Monday, January 23, 2023

S-T-E-M is a Four-Letter Word! - Part 2, Tips & Resources


Library STEM programming
Image by brgfx on Freepik

In Part 1 of this series I cautioned against the recent prioritization of the "T" in STEM, and in particular the extreme focus on coding I've observed in the last few years, which seems to imply that everyone must learn coding to be successful or that coding knowledge guarantees success; neither of which is true. I advocate for a more well-rounded approach, exposing kids to all areas of STEM. I'd like to follow-up with some general considerations when doing STEM activities, ways to incorporate STEM elements into other programs, a brief discussion of STEM vs. STEAM, and a few resources.

STEM has become one of the trendy buzzwords in both the education field and in library programming, and anytime something becomes an industry buzzword, it tends to be overused and misused, and STEM is no exception. I've seen programs and activities labeled as "STEM" that really didn't include any STEM, or that presented factually inaccurate information and examples. For example, slime programs might be considered a science program, but only if you talk about what polymers (the glue) are and how the borax makes it turn into slime by cross-linking the strands of glue. Another example, an attempt to convert a snowflake craft into a STEM activity by talking about how snowflakes have symmetry, but then the example provided showed 4-pointed snowflakes; the factual inaccuracy negates its STEM value.

Here are some things to keep in mind when planning STEM activities:

  • It's the PROCESS, not the product!
  • Let the kids do as much themselves as possible.
  • "Failure" is an opportunity for critical thinking and problem solving.
  • Be sure you are highlighting and explaining the STEM principles involved.
  • Be sure you are presenting accurate information!
  • Test only one variable at a time.
  • Invest in basic equipment/supplies with multiple uses
    • measuring cups, spoons
    • kitchen scale
    • thermometers
    • hot plate
    • craft sticks
    • disposable pipettes
    • open-ended building sets
  • Do your research before buying expensive gadgets, be sure they're appropriate for the intended age and goals
  • Partner with other libraries to share more expensive equipment
  • If you're on a tight budget, baking soda & vinegar are your friends!

Remember, you don't have to have a full-on STEM program to be doing STEM; you can incorporate STEM elements and thinking into other programs and activities. These are all STEM activities/skills:
  • Counting, adding, subtracting, and other calculations
  • Measuring
  • Graphing
  • Grouping/Sorting
  • Patterns
  • Making observations
  • Making predictions
  • Including factual information, such as non-fiction books in storytime or book clubs
  • Building (blocks, bricks, magnetic tiles, etc.)
  • Point out the STEM in art, cooking, and other activities.
  • Encourage kids to ask questions and to find or figure out the answers
  • Open-ended activities, such as process art, loose-parts play
  • Multidisciplinary programs combining arts/crafts, STEM, motor, and sensory activities
  • Including STEM careers in career days/fairs

As I mentioned in Part 1, the "STEM" acronym was coined by the National Science Federation, and replaced the earlier "SMET". Though SMET more accurately portrayed how the four disciplines overlap and build on each other, it just wasn't as catchy as "STEM". Later, advocates for art education, and particularly multi-disciplinary programs combining art and science, advocated for adding an "A" to make "STEAM". I've seen some then advocate for adding an "R" for reading, changing it to "STREAM".

I tend to use STEM most of the time, partly because it came first and partly because I am a science person. I generally use STEAM only when I'm doing a program that really does combine art and science, but I do tag my posts with both acronyms to be sure they can be found regardless of which acronym someone is searching with. Many people use them fairly interchangeably. Here are a few programs I've done that I would call STEAM because they either considered the science involved in an art technique, used science/tech to create art, included an artistic/creative component, or was a multi-disciplinary program with multiple activity stations:
  • Doodlebots - can be creative in designing their appearance, and used to create art
  • Snowflake Science - made snowflake art with cotton swabs, as well as resist art
  • Spy School - used resist art to make and reveal hidden messages
  • Paper Circuits - used paper circuits to add light effects to artwork
  • Mini Gingerbread Houses - Design, build, and decorate a gingerbread house
  • Kaleidoscopes - artistic creativity in creating patterned disks to view
  • DNA Extraction - made candy and origami DNA models
  • Dinosaurs - a multi-station program with STEM, art, and sensory elements.
I personally find STREAM to be a "kitchen sink" approach, and muddies things too much, taking the focus away from the sciences. I don't ever use it, and I don't see it used nearly as often as STEM or STEAM, though that could always change. Obviously as a children's librarian I think reading is important, but I also feel like that is a given in a library setting. It's largely a matter of personal or institutional preference which acronym is used, and I encourage you to use whichever one makes the most sense to you and your patrons or students, and best reflects your programs and goals. 

Now, for a few resources to help you get started, though this is by no means a complete list!
I'm sure there are many, many more resources out there, so if you know a good one I missed, please leave it in the comments below!

In the the final article of this series, I'll throw out a few program ideas for each area to help get you started.

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