Blogger School-Age Programs and Service Committee

Unboxing STEM Kits in a Box with Chandra Jones, STEM Administrator at the Denver Public Library

For today’s post, I interviewed Denver Public Library’s (DPL) STEM Administrator, Chandra Jones, who creates and maintains the library’s STEM in a box kits.

STEM in a box kits are self-contained programs that library staff can use to provide programming to the public. The focus is on bringing the different STEM fields together to allow learners to explore and develop 21st century skills that will help them continue to be successful in their educations and careers. Designed for up to twenty participants to use at a time, the kits target ages 8-12. Some kits, like Keva planks, have been used with toddlers, and others, like the Toy Hack, are successful with teens. DPL is focusing on STEM because of nationally and locally identified shortcomings in this area. The kits are designed specifically for children who might not have other out-of-school opportunities to explore STEM and are used throughout the Denver Public Libraries.

The “kit in a box” approach was chosen because it takes the burden of creating the programming and gathering supplies off of busy branch staff. Jones points out that “libraries have been using pre-made programming for a very long time, and STEM isn’t new to libraries either, but we’re leveraging these two concepts to make something incredibly impactful.” Each kit rotates between branches, stopping at Jones’ office to be replenished. A typical box includes a lesson plan for the program leader, participant project cards, program supplies, and basic supplies that the project requires, like scissors and tape.

Dissecting owl pellets with wooden skewer and tweezers
Image courtesy of Chandra Jones

Here’s a recap of the contents of the very popular owl pellet kit:

  • a lesson plan, with suggested room setup, which 21st century skills are being targeted, questions that prompt discussion and exploration, and linked to online resources, including a baby owl spitting out a pellet video
  • project cards with pictures of different rodent skulls and a map of a complete vole skeleton that they can tape bones onto and suggested resources for further exploration, highlighting library materials
  • a poster of a complete rodent skeleton
  • laminated printed photos of rodents that might be in the pellets
  • an information booklet about owls and owl pellets
  • 20 owl pellets
  • 20 tweezers
  • 20 long toothpicks
  • 20 condiment containers to hold the bones they find
  • paper plates to dissect upon
  • tape to adhere bones to their charts

Cool, but how much does it cost? Jones told me that there are two types of costs. The first is the initial box creation, which ranges from under $100 for anamorphic art to $2500 for LEGO Wedo. While some kits are self-sustaining, others have consumables and have maintenance costs from no cost per use to $200. This program is funded by the Luff Family Fund and administered by the Denver Foundation, so there’s no budget burden at the branch level. The program is an expansion of the similarly funded After School is Cool program, which provides daily events for children ages 8-12 in five branches, as well as weekly STEM programming. Jones notes, “My supervisor, Cori Jackamore, proposed STEM in a box as part of an expansion of the program, and was approved for full funding for five years. This is amazing, because it means we can plan further out than most grants allow. During this five-year period, we are seeking other funders, including local museums, corporate sponsors, and non-profits who share our mission.”

Since the creation of STEM in a box kits, Jones has seen an increase in STEM programming at branches. She attributes this to the friendly, easy to use nature of the kits. She says, “branch staff who were intimidated by STEM programming are now seeing how easy it can be, and are not only using the kits, but creating new programs as well.” She also learned that it’s important to promote the kits to staff. Jones suggests bringing kit materials to meetings to provide an opportunity for staff to see parts of the kit in action.

The program is running very well, but there are a few challenges. One of the biggest logistic challenges is moving the kits from branch to branch. This often creates a situation where a kit must be sent out a week before it’s needed and then might sit unused for a week after the program before it can be moved. Jones also wishes she had more hands-on time using the kits with kids and teens. She’s hopeful that now that she’s got the first year of her job under her belt she can spend more time observing in branches. She also created a staff survey to gather feedback on kit use.

Sphero Project Card created by Denver Public Library staff
Sphero Project Card created by Denver Public Library staff

Although Jones is the organizational and creative mastermind, she’s quick to point out that many members of the library staff work to make STEM in a box kits work smoothly in a big system with twenty-six locations. She gives a shout out to ideaLAB (makerspace) staff who designed templates for the lesson plans and project cards, the delivery staff who move kits from branch to branch, the supplies staff who gathers kit materials, the administrative assistant who makes sure supplies are replenished and kits get delivered on time, and staff who use the kits.

What’s next? Jones is in the early stages of figuring out how to create STEM kits for public check out. This has been a long time coming, so she’s very excited. She also hopes to create kits for outreach events in the community.

Interested in creating STEM in a box kits for your library? Jones urges library staff to go for it! She says, “STEM is really about providing new experiences and opportunities for exploration. This is what libraries have been doing since libraries began, and you’re already great at it. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or an engineer. Heck, I was an English major.” She encourages library staff to reach out to others doing similar work, ask them about their programs, and share ideas because libraries are all working towards the game goals.

What to know more? Check out the STEM in a Box Google site or contact Chandra Jones, STEM Coordinator at the Denver Public Library at cjones@denverlibrary.org.

This post was written by Amy Seto Forrester a member of the School-Age Programs and Services Committee. Amy is a children’s librarian for Denver Public Library’s Central Children’s Library. She is a co-host for the new Mock Geisel blog, Guessing Geisel.

One comment

  1. Dianna Burt

    Great idea! I’d love to see a STEM in a box list. We share ideas and box programs during the summer, but this takes it to the next level of year-round sharing.

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