are appropriate for their age group, they have one STEAM program each month for three different age groups: preschool (Little STEAM Engines), early elementary (STEAM Engines), and upper elementary (Be The Scientist). Each quarter has a theme so that repeat participants can develop their expertise through multiple experiences with a particular topic.

In 2016, Skokie Public was a host site of ALA’s Exploring Human Origins exhibition. One of their Be The Scientist programs centered around memory and the human brain. In a single hour, the little scientists participated in two different memory games, built candy neurons, learned about the intricacies of short and long-term memories, and even participated in a “sneaky” real-life memory challenge where they had to collectively remember something that they had all witnessed while they were distracted building candy neurons. (More information about this particular program can be found at Programming Librarian,

When asked where the idea for the program originated, Gudrun Priemer, the Youth Services Librarian at Skokie Public Library, shared that she had been inspired after seeing the candy neuron concept on Pinterest and then built a program around the human brain and memory. This is a real-life example of how external inspiration can lead to engaging and effective public library instruction using backward planning. Often, Priemer is inspired by a particular book that lends itself to STEAM activities and then uses backward design to plan her instruction and program activities. The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson, for example, got Priemer thinking about light, shadows and shadow puppets, and so she designed a program where the group used the library’s emergency flashlights to experiment with shadow making and shadow puppets.

There are three goals that Priemer sets for each STEAM program: “Have fun, be engaged, be curious about science and how things work” (personal interview). She has found that tangible takeaways have major impact and works to develop one for each program. See the chart below for examples of programs Priemer has led in her library, and the tangible takeaways built by participants for each. Since the creation of tangible takeaways and experiments can be quite messy, Priemer often has programs begin in one place and then end in another, or partitions the room into multiple areas. This not only allows for materials or experiments to be set up before it is time for them to be used (without becoming a lingering distraction over the rest of the program) but also allows for participants to continue working on their creation for as long as they would like after the program is complete. Also, because STEAM activities can get messy, Priemer points out that librarians should be especially good to their maintenance staff.

Priemer also advises that not every STEAM program at a public library has to be completed within the library! At Skokie Public, they have weekly “Nature Plays” for participants aged 2 to 6. During Nature Plays, the group adventures into the library’s Youth Courtyard where they interact with nature in the way small children are meant to—messily. They dig in the dirt and learn about the world around them. There are also nature walks where participants pick up leaves in search of bugs, and learn to identify the different creatures they encounter. In the past, middle schoolers have participated in experiential learning through gardening programs at the library and even sold the produce they grew at local farmers markets.

Table 1. Tangible Takeaways
Book Student-Constructed Takeaway
Do Not Lick This Book, By Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost After learning about germs through the eyes of Min the Microbe, participants built their own germ—complete with googly eyes—to adorably infest their own home.
Mr. Crum’s Potato Predicament, By Anne Renaud and Felicita Sala Inspired by the invention of the potato chip, participants made baked potato chips,  compared and contrasted potatoes and sweet potatoes, and took home their own sweet potato slips to grow tasty tubers at home.
Trombone Shorty, by Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier The story of New Orlean’s award-winning jazz musician, written by Troy Trombone Shorty himself, coordinated with the construction of miniature trombones out of tubing and funnels.

All of these student-constructed takeaways were shared by Gudrun Priemer, Youth ServicesLibrarian at Skokie Public Library.


Backward Design Program Plan Template

Step 1: Desired Results

Learning Goals:

  • After this program, participants will be able to
  • After this program, participants will understand or be familiar with

Step 2: Acceptable Evidence

  • I will know that participants are on track to meet the learning goal when …
  • I will know that participants have met the learning goal when …

Step 3: Program Plan

  • What activities and experiences will guide students to meet the learning goal?
  • What instructional approaches will I use?
  • What will I need to create?

Materials Needed:

  • Locate …
  • Create …
  • Contact …

Adapted from Wiggins and McTighe Understanding by Design, 2005


Further Readings

  • Cassinelli, C. (2018). Inspiring curiosity: A librarian’s guide to inquiry-based learning. Portland, Oregon: International Society for Technology in Education.
  • The Show Me Librarian, All things STEAM. 



Cassinelli, C. (2018). Inspiring curiosity: A librarian’s guide to inquiry-based learning. Portland, Oregon: International Society for Technology in Education.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Learning is Open. (n.d.). Problem-Based Learning Toolkit. Retrieved from 

Wiggins, G. and J. McTighe. (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd Ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Jacobson, M. and M. Ruddy. (2015). Open to outcome: A practical guide for facilitating & teaching experiential reflection (2nd ed.). Oklahoma City, OK: Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing.

Wolpert-Gawron, H. (2016, August 11). What the heck Is inquiry-based learning? Retrieved from