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The key to incredible STEM learning in libraries? Strong community connections.

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The key to incredible STEM learning in libraries? Strong community connections.

For this post, Dan Gilbert, project manager at the Afterschool Alliance, spoke with Megan Burton, STEM and learning supervisor at the Kitsap Regional Library, about their efforts to provide family engagement, STEM learning, and afterschool and out-of-school time learning opportunities to their community. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the educational programming offered by the Kitsap Regional Library.

At Kitsap Regional Library, we provide interest-based, community-led, informal STEM learning opportunities through a variety of modes: through public programs facilitated by librarians, in clubs or classrooms at all of the Kitsap-area school districts, and through intentional outreach to local service organizations to meet people where they are in our community.

In what ways have your libraries worked to engage families of the youth you serve in educational programming? What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?

Sometimes it’s easy: On most afternoons, evenings, and weekends in Kitsap County, you will find families engaged in intergenerational STEM learning where parents are welcomed to learn alongside their children at Kitsap Regional Library’s Family STEM Nights. In the cozy seaside hamlet of Manchester, WA, parents and their young children learn side by side in Exploration Station, a monthly event that revolves around a theme that the families explore together.

Sometimes, it’s more challenging. Parent involvement in teen programs is important but not as intuitive. In 2016, KRL was planning an extra special event called STEM for OurGEMS (“Our Girls Empowered by Mentoring and Service”), an in-school program that is integrated into every Kitsap County middle school and high school. We partnered with OurGEMS and a local architecture firm to create a celebration that would highlight the young women’s achievements and showcase some career pathways through fun, hands-on activities. As we gathered together to plan the event, we realized we had not considered how to integrate family learning into the evening. We leaned on our community partners for more insight, then began to design ways that parents could choose their level of involvement: they could volunteer to help with the event logistics, be a coach or mentor for a teens’ team in the activity, or be on a parent team and join in on the activity. By listening to our community partners, we were able to make a more engaging event and bring parents into the event more organically.

You’re way ahead of me! I wanted to ask about implementing STEM-related programming in libraries. What has gone into that process for you?

Beginning in 2013, Kitsap Regional Library took steps toward becoming a local leader in informal STEM education. We had to make fundamental paradigm shifts in our thinking about STEM learning – that it isn’t about the emerging equipment, it’s about the learning that takes place in the environments you co-create with youth. Our learning spaces became more engaging through our integration of Connected Learning principles, like having youth participants become peer mentors, or connecting our topics to things they are already learning in school, or helping youth see how their interests connect to career pathways.

Through many iterations, collaborative trials, and empowering errors, we found some very important truths: librarians facilitating STEM programs do not need to be experts in STEM, learning happens best when people connect on a social-emotional level, everything we do should be contributing to relationship building, and through mentorship we are preparing youth for careers that may not even exist yet.

How have afterschool and summer learning programs been involved in this process?

Library employees at Kitsap Regional Library are strongly encouraged to be involved in collective impact groups—our partnerships have made all the difference in the quality of learning we’re able to provide in the community. We have invested a lot of time and resources into building and maintaining relationships through community engagement, striving to make meaningful connections with people wherever they gather.

One of the best illustrations of how we are applying our work in collective impact is during Camp Create. Leaders from the Navy Shipyards around Kitsap, from local museums, and from the library gather together to co-design and implement a summer camp that features exciting STEM activities for tweens. The librarians act as the social glue to connect the tweens to what they’re learning and to each other – and the community partners facilitate engaging, hands-on STEM activities.

When Camp Create was first being imagined, many of the partners involved carried strong views about expectations—for participants and the camp itself—which required plenty of conversation and negotiation to find common ground. Consistently meeting with partners allowed us all to work together to find common values and create shared expectations. Ultimately we were able to come together to create a sustainable model where the library and partners could all bring their different strengths to the effort.

What would you recommend to libraries who want to see success similar to yours?

If you want to be more connected and be seen as a community hub, go outside your four walls and meet people where they are. Be better together. (And check out Kitsap Regional Library's free curriculum, Make Do Share.)

What recommendations do you have for afterschool programs who are trying to build family engagement- or STEM-focused partnerships with libraries?

I would recommend you invest in community engagement together with a close partner at the library. What you bring to the table are your people, your knowledge, your experience, and your connections; the library has all of that, too, as well as free resources that you can use to build on your existing programs or to help co-design new ones.

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