You may have come to expect a full science program from my monthly posts here on the ALSC Blog. Today I’m going to share something a bit different, because my overall goal is to share STEAM programs–and science is just one facet of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). I want to focus today on a recent school-age STEAM program we did at my library: Marshmallow Towers. It combined engineering and the creative aspects of arts and crafts. Here’s what we did:
The Opener: Talking about building. What sorts of things do architects and construction workers have to take into account when they think about building? We talked about design and knowing the materials you’re working with. I also made available lots of the library’s non-fiction titles that give a sneak peak into buildings and construction. Heavily illustrated books like those from David Macaulay and DK Eyewitness were attendees’ favorites, and many of the kids grabbed a book to take with them to the construction tables as inspiration.
The Challenge: Build marshmallow towers using mini marshmallows and toothpicks. Or, if the idea of a tower wasn’t sufficiently inspiring, kids could build whatever they wanted. In addition to mini marshmallows and toothpicks, I also made available paper and writing utensils in case kids wanted to sketch or plan their towers before building.
The Process: The bulk of the program was spent with children at tables building, and I spent my time moving from table to table and talking to the kids as they worked. These conversations are the prime opportunity to make any program’s STEAM connections explicit. All of the kids who were building were doing engineering, but they might not think of it that way without a bit of prompting. I like to point out how engineering is all about figuring out how to build something to the specifications you want. It’s about creative problem-solving, and building with marshmallows certainly offers instances of problem-solving.
When kids were occasionally struggling with their towers, I tried to make connections back to our non-fiction inspiration texts. “Structure falling down? Maybe it’s time to consider the types of shapes you’re making. Let’s look at some of these pictures of bridges. What shapes do you see in the construction of the bridge? How could you use those shapes in your building?” I like to set an example that, when we have a problem or question, we can usually turn to a book to find some possible answers.
The Result: First and foremost, the children who participated in this program had fun. They said they really liked getting to “play” with a food like marshmallows.
Beyond just the element of fun, however, kids got to truly engage in this program. They got to exercise creativity–envision a tower–as well as building and problem-solving–figuring out how to produce a desired result, making modifications as obstacles arose. That’s engaging the whole brain and demonstrating that neither engineering nor art are mutually exclusive. I think it’s very important for children (and their caregivers in the program with them) to experience the fact that all the STEAM areas are connected, and they are all interesting and enjoyable.
I have observed that there are far too many kids who come out of school and extracurricular activities thinking that they “aren’t good at art” or “aren’t good at science/math/etc.” all because of a standalone assignment or activity. In the real world, it’s all intertwined. And if kids get to experience that interconnectedness first hand, they’ll be more empowered to realize their own potential. They’ll also be able to engage in all the interesting things the world has to offer them, better understanding the world and thus enjoying it more deeply. If the library can facilitate some of those experiences? Well, that’s even better.