Blogger AASL/ALSC/YALSA Interdivisional Committee

STEM/ STEAM demos and open play for school and class visits

The first time I took my public library’s robotics kit on the road, I was visiting a middle school on the east side of Harlem for a career fair. This school was largely Spanish-speaking students, so my colleague and I did our best to find bilingual materials and books to hand out (book lists, library card applications, bookmarks, pencils, etc). I had the idea that I would set up one of our robotics kits for the kids to use, for the purpose of showing them that the library was “more than books.” Demos and open play offer an immediate and immersive activity or illustration, without the need for lecture or a lot of instruction. This barrier-free engagement is a bonus especially now, where migrant students in our district are non-English speaking, and urgently need language accommodations that teachers and librarians are trying to adequately provide.

What was in the kit?

Our robotics kit features a robotics ball that is programmed to be controlled by an iPad. The kits are available for loan with a library card and are portable (the robotics ball is about the size of a golf ball). The ball is coded for many games, but the way I always introduce it to students is by showing them how to “drive” the ball, or make it move with the ipad. In smaller class visits, we have set up obstacle courses that they have to navigate the ball through.

Robotics kit set up in a toddler activity pen, so it doesn’t roll away in a school gym.

Show, don’t tell

Just as we display our books, we should display our projects and materials! We can highlight and demo STEM/STEAM materials during programs, school visits, and on tables at outreach events. I am lucky that my library also has other available building kits for use. These are portable and perfect for class visits.

Some of our favorites at NYPL are:

Aim to make your demos  accessible to all patrons  by avoiding too many instructions or labels. Have past STEM/ STEAM projects out on display (i.e. Lego builds, 3D prints, or a 3D printer that is regularly viewable in your space), to ignite student curiosity with visual starting points.

Complicated or pricey tech kits are not required in order to show children that libraries are places of discovery!

Some low-budget/ lo-fi options:

Provide kits for making slime, sand, or other sensory bins. These kits are great for talking about chemistry/ science/ physics, as well as simple measuring techniques, numbers, weight etc. Open up the activity even more by making as a group: providing one large bin for the kids to engage with. 

A group Ooblek-making session at my library.

Bring natural materials into observable activities: plant cutting propagation jars, seed planting tables, or eye-spy trays (pictured below). I think gardening is the ultimate STEM activity, because it comes with  bonus calming and mindfulness components.

Create open-building project tables with simple materials.

Pictured is a group using marshmallows and stir sticks in order to make a “standing structure”.

Beyond the book

When using our robotics kit, students have commented that it looks like magic and want to buy one –  asking about the cost of such a purchase. This is another great opportunity for outreach librarians such as myself: a chance to talk about public libraries as being spaces of free access with the purpose of community sharing and engagement on multiple platforms. We have to use these short opportunities we have with the schools and students in our community (especially within schools that don’t have their own library) to illustrate that we are constantly evolving spaces for education first.  Books and reading are practical applications of this – not the library’s only identity or offering.

All pictures were taken by Andrea Grassi at Harlem Library, New York Public Library.


This blog post addresses ALSC Core Competencies I (Commitment to Client Group) and V (Outreach and Advocacy).


Andrea Grassi is a member of the ALSC Children and Technology Committee and is a Senior Children’s Librarian for The New York Public Library (NYPL). She focuses on community-fueled programming and partnerships, which include: early literacy instruction and specialization, creative writing and art for elementary and middle school students, and sensory learning for all ages. She has also served on NYPL’s Best Books committees, in various roles, for the past 3 years (most recently for the adult poetry sub-committee). Away from the library, she enjoys crafting of all sorts and baking fruity pies.

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