Early this year, I learned that my library was one of the lucky recipients of an ALSC & Dollar General Literacy Foundation “Strengthening Communities Through Libraries” grant. We used the funds to create STEAM programming kits to be used alone or in different combinations for outreach programs. Our vision was to take these kits into after-school care sites serving disadvantaged populations and deliver the same type of STEAM programs we would at the library. We put out feelers to multiple sites, asking if we could come once per month to deliver a program. We thought that we would be lucky to get our foot in the door at a couple of places. In reality, we got ten enthusiastic “yes, please come” replies within days. And that’s how we ended up doing fifty extra STEAM programs that reached hundreds of kids in just five months.
Every month, we developed a basic program to deliver to each of the ten sites (topics included the physics of balance, visual math, structural engineering, robotics/coding, and electrical circuits). As anyone who works with kids knows, though, no two groups are ever alike. Each group varied wildly in the number of children present (sometimes there were 4, sometimes there were 40), as well as the ages of the children present (some groups were heavy on kindergarten and first grade, some were an even mix of K-5). Some groups were more well-versed in STEAM concepts than others. Some groups were more high energy than others. Add to that, the amount of space and setup at each facility was different. Then there was timing. Sometimes we had a whole 90 minutes to arrive, deliver the program, pack up, and leave–other times, only 45.
This might seem like a daunting prospect. And it kind of is. When you’re used to the amenities of the library’s activities room and the behavioral predictability (more or less) of the “regulars” who come to your in-library programs, this is like a whole other world. The good news is this: you can and will adapt quickly to these ever-changing circumstances. After we did our first program at each site, we were able to better predict how many activities that site would need in the future. We were able to figure out which activities would go over well and which would be a bust. We were able to customize the structure and flow of each program before arriving, so that things would go more smoothly.
Because we learned the hard way, here are five tips for doing STEAM programs “on the road”:
1. Engage the site’s caregivers. Be sure to show them how to do the projects you’re demonstrating with the kids, so that they can be another set of helping hands.
2. Smaller groups need fewer activities. It seems like small groups should get through activities faster, but that was not our experience. This is probably because small groups are more engaged with adults in the room and therefore spend more time exploring the concepts and projects. Bigger groups benefit from having more options.
3. Always bring at least two different things to do. One can be STEM-related, and the other arts and crafts-related, but offering both will give kids who don’t like one project a nice reprieve. This also leads into my next point….
4 …it’s an absolute necessity to have sites with 25+ children split into at least two groups. We preferred one group doing the craft project while the other did the science project, then they switched halfway through. That way, everyone gets to (or “has to,” depending on the child) do everything.
5. If at all possible, one of the projects should be something they can take home. Not only does this advertise to their parents all of the awesome work the library is doing, but the kids are thrilled to death when you let them keep stuff. Our first project was a paper robot that you had to use sticky tack and two pennies on to make it balance on your finger. They got to keep it all. Yes, even the two pennies. That, apparently, was more exciting than anything ever.
So, what kind of STEAM programs can you do at after-school care sites? That’s really only limited by your imagination and your library’s resources. We were fortunate to get a grant to supplement what we could offer, but a grant isn’t necessary to give one of these programs a shot. If we hadn’t received a grant, we could’ve brought building materials we already owned and discussed the principles of strong shapes and structural engineering. We could’ve demonstrated the fundamentals of coding without any technology at all, using only paper, pencils, and plastic cups. The point is that you don’t need anything new or fancy to start doing this in your community. You just need to take the first step by offering up the library’s services
Heather Thompson is the Youth Services Programming Librarian at the Kenosha Public Library.