STEM in Preschool Storytime

I really love STEAM. Which is a weird thing for an English major-turned-librarian to say, perhaps, but there’s something really satisfying about connecting traditional literacies to more recently recognized ones.

I’ve been connected with a lot of great resources through the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, City of Learning, and the Children’s Innovation Project. This week I decided to start pulling some of their information into a new setting – my preschool storytime.

The first week, I’ll admit I copied from the always super amazing Show Me Librarian. She has a showcase of STEAM programs for children, and the one about the Three Little Pigs was just perfect.

We had a small group, so once we danced with our imaginary hula hoops, read through The Three Little Pigs by Bernadette Watts, and retold the story together, we broke out the materials.

I encouraged parents to come down and build. Each child built three small houses – one out of bubble tea straws, one out of popsicle sticks, and one out of Duplos. The kids took about 20 minutes to build all three, though they could have taken much longer. What kid doesn’t like building?

But the real fun was in trying to blow them over. We all blew together and blow the straw buildings apart. Even the stick building fell down with just a good huff and puff (the Big Bad Wolf would be proud). But the Duplos, as predicted, didn’t budge even when we used the Super Big Bad Wolf (aka my blow dryer). The kids loved it. The parents loved it.

And that gave me my opening for talking about integrating more STEM into our storytime. Apparently, a few of the kids had been asking if we were going to do experiments ever since my PreK Art and Science program ended.

The parents are interested in pulling in some more STEAM concepts, and I’m excited to test some of the learning scaffolds that the  Children’s Innovation Project has been studying in an informal learning environment.

It’ll be a great experiment in its own right, and hopefully will lead to some really excellent learning and fun here at preschool storytime.

Grinding and gameification

Cover Image via Massively on Joystiq

I’ve been thinking about grinding lately. Grinding in video games, per Wikipedia, “is a term used in video gaming to describe the process of engaging in repetitive tasks during video games.” It’s an issue in gaming, of course, and there are numerous posts about that already. (I fall in the middle on that – some grinding is necessary and even enjoyable, but find a way to make it integrated into the plot. I don’t wanna always be killing 10 more rats.)

But today we had our first meeting for the Teen Summer Reading planning committee, and we had a discussion about gamification. It was a brief discussion centering around our use of bingo boards last year. The bingo boards were not very popular, and we were trying to figure out where to go from there. How did we make it “fun” without the grind?

Now, my two cents on the matter is that while the world is full of fun things, and even fun ways to learn things, the truth of the matter is that eventually you have to grind at least a little. You have to go into a place you might not want to go and do something that feels repetitive to get the experience you need to move on. Once you’re proficient, you can hop into bigger adventures, bigger challenges. Heck, you can even show other people the best way to get around that particular dungeon. But they’ll come to their own grind eventually.

When I started baking, it was boxed brownies. All the time. No variation from the instructions. Dozens of boxes of brownies over the first couple months that I was learning to bake. It wasn’t always fun, but it was nice to see people enjoying the product of my labor. Occasionally I regretted offering to make brownies for an event, but eventually it became no big deal. I could make a decent batch of boxed brownies in my 30 minute lunch from work (true story).

From what I learned making endless brownies, I figured out how my oven worked differently from the test ovens in the recipes, or how to modify it to make it fluffier or denser, how to tell by smell when sugar smells done but not burnt. I could use those skills on cookies, then cakes, then pastries. The skills built on one another, but it started with just a little bit of grinding.

We ask students to study and do homework to gain proficiency. It’s not because we think that homework is so gosh darned fun. It’s because that repetition with tiny variations help them learn. We ask for a certain number of practice hours with a supervising driving before getting a driver’s license.

Sometimes we mix the idea of “paying our dues” in with grinding, and I want to be careful here. Paying dues indicates that you have to start at the bottom for a certain period of time, which is not something I’m necessarily in agreement with. I will, however, agree that that sometimes starting a new skill isn’t always fun – it can have its fair dose of grinding. The important thing is to make the grinding seem relevant. If we want teens (or kids or adults) to learn new skills using the library as a resource, we need to make sure that the boring parts are made incredibly relevant. Just like the level ups you get from killing rats and looting chests let you beat the next boss, skill introductions need to have a visible and important benefit.

They’re going to have to grind. Video game designers need to make it relevant to their game. It’s our jobs as educators to make it relative to the goals of a learner.

Ocarinas, Light Sabers, and Learning Gateways

It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This! Zelda/Star Wars Mashup

Cover image via Kotaku. Original owner’s site seems disabled, but if you know it, pass it on so I can credit.

About 2 years ago, a good friend of mine tried to get me into gaming. I was not enthused about the idea. I mean, I barely played Angry Birds. He sat me down in front of his console, put in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and sat down eagerly to watch me play. I was instantly… disenchanted.

Don’t get me wrong. Ocarina of Time is a great game – it’s still my friend’s favorite to this day – but it wasn’t for me. After that defeat, he practically gave up on me, convinced that if Link and Zelda couldn’t make me a gamer, then I was a lost cause.

A few weeks later, he mentioned that he was playing an MMO that I had heard of – Star Wars: The Old Republic – with his friends. Since I still wanted to get on board with some of his interests, and I already loved Star Wars, I figured why not? I created an account. I played a few quests. And then I went and bought KOTOR. Beat that. Twice. Countless hours (and dollars) later, I would say I’ve been turned on to video games.

My friend and I both laugh at the fact that he thought I could never start playing games. The real problem was that I didn’t want to play the same games he did. I still am not likely to ever sit down and play Ocarina of Time, but I do invest a lot of hours into Bethesda and BioWare games, and am branching out into some pretty sweet Indie territory (Gorogoa needs to come out yesterday).

Our problem wasn’t that I couldn’t be interested – it was that we were trying the wrong gateway. He was trying to usher me into games the same way he had been ushered in. While logical and well-intentioned, it just burned me out and made me frustrated.

Instead, I had an eye on the enjoyment other people seemed to experience, and poked around until I found my own way in. Gamers love to find workarounds, hacks, and glitches to get them where they’re going in ways that no one else has ever gone. Maybe I already had that motivation to go my own way (though that doesn’t explain my love of led-by-the-hand BioWare titles).

I know I’ve been guilty of the same well-intentioned error when teaching people new skills an interests. I know how I got interested in making/gaming/baking/books, and I want to show people in the same way. Sometimes this works. Other times though, my enthusiasm for the One True Way of getting involved in something can turn people off, leaving them feeling excluded and frustrated.

I can take a page out of my own book when I’m teaching. If the point of entry I’m most enthusiastic about isn’t working out, let them see the end goal – having fun learning something. Then share a WHOLE BUNCH of ways to get involved, even if they seem like the more boring, more intense, more complicated way. Each person will respond to different gateways. I certainly shouldn’t hold them back from trying each and every door.

Learning, Teaching, and Teen Mentors

Now that we’re actually in range of decent New Year’s resolution-making, I’ve been thinking. I actually started my first set of resolutions (reading more diverse books) last night – but more on that later. I also was thinking about what I want to learn this year, and what I want to share with others.

I asked that question of my Teen Advisory Board at the meeting just before Christmas. We were sitting there, decorating cookies (well, some were just unabashedly shoveling sprinkles into their mouths), and I asked what they were good at that they could share with others. It took some prompting – most of my teens didn’t seem to think that their skills were anything to call home about. But one of them managed to come up with accounting – accounting! – and figured she might be able to help middle school kids with math, or high schoolers with creating a balanced budget. It was a great start, and pretty soon the rest of the group had their own skills to bring up – baking, video games,  painting… the list went on.

Then I asked another question – What do you want to learn that you’re not sure how to start? This was a hard one for them too. We talked through this one based on the other question. Some of the teens really wanted to learn to bake, or how to design video games. A few even acknowledged that it would be a good idea to learn how to budget, since they’re old enough to get their first jobs.

Once the ball was rolling, we started to hear some more – robots! applying for college! dancing! It turned into a great discussion about how we could shape our programming going forward by allowing the older teens to mentor and teach the middle graders.

We can’t start that til this summer, at least not officially, since the Winter/Spring schedule is already released. But it’s a good path to be on.

Maker Camp, Part 1

Summer came, and I started scrambling. Summer Reading Program! Final semester! Finishing my internship! ALA Annual! Maker Camp!  Now, summer is over (or nearly – kids started back to school today in a lot of Pittsburgh), and I’m taking a brief moment to figure out what exactly I did this summer, and how I did it.

There’s only so much time in a week, as obvious as that sounds. But when lots of projects compete with each other for those limited hours, and all of the projects are worthwhile on their own, tough cuts have to be made. I was in charge of Summer Reading, with all its attendant programs, paperwork, and promotion, as well as a kindergarten prep class, and Maker Camp. But I was lucky. The director completely had my back and was willing to cover things. A friend of mine with only slightly less on her plate agreed to teach the kindergarten prep storytimes, and we managed to find her a stipend for doing so. Summer Reading Program ended up being a lot of front end work (marketing, organizing programs, etc.), which cooled down over the semester.

Which leaves Maker Camp. I’ll call this one my darling project, since I signed the library up for it. And getting a box of really cool maker swag goes a long way toward boosting any flagging interest in the program. The first box looked a lot like this, with t-shirts and such for the kids:
Via Play Make Share Studio, 2013

The second box had SO MUCH STUFF. Here’s the official list:

Maker Screen Shot


The LEDs and coin cell battieres were the big ones for us. We used those in about 4 different projects. The Arduino was cool, but we never really got to use it – our camp was too short every day, and the kids came in with no programming background. We had a Hummingbird Robotics Kit donated to us, though, and used CREATE Visual Programmer to build some basic robots with the kids. That was by far the favorite program. It was quick, easy to set up, and allowed the kids to exercise complete autonomy once they learned the programming tool. I’d like to step it up to Scratch or Snap next time, but we had mostly 9-12 year olds (the camp is generally for 13+), so this was at least a great introduction to the hardware of robots and the concept of programming logic.

Here’s the Hummingbird Kit:


And here’s a couple videos of the kids making things with it:

The library will be launching Maker Mondays this fall, and I’m excited to see what the library staff does with all of the amazing tools we got. Several of the pieces in the Hummingbird broke from heavy kid usage, but can totally be soldered back together, creating a really nice learning opportunity for both staff (who are brand new to this making thing) and some of the kids.

More thoughts and projects from Maker Camp to come!