Blogger Kaitlin Frick

STEAM on a Shoestring: Engineering

Looking for some ideas to inject a little life into your STEAM programming? Don’t have a lot of money to throw around? You may not know, but librarians are kind of a great resource for that. When I’m feeling run down and completely out of ideas, I like to check in with some of my favorite librarians – because chances are, at least one of them has an idea I’ve never used before, and probably never would have thought up without their input.

So if you’re feeling a little lost, check out these engineering-focused suggestions from some of the greatest librarians I know:

Kristin McWilliams, Youth Manager with Houston Public Library (TX)

“In my After School Zone, we did a zip-line challenge the kids were really into. I told them they needed to make something that could hold plastic dinosaurs and attach to the line to carry them safely down. The kids made some really creative designs using card stock, index cards, straws, pipe cleaners, craft sticks, Styrofoam cups, masking tape, paper clips and binder clips. Sometimes they need a little more guidance and direction when talking about their designs and building them, but the fourth graders I had this most recent time did really well.”

Krista Mullinnix, Youth Services Manager with Putnam County Public Library (IN)

“I got this idea from Science Buddies. We talked about skyscrapers and how engineers have to be innovative to build such tall structures to stand up against forces like gravity, environmental forces, and lateral movement from tectonic plates. And the way engineers simulate an earthquake on model buildings is by using a shake table. So we built our own shake tables using an old binder, 4 rubber balls I bought at Dollar Tree, and two rubber bands. We then built a series of Lego towers of increasing height (keeping the same base pattern) and tested them on our shake table.”

Kelly Smith, Children’s Library Trainee with New York Public Library (NY)

“One of our recurring programs is called Blocks Party. It’s a building program for all ages, where we get out Legos, Duplos, Soft Blocks, and IO Blocks. IO Blocks are the most popular; they come in different shapes and colors, and the kids can construct creations of their own or use one of the IO Blocks ‘creativity cards’ to replicate a design using problem solving skills.”

Grace Zell, Senior Children’s Librarian with New York Public Library (NY)

“This was for our Busy Builders program, which is a STEAM-focused program that introduces kids to thinking like an engineer. In this lesson we discussed the engineering process and then tackled a problem. Our goal was to harvest a candy ‘pumpkin patch’ using a tool of our own design–but not our hands! Children were provided all materials (craft sticks, yarn, pipe cleaners, clothespins, binder clips, etc.) and were asked to design a harvesting tool that would move pumpkins from the patch into a separate storage receptacle. Some participants took this an extra step and built something that would harvest multiple pumpkins at one time!”

Need some more inspiration? Check out these great resources:

The Show Me Librarian: All Things STEAM

STEM in Libraries blog

WebJunction: Resources for STEM/STEAM Projects and Programs


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials and III. Programming Skills.

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