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Building STEM Partnerships with Libraries
By John Freeman Posted:July 3, 2014 0 Comments
STEM education has been and will remain at the forefront of educational thought for years. As educators work tirelessly to prepare the next generation of STEM workers for these rapidly evolving fields, some students may not receive all of the preparation that they could have. As states rush to accredit STEM schools and programs, it is important to remember that no school can be the sole venue for student learning. Indeed, students learn in many places, at many times of the day and throughout the year (even when school is not in session). As such, STEM educators should leverage community partners that can assist in aiding students to achieve their STEM goals. One of these partnerships available in many communities exists between schools and public libraries.

This may at first seem like an odd partnership to build. STEM has a reputation for being forward thinking and future-driven while libraries have a more staid and classic reputation. However, those familiar with modern libraries know that they are rapidly evolving to meet the needs of the modern world. In addition to traditional homework help types of services, libraries are entering the STEM world through the development of makerspaces, acquisition of 3D printers and other technology-driven programming that show that they understand the importance of STEM in modern education. Formulating these partnerships can improve the effectiveness of a STEM program in a number of ways.

First, public libraries offer the chance for a community connection that many new programs may struggle to create. Often libraries are institutions with long histories and deep connections to the community whereas new STEM schools and programs may have trouble getting the word out about what they do. Because libraries often function as a community commons, they can help inform potential parents and students about the programs that are available and the benefits that those programs can provide. While advertising in traditional media can be effective, nothing tops the reliability and efficaciousness of messages received through word of mouth. By enlisting allies who are traditionally perceived to be reliable and trustworthy, STEM programs can start to bolster their community profiles and extend their reaches over time.

Additionally, libraries may be able to help STEM schools with limited resources. For instance, joint requests for major grant programs may be more effective when coming from a united front. Many foundations appreciate proposals that incorporate numerous institutions to provide a multi-faceted approach to the educational opportunities that will be provided. In fact, the Institute of Museum and Library Science offers specific grants for STEM education in libraries, which may offer a chance for partnership in development and implementation. Additionally, STEM programs that lack grant writing experience or relationships with foundation-based funding may be able to leverage connections the library has to fill these deficits. But on top of assistance through grants, libraries have long sought to partner with educational institutions to meet the needs of the community's students. After all, a STEM student is part of a library's customer base, and they need to be served effectively. Libraries in a school's area may be willing to develop a STEM collection for use inside area STEM classrooms, or they may be willing to purchase materials that coordinate and build upon the curriculum being taught within the STEM classroom. These services are especially important if a STEM program is new, exists within a school without a library or possesses few enrichment and research resources for students. In the experience of many involved in STEM programs, libraries are anxious to make these connections and assist any way they can in the classroom.

But libraries do not just have the capabilities of assisting in STEM education during the school year. They have long been partners in education during the summer through summer reading programs. In fact, over the last two years, the nationwide Collaborative Summer Library Program has featured themes that speak directly to STEM learning: earth science and experimentation. Many public libraries host events that teach students programming, gaming, science, experimentation, engineering and more through hands-on activities when school is not in session. Not only does this help in preventing summer brain drain, but it gives students an environment that shows that learning does not just happen inside the classroom but is instead a lifelong practice. If libraries in a school's particular area do not already offer programs like this, they may be interested in starting them and could use the expertise of a STEM educator in getting them off the ground.

When starting a partnership with a library, it is important to understand the bureaucracy involved. Oftentimes, a library will be a branch of a larger system, and there may be several layers of management. Smaller programming cooperation may be able to be coordinated at the branch level, but larger associations will probably be negotiated by the central office or library director.

It is important to remember that partnerships are a two-way street. Public libraries have a lot that they can offer STEM classrooms and schools: community support, summer learning opportunities, partnership in grants and resources that can be used in the classroom. STEM schools can offer libraries through this partnership a way to more fully participate in the educational development of students as they enter the modern workforce. As with any partnership, the exact details will vary based on location and the particular situation involved, but STEM education and libraries are an organic match.