Equity in Out-of-School Stem Learning: A Reflection

STEM learning is a growing part of student’s lives now because of all the fast technology advances. There are many great ways for students to participate in STEM activities while in school, but what can “out-of-school” educators, such as librarians, offer these same students? This is the questions that a group, sponsored by the Research+Practice Collaboratory, wanted to answer. Their main question was: “How can professional learning for out-of-school staff be organized to promote equity in STEM learning?” Through this discussion, four big ideas emerged to support this.

First, “seeing, hearing, and honoring” need to be at hand with all educators, whether in school or, out of school. This means, staff working with teens, and other youths, need to listen to what customers want. The best way to design a program is to listen to what your customers want from you.

Teen volunteers work with teen customers on sharing new technology.

Teen volunteers work with teen customers on sharing new technology.

For instance, recently I had a young man reach out to me because he wanted to start a STEM Club at my library branch. Although I was timid at first, due to time and money, we decided to go ahead. The positives of having a teen led STEM Club is, they have more ideas of what they want to do, and are very knowledgeable about all different types of STEM programs and projects. When our department started having teen led programs earlier in the summer, we had great success because the teen volunteers were excited to present their ideas, and teens in the community were excited to see what their peers were doing. Seeing, hearing, and honoring has really helped my department in a big way.

Another great idea that is mentioned in the article is that staff should share stories to introduce new ideas. The reason for this is because everyone enjoys hearing stories, but teens like hearing staff stories because it makes staff more relatable. In an earlier STEM program, teen library staff shared their experiences working with Scratch and Build with Chrome. After hearing our stories, teen customers were more engaged in participation and more open to sharing their stories with staff. Hearing what has worked for teens, and what they enjoy, has helped us build a great program calendar with successful attendance.

The second idea is that “reflecting on teaching, learning, and equity” are extremely important because departments need time to reflect on programs with each other. In my department, we are always discussing what works, and what doesn’t work with our programs. We do this almost on a daily basis because we are always changing our programs to better suit our audience. The article mentions to lead this conversations with “questions, not answers; avoid do’s and don’ts.” This makes the discussion process more positive for all.

“Adopting asset-based approaches to staff development” is the third idea that was discussed. If staff are teaching a certain way, they need to also be learning in this way as well. Like staff should be seeing, hearing, and honoring teen’s ideas, they need to be doing the same for fellow staff members. A great way to do this would be to encourage library staff, outside of the teen department, to help with a STEM program or project. Outside staff will may make staff learning more valuable because they may have different approaches or ideas. For instance, a children’s staff member uses various STEM components for her Rookie Science programs. Many of her ideas are great for teens as well, if only made a little more advance. It is helpful to see what has worked for her children’s STEM programs in order to get ideas for teen programs.

The fourth, and last, idea states that “foregrounding equity to shape program activities.” This means that staff many want to keep these programs neutral from “political and historical inequities.” My branch serves a very diverse community of teens. Teens come from all different types of classes, races, genders, etc. All of our programs act as a neutral place for teens to learn, work together, and make friends. The article mentions an example of “connecting home practices of repairing material goods to the high-tech practices in the “maker movement.” A great way to do this, is to have every day objects that can be used for a STEM activity. There are many simple robots that can be made with just a plastic cup, battery, and other at-home materials.

Overall, when “out-of-school educators,” such as library staff, are participating with teens and STEM learning, it is important to listen to teens and their ideas. Simple STEM projects are great because it does not make anyone feel left out due to differences due to any types of challenges. When staff work with teens, and not just for teens, library staff are able have more positive outcomes with programs because we are providing our customers with what they want. Library staff are not only providing teen customers with what the want, but also what they need; STEM knowledge that they can use in the classroom, and as life skills at home and in careers.

About Maeve Dodds

Maeve is a Teen Lead Librarian for Charlotte Mecklenburg County, University City Branch, in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has worked in adult and children services, and was previously an elementary school media specialist. She likes reading in her hammock and trying new foods.
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