"Turn on the Lights": How One Library Spreads Early Learning STEM Excitement Throughout the Community


By Everett Public Library

Note: This is the last in a series of blogs about launching STEM activities for early learners at the Everett Public Library. See the first installment here and the second one here.
After we held a few of our STEM storytime events with Everett families, we had enough photos to start telling our story and looking for community partners to continue this work. We presented a slideshow to two representatives from Everett Public Schools. They could see how much learning was happening in each photo, and they were so excited, they arranged to have another two people observe the playtime the following day.
During our first meeting, we talked with the school district about how our focus on children ages birth to 3 fits alongside their new pre-K initiative for 4-year-olds. They plan to share their early childhood STEM curriculum with us, so we can work together in providing a continuum of early learning opportunities for the families of Everett, beginning at birth. More ideas are brewing. We have a list of potential allies in this work, and we hope to continue meeting with potential partners this spring.
Overall, our STEM Fridays were a huge success, drawing between 25 and 39 families each week. Unfortunately, we are typically running at half-staff every Friday because the other half works Saturday. A program this well-attended isn’t sustainable without consistent staffing. Also, some parents felt the group was much too large, and they suggested we offer separate sessions for babies and toddlers. The families in south Everett were also clamoring for STEM playtimes to return.
In March, we are moving these playtimes to Monday mornings, and also experimenting with alternating weeks between the main library and the Evergreen branch. The sessions at the Evergreen branch will be held immediately following the regularly scheduled weekly storytime for babies, aged 2-17 months. The sessions at the main branch will continue inviting families with children ages 0-3.
Parents especially love the age-appropriate math and science manipulatives we put out each week. Some are simple items, like plastic cups and cardboard boxes. Others are inexpensive (under $10) readily available toys, and some are inexpensive-to-moderately-priced manipulatives from Lakeshore Learning or Discount School Supply. Many parents plan to buy cups and save boxes to experiment with at home. Others parents want to know where they can purchase the same toys we use.
A couple months in, parents started asking, “What if we could check out these special manipulatives from the library, to use at home?” Bingo! We were so excited when parents requested STEM kits, similar to the ones we’d brainstormed when we applied for funding from Thrive by Five Washington. Parents still want the in-library activities for the social aspect, but the kits will let them continue the activities at home.
We have seen a STEM ripple effect. The librarian who schedules our Saturday programs for families and for teens has been choosing STEM topics. A recent Animal Encounters petting zoo at the branch library drew about 300 attendees who had to take turns seeing the animals in shifts, because of space constraints. The Pacific Science Center visited our library in February, and presented “Volts and Jolts: Experiments with Electricity,” which was attended by about 50 participants. Teens and ‘tweens were signing up weeks in advance for a program called Carnivorous Terrariums, where 24 lucky people took home the terrariums they planted.

Older students build terrariums as part of a series of events with STEM themes at the library

Older students build terrariums as part of a series of events with STEM themes at the library

STEM is creeping into almost everything we do in the youth Services department of the library. When we ordered new area rugs for our two storytime rooms, we chose one rug with a world geography theme, and one rug with a solar system theme. A library customer offered us the indefinite loan of a vintage Jeep grill, complete with headlights. We had the Jeep grill installed on the wall next to our Youth Services information desk, with a sign encouraging kids to see what happens to the headlights when they flip the light switch.
While the ceiling was opened up to install the light switch for the Jeep, the electrician suggested we replace those ceiling tiles with Plexiglas, so kids could see into the “guts” of the building. We haven’t managed to implement this idea yet, but we like the idea of having hard hats for the kids to wear, and flashlights, and information cards to help them identify HVAC, sprinkler and data systems. It’s just one example of what often happens when we tell our colleagues what we’re doing with STEM and children under 3. The ideas and suggestions begin flowing.
During this stage of our Thrive-funded project, we developed a great analogy and tagline: “Turn on the lights.” Our Jeep’s headlights help us illustrate that idea. Because really, STEM isn’t some big, intimidating thing that only people with college degrees can understand. STEM is everywhere, and for children under 3, all we need to do is explore the world together, play, and use interesting words to describe everything we do and see.
All we are doing is waking up different parts of a child’s rapidly developing brain, which is already wired for this kind of learning. When our librarians visited the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington this month, that is exactly what the scans of babies showed: little lights turning on inside their brains.
Click here to read the first and second installments from Everett Public Library.