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Year of Wonders: Launching a STEAM Lab in the Library

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This poor blog has been neglected for a long, long time. The reason for this long hiatus is that my focus at NPLD shifted quite a bit over the last couple of years. When I started this blog I focused on storytime and early literacy programming. I still do some of that, of course, but the bulk of my work over the last year or so has been one major project.  Before I get into what this project actually is, I will you a little background…

Background: Renovation and Reevaluation

This assignment came about a year after NPLD’s renovation and rebranding project. In 2013, the library was completely gutted, and reorganized. And in 2014, we opened the doors to a completely new NPLD. We had a bigger, better department for teens on the lower level, aptly branded as the Teen Underground (this link leads to interior tours of NPLD). The department formally known as Youth Services was rebranded as the KidSpace. In addition to a new, sleek interior, we expanded and enriched our early literacy play space. And we built a new, fancy tweens-only space for 5th-8th graders. Riffing on the naming theme used by the Teen Dept, we called this space the Middle Ground. *And yes, I still get a a bit twitterpated when I see these two department names in the same sentence because I am just that nerdy.*  The Middle Ground is decked out with it’s own computers, big-screen TV, and gaming consoles. These new spaces were an immediate success with the age groups for which they were designed.

Unfortunately, that left the K-4th graders feeling like they were left out in terms of having a “special new space”.  I mean, they still had the rest of KidSpace to hang out in, but they didn’t have a space all their own. This was intentional. After all, We didn’t want to break up the entire library into little clubhouses. The idea for the MG was developed because NPLD is an extremely popular hangout for middle schoolers. We wanted to give them a space to act in an age-appropriate way without disrupting service for younger children and their parents. Of course, for kids on the cusp of adolescence, being too young for something fun is maddeningly “unfair”. The K-4th graders voiced their displeasure early and often. But the fact is, they are simply not old enough for the responsibility that comes with being on their own in the MG. TBH, middle schoolers aren’t old enough for this responsibility either. We require them to register as a MG user, provide parents’ contact information, and sign a contract promising to follow a set of behavior guidelines. It takes time for them to adjust, but they do grow into it given the chance to to make mistakes a few (dozen) times.

In the spring of 2014, my supervisor told me that plans were in motion to build a maker space and digital media for adults and teens, and asked if I thought KidSpace needed its own makerspace. After the renovation, I had rolled out a new Maker Monday program that was struggling to gain momentum. So far, we had tried a variety of the popular maker programs that my colleagues at other libraries love: bristlebots, scribblebots, t-shirt hacks, Hour of Code, light painting, etc. I never had more than 3-4 kids in attendance, and even when they had fun, they rarely came back. I sort of grimaced at the thought of spending a ton of money, time, and effort on a space I wasn’t convinced our patrons wanted.

I didn’t want to say no. I love a good challenge. So, instead, I asked for a little more insight into what the library’s leadership was hoping to accomplish. It turned out, the Board of Trustees had shown a great deal of interest, not just in the Maker Movement, but in STEM education initiatives in libraries. Now, this was something I could really dig my teeth into. I closed my eyes, took a great big CHOMP!

I started to draw on my memories from past programs to look for science-y inspiration, and one experience jumped into view. It is the single most universally wonder-inducing activities we’ve offered in my time at NPLD: the Monarch Butterfly nursery.

Butterfly house as inspiration.

The Monarch nursery has evolved over the last two or three summers. It started when one of our clerks in patron services brought us a caterpillar in a Dairy Queen cup. Iris Henderson is a monarch enthusiast. She has a large patch of milkweed in her yard. My coworker, the brilliant Debbie Graham, decided to gather some caterpillar books, and put together a proper display. Patrons and staff, alike, were immediately mesmerized by these little creatures. People would come into the library for a quick visit, and wind up staying for hours to watch it nibble and explore its tiny habitat. So, Iris brought more caterpillars. She brought some into the kid’s department, and offered others as giveaways to curious patrons as they checked out books. The enthusiasm for these little caterpillars grew, grew, and grew some more.

One evening, a long-time regular came in with her mom and dad just as one of the caterpillars was preparing to pupate. They were planning on a quick visit before going home to make dinner. But when this girl saw the caterpillar hanging in it’s little J, she plopped down in a chair, and wouldn’t take her eyes off of it. They wound up having a pizza delivered to the library so they could watch the metamorphosis. I had been hoping to catch the moment on camera, but I had a program planned for that evening. I asked them for a full report. And the next time I saw this family, all three of them were bubbling over to describe the experience to me. I had so many questions for them, What did the antennae look like just before it metamorphosed; Did it wiggle around a lot as it transformed?; When did the golden glittery spots appear? They had amazing answers for each of these questions. Their descriptions included–what could only be described–as an “interpretive dance” to demonstrate the process. That’s when my coworkers and I really began to see how powerful this experience was for the library.

So this year, one of my coworkers asked her husband to build an official caterpillar house. It’s a simple whitewashed wood frame about 30 inches tall and 12 inches square, a mesh top that pops off, and fiberglass windows that slide out for easy access. This house allows for clear views on all sides, and it’s very easy to clean. It can house 2-5 caterpillars comfortably.
With this new addition, the staff’s enthusiasm continued to grow. I found a simple Monarch Observation worksheet on Pinterest, and put them in a binder labeled “Field Notebook” to encourage kids to draw and write their observations as they watched the caterpillars. All drawings are really impressive. I don’t mean they are impressive in artistic terms–although they are impressive. But more importantly they are clearly drawn from careful, conscientious observation. The field notebook also offered us an easy way to take statistics. We found it was impossible to track how many people were observing the caterpillars, especially with all the summer reading craziness. These drawings gave us some insight into how many people were actively participating.

But the other incredible thing for us as librarians is that we realized how much we had learned about monarchs from one year to the next.  I don’t think we realized how much knowledge we had acquired the previous year until the were back on the floor. We found we were able to answer patrons’ questions, point out subtle phenomena, and predict behavior without having to look it up.

It’s one thing to know how powerful a learning tool observation can be, but this really illustrated that principle to all of us. I mean, were all had a lot of respect for monarch butterflies before this program, but we didn’t really know that much. And while I wouldn’t call us experts, two months of regularly caring for and observing monarch caterpillars has deepened our understanding of their life-cycle. And when patrons ask, “How do you know so much about them?” Our response, “Well, we’ve read about them in books, but mostly, we just watch them carefully. Over the course of the summer, and we really grow to understand them.” At least half the time, the kids and parents immediately plop down in a chair to ready watch and learn.

So when the opportunity to build something new for the library fell into my lap, I knew I had to infuse it with this type of enthusiasm. I asked my boss if she would consider letting me focus on the Science, Art, and Math rather than the technology and engineering. Just to add a little advantage to direction, I pointed out that a makerspace may require a great deal of maintenance from IT. We have a small, overextended IT department that oversees A LOT of computers for patrons and staff. I suggested they might appreciate if we made this space self-sufficient in terms of tech support. She agreed, so I got to work.

Getting Down to Business

I like naming things.  The moment I decided I wanted to take on this project, I was struck with the perfect name for the space: the Wonder Ground.

Once this was set down on paper, I dove into my favorite part of any project: THE RESEARCH! If you are interested in finding our just how obsessively nerdy I am, you’re welcome to explore my Wonder Ground Pinterest boards. I looked high and low for inspiration: museum’s, zoos, nature centers, classrooms (esp) Reggio and Montessori classrooms, documentaries, parks, blogs, toy stores, and anywhere else I could find it. Once I opened my mind to the possibility that ideas could be anywhere, I began to find it everywhere. I developed a vision: to build a place where kids and their grownups can gain a richer understanding of STEAM concepts while having fun.

I moved on to develop a more focused mission. I read and read and read. I hashed ideas out with the awe-inspiring Rebecca Zarazan Dunn. I wanted the Wonder Ground to emulate the places like the Morton Arboretum and Adler Planetarium’s Planet Explorers even if only on a small scale. I got about a zillion ideas when I visited Gateway Montessori. A magical Montessori community that many of my friends’ kids attend.

Then I outlined the areas of science I wanted to cover: biology, botany, physics, geology, astronomy, and math. I decided to stay away from computer science and chemistry (at least for now). I felt these sorts of activities might create a headache for other departments that already have an intense workload keeping the library clean and running smoothly: IT–as I mentioned above–and Maintenance. I think these are small sacrifices to make in the name interdepartmental relations.  I have seen our maintenance staff stress over carpet stains more than once. I knew they would sleep better at night if I left chemistry out of the picture. I put together a budget, and started purchasing a ton of crazy science equipment (we had a large grant that covered this project and a Maker Space for adults and teens) to cover a full year of Wonder Ground themes.

Somewhere in this frenzy of activity, my department got a new supervisor, the indomitable Arianne Carey, and a brilliant new program coordinator, Deidre Winterhalter. I can’t say enough good things about these two. They are both stellar librarians, and all-around amazing people. Deidre helped me shape my amorphous, hodge-podge of weirdo ideas into a succinct mission:

Kids in kindergarten through 4th grade are invited to play, explore and learn in our exciting STEAM room. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math, and is crucial to a well-rounded 21st century education.  Wonder Ground is a place where we can gain a richer understanding of these topics while having fun.We will transform curious thoughts into meaningful questions and solutions that lead to a deeper understanding of the world

Arianne worked with the publicity department to design a brand, logo,  signage, and web content. They did–and continue to do–a fantastic job on the PR for the WG.




Inside the Wonder Ground

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to design the interior. The space is huge: 11’x 10′. I wanted the space to be flexible, yet structured.

I didn’t want to spend a ton of money on furniture. We needed a high quality locking cabinet for a few delicate items. Maintenance took care of that, as well as an inexpensive, narrow table on wheels. The table is perfect for our needs. It’s narrow, but not too narrow. And we can roll it out of the way if we need a little space play. The white wardrobe is from Ikea, and it’s works as storage+display. We can tie things to it and weave things into it the mesh. I like to keep extras (e.g. related equipment and provocations) in there for kids to explore during Open Labs (I will talk about those in a moment).

I decided to think of each theme as a module, and planned to produce content the same format for each module. A huge pegboard makes this simple and easy. I laminate relevant print materials (e.g. magazine and internet articles/images/infographics, weeded books, reproducibles from our teacher collection etc.), punch holes in the top and hang them from peg hooks, so that kids can read them during open labs. I hang baskets on the pegboard for storing supplies we use for every theme (scissors, magnifying glasses, tape, a plushy Einstein, etc.), as well as theme-specific materials (mirrors for optics, stethoscopes for human anatomy, etc.).

On the wall adjacent to the pegboard I hung a Big Ideas poster. I use this poster to highlight some main principles of that month’s theme. Each week I use this poster to connect ideas from previous weeks to that day’s Open Lab activity.


On the wall near the door, we have a spot for recording and posting kids observations. I keep a big pile of post-its on hand. Whenever a kid makes an observation they want to remember, I write it down, and stick it to the board.


These are particularly helpful when kids return the next week. When I talk about the previous week’s Big Idea, I often refer to a specific observation a kid made. 90% of the time, it sparks a specific memory, and the kids begin to draw connections between the idea and the experience in a very real, and exciting way. Next month, I plan to hang a clothes line across the room for drawings, questions, and other content the kids create during Open Labs.

We Have Liftoff!

We launched the Wonder Ground in the fall, and immediately developed a loyal following. I currently plan and facilitate two 2-hour open-lab programs each week. Each open lab is broken down into 20-minute sessions for 1-5 kids. During the first two months, it quickly became apparent that I had A LOT of learning to do. Luckily, I work in a library where experimentation is strongly encouraged. I quickly realized, I was trying to pack to much into each session: too many words, too much stuff, too much everything. Part of the problem was that I was collecting activities from a variety of sources: online, books from the collection, and word-of-mouth. Every activity I planned was extremely different from the week before, and lessons never built on previous knowledge.  It made me feel like I had to have all the answers ahead of time. Half the time, the activities went brilliantly, and others fell flat.

During botany month, we dissected beans, and this was brilliant, doable, and fun. Then the next week, kids came back eager to learn more about beans and seeds. Some of them had germinated bean seedlings at home, and had very interesting things to talk about related to the previous week. I had planned an activity dying flowers, and didn’t have any beans on hand. Some kids were happy to move on to the new activity, but others were clearly yearning for more. Luckily, I had more flowers than I needed, and as I looked around at some disappointed faces, I was struck by an idea: dissect the flowers! This went over like gangbusters. We pulled the petals apart, sliced up the stems, opened the sepals, spread pollen on our fingers, and so on. We discovered, drew, described, photographed, and examined each part carefully. We took magnified images using the digital field microscope. These two Open Labs made big impact on me, and gave me two big insights into what kids wanted from the Wonder Ground: 1) depth–much more depth than I originally envisioned; 2) a voice. They wanted to describe everything they saw and felt in wildly creative ways. They wanted to feel, smell, see things, and then relate those sensations to other experiences they’ve had. Their descriptions were personal, funny, scary, weird, and AMAZING!!

After this experience I went home thrilled. I was also a bit nervous to lose this momentum, since were moving on to a new theme the next week. I tapped the best resource a librarian could hope for: my good friend and neighbor,

Not only is Jen one of my favorite people on Earth, she also happens to be a curriculum developer and teacher trainer for the Center for Elementary Math and Science Education at the University of Chicago. I told her about the beans and flowers, and she took me to her bookshelves, and started plopping book after book into my lap:  science education materials, inquiry science teacher guides, textbooks, articles, etc. I truly had no idea what I was doing until I raided her shelves. Using her resources and brilliant mind, Jen helped me to hone my vision and philosophy for the Open Labs in the Wonder Ground. She encouraged me to focus on developing a culture of scientific inquiry where all participants can engage in productive science discussions. She has been helping me adapt these methods to the library setting.

This is a work-in-progress, for sure. Obviously, a Wonder Ground-like space isn’t right for every library. But I have found that the Wonder Ground is so much more than space and stuff. The Wonder Ground is a state of mind. If you’re interested in developing ongoing STEAM programs and/or clubs, consider how a science inquiry program can guide your planning. The Inquiry Project offers a ton of great information and research on the benefits of an inquiry-based approach. Their work is geared towards teachers, but can be adapted to a libraries. If you are interested in exploring the scientific-inquiry-through-library-programs concept with me, here is a great article to get you started: Talk Science Primer. If you want to see what we’ve done since starting down this new path, check out the Niles Library Buzz Blog posts from December on light and optics.











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