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.

PreK Art & Science: Little Blue and Little Yellow

Little Blue & Little Yellow via Chez Beeper Bebe

Little Blue & Little Yellow via Chez Beeper Bebe


Lionni, Leo. Little Blue and Little Yellow. 1947.

Mulder-Slater, Andrea. “Tasty Color Mixing.” KinderArt.


Copy of Little Blue and Little Yellow for each child.

For Frosting Station:

Blue food coloring

Yellow food coloring

Red food coloring

Vanilla frosting

1 paper plate/child

1 popsicle stick/child

Small garbage bags, cut into bibs

For Paint Station:

1 small plastic bag/child

Yellow tempura paint

Blue tempura paint

For Playdough Demo (If there’s enough playdough, can be a take home activity):


Blue playdough

Yellow playdough

Lots of handwipes


1 Day Before:

Make the blue and yellow playdough, if making your own. Use any recipe that won’t dry overnight.

Mix vanilla frosting with food coloring to create colored frostings.

Precut garbage bags into bibs, if necessary

Day of:

Put tablecloths/newspaper down in each activity area.

Set up paper plates at the frosting station. Put some of each color frosting in the frosting station for parents to help their kids with. Put supply of bibs at this station.

Get blue and yellow paints in small bottles if available, so children can more easily squirt them in themselves. If only large bottles are available, ask parents to help. Put plastic bags near the paint.


Read Little Blue and Little Yellow together. Try to have enough books for each child and parent to have a copy as well. I used the board book version to make it stand up a little better, as our “preschool” crowd often verges on toddler. If you have colored lenses, you can use these to help children see the combination of blue and yellow in a way that separates back out. When you’ve read the book, as about colors. What happened when little blue and little yellow hugged?

Reinforce color mixing by showing them the two balls of playdough. What will happen when you mix them together? Start with a small blue ball and a small yellow ball (have a backup of each handy for the end of the story.) Have the children walk back through the story with you. When blue and yellow hug, mix the dough together. What color is it now? What colors make green?

When you’ve retold the story, have them try some mixing of their own. For mess-squeamish settings, the paint in a plastic bag can be cleaner, and yet still a nice sensory way to have children squishily explore color mixing. Squirt some of each color into opposite corners of the bag and seal it shut – reinforce with tape if necessary. Children can then squish the bag to mix the paint colors, creating  spectrum of yellow, blue, and green.

At the frosting station, children can make a color wheel out of frosting on their plate. The addition of red at this table increases the number of colors they can have. Have a color wheel example on hand, but allow children to explain with color mixing in all forms. Let them take the plates home.

Parents and children can move between stations as they will.


What happens when blue and yellow mix?

What about other colors? Do they mix?

Can you mix other colors together to make blue, red or yellow? Why not?


These activities allow for some messy, sensory play that can still be contained in a library. Color is an easy way to introduce a variety of art activities that we will be doing in the coming weeks. Seeing that color works the same in various mediums (light, playdough, and paint) will help children feel more comfortable as they experiment with various art methods, as well as encouraging scientific observation and questioning. This is an easy way to help children who are used to normal library storytimes (the ones with books) transition into other learning activities and events at the library as well.

Try it!

Encourage parents to show children how color mixing works. When making pancakes, for instance, adding food coloring can change the dough, and thus the pancake. A tasty learning opportunity!

PreK Art & Science: Ice Painting

Ice Painting via Wadleigh Memorial Library

Ice Painting via Wadleigh Memorial Library


Schwake, Susan. “Ice Drawings.” Art Lab for Little Kids. 2013. p 36.

“Primary Colors.” Ok Go for Sesame Street. 2012. – 1:30 music video reinforcing primary colors as the basis of all color.


White Cover Stock

Food Coloring

Craft Sticks

Prepared Ice Cubes (See “Preparation”)

Egg Carton


1 week to 1 day before:

Fill an ice cube tray with water, dropping 5 or 6 drops of food coloring into each section based on the colors you want. Put the tray in the freezer. When half frozen, put craft sticks into each section to serve as handles. Leave some cubes without handles to be used directly with the hands

Day of:

Cover tables and area around tables with plastic table clothes or newspaper. Food coloring stains!

Transfer color cubes into egg cartons for easier access.

Set out card stock at each station, making sure each station has easy access to an egg carton full of color cubes.


Talk to students about color mixing. Some will have mixed colors last week in the Little Blue and Little Yellow day. Ask them what happens when you mix blue and yellow. When they realize it makes green, ask about other colors. What happens when you mix blue and red? Yellow and red?  Let them experiment with drawing a picture with the ice cubes, which will act like solid watercolors. Some may stick with the primary colors you’ve created, others may start by mixing. Explain that layering the colors mixes them, creating new colors, and encourage them to try this method. Encourage creativity and experimentation. For instance, does a green line look different if you go back over it a second time? What if you go over it with blue? Some students may begin to grasp the idea of primary and secondary colors.


What is a primary color?

What happens when you mix primary colors?

What happens when you add two lines of the same color?


This activity is focused on experimentation and experience. Children will create an artifact (their ice paintings) while discovering how colors interact with each other. While not all children will understand primary and secondary colors or the color wheel, this will form a concrete activity to begin thinking about this rather abstract concept.

Homeschool Art and Science: Gravity

Page from Jason Chin's Gravity: The Moon would drift away from the Earth.

Cover Image from Jason Chin’s Gravity, 2014.

A quick one-shot lesson plan from a juvenile art and science session I ran as an intern. I wrote this up in detail for a Teaching and Learning class during my MLIS.


Chin, Jason. Gravity. 2014.


For Gravity Drop:

Ping pong balls, marbles, Styrofoam balls, pencils, paper clips, erasers, crumpled papers, rubber balls, tissues, feathers, blocks, coins, Matchbox cars, stuffed animals, or any other object kids might want to drop

Eggs, if the experiment is done outdoors

For Art Activity:

Paper or other canvas material

Lid from a cardboard box – around the same size as the paper/canvas

Washable paint



For Gravity Drop:

Print “What Falls Faster” worksheets, 1/ child

For Art Activity:

Lay a paper or other canvas material inside the lid of a cardboard box. There should not be much extra room. If there is, make sure the canvas is secured flat against the bottom of the box so that the marbles can roll over it. Having paint in squirt bottles makes it easier to add to each box quickly.


Have two volunteers each pick an object. Ask the class which object will fall faster – which will hit the ground first. Record the guesses (hypotheses). Have the group count down from 3, with the volunteers dropping their object at the count of 0. Have the group watch to see which hit first. Was it the object they expected? Repeat this activity several times in order for students to make observations and hypotheses several times using different object comparisons. Have students draw each object and record which one fell faster.

(Note: As gravity will affect all objects equally, any discrepancy will be based on air resistance and the quickness of the volunteer in dropping them. If it becomes an issue, have the volunteers trade objects as a control.)

If facilities permit, have a chair or other platform available for those that want to be higher. A summer variation might include water balloons filled with different amounts of water.

Read Gravity. Ask students what they noticed in the book’s illustrations. What sorts of objects fall to earth? What happens when objects have no gravity? Where might there be little or no gravity? Ask them to think about environments where gravity might act differently for next week.

Start the Art Activity. Note that depending on class size, it may be wise to prepare more than one painting set. If possible, children should do this art project in groups of 2-4, although older students with more coordination may be able to do it on their own, particularly with smaller canvases.

Have students each hold a side of the box. Place the marbles inside the box and have them move the marbles by lifting and lowering the sides of the box. Remind them to keep the marble inside the box, but have them observe how the rate of movement changes depending on the amount of difference between the high end and the low end. (This will help prepare them for the simple machines unit). Once they seem to have a grasp of this (or when you are at least reasonably sure the marbles will stay in the box), add a squirt or dollop of paint to one section of the canvas. Have the students try to roll the marble through the paint and then around the canvas. After a few minutes add a second color, then a third if time allows.

Tell the students that this is gravity in action! Remind them to think about examples of places that gravity isn’t as strong.

Clean up and dismiss the class.


What is gravity?

What things fall?

What happened to each of the objects as they fell?

Why do you think that happened?

Is there any relationship between size and speed? Between weight and speed? Between height and weight and speed?

Can you categorize the items in any way at all?

Adaptations for Older or Younger Groups:

Older Groups:

Have students compare a flat piece of paper and a crumpled piece of paper in the discrepant activity. Begin to lead their thinking toward air resistance and mass, reminding them of the space occupied by air (and so the idea that air is “in the way” of gravity).

Begin to lead their thinking towards the idea of mass. Define Mass [How big an object is.] Clarify that objects with different masses will hit the ground at the same time if an outside force (like air resistance) does not affect them.

Younger Groups:

Students can skip the written explanation on the “What Falls Faster” worksheet. For PreK and K children, the teacher and other adults may be used in place of student volunteers for the drop experiment.

Other Notes:

Last week wrapped up the weather unit about tornadoes, including the building of a tornado tube. Students may remember that air filled up the bottom bottle (air pressure), and that water falls because it is heavier than air. Quickly reminding students of these comparisons and observations at the beginning of the class session may be beneficial and put them in the right mindset

Next week will be about defying gravity – floating in the water, jumping up, and the International Space Station. Consider leaving the items used in today’s dropping experiment for use in a water tank next week so that students can compare what happens when an object is dropped through air and when it’s dropped in water. What other forces are at work when something is dropped in water? What lifts it up? The movement up, and the amount of force it takes to escape gravity, will be the focus of discussion, aided by the use of the storybook Mousetronaut by Astronaut Mark Kelly, and culminating in the launch of a pop-bottle rocket with the group.

STEAM Three Ways: Silly Putty

Neon Slime

Cover Image via PaperPolaroid.

Library staff are often crunched for time, particularly in the youth services department (although I may be biased here). To that end, getting the supplies and planning for a single science activity that can be used in multiple age groups has a real, measurable time and budget savings. It’s important that these activities not only be adaptable in practice, but also in interest level. So to kick off this new occasional blog feature, I thought I should start with something everyone loves: silly putty.

I have a love of making silly putty. It’s fun, it’s easy, and you can change it up to suit the lesson you’re trying to convey. I tend to use the very simple glue/Borax mix. (I know, I know, it’s not actually silly putty. I’ll address the chemical difference in the “Teen Program” section.)

Basic recipe:

– 1 8 oz bottle of Elmer’s glue (brand is weirdly important here)

– 1/2 cup warm water, supersaturated with Borax (just mix in Borax until it starts to settle out of the solution)

– a plastic bag

NOTE: I don’t ever measure it out as they do here. I tend to put some glue and some supersaturated Borax solution into a Dixie cup and stir. If it’s too hard, add more glue, if it’s too soft and sticky, add more Borax solution.

Preschool Program:

I used this silly putty for part of my color mixing curriculum. This recipe creates a white silly putty, but with a few quick drops of food coloring into the glue before adding the Borax, the kids saw how adding a bit of yellow to the red completely changed the color of their silly putty. After mixing it up initially, children can take their finished silly putty and mix it together. Create a batch of blue and a batch of yellow? Try to play with them together until you get some green putty. I’ve used homemade playdough for the same exercise, but this BOUNCES!

School Age Program:

My school age programs run grades 2-4 and 5-7. There’s a huge range of science knowledge here, so I tend to keep my explanations pretty basic to allow for differences in school curriculum.

So let’s talk simple science. The FAQs on the Elmer’s Glue site and this excerpt from Steve Spangler Science both use the spaghetti model of polymers:

In simplest terms, a polymer is a long chain of molecules. You can use the example of cooking spaghetti to better understand why this polymer behaves in the way it does. When a pile of freshly cooked spaghetti comes out of the hot water and into the bowl, the strands flow like a liquid from the pan to the bowl. This is because the spaghetti strands are slippery and slide over one another. After awhile, the water drains off of the pasta and the strands start to stick together. The spaghetti takes on a rubbery texture. Wait a little while longer for all of the water to evaporate and the pile of spaghetti turns into a solid mass — drop it on the floor and watch it bounce.

Polyvinyl Acetate and Borax reaction
An illustration of the PVA (glue) and Borax reaction. © The University of Edinburgh

I haven’t ever actually used spaghetti to illustrate this point, but depending on the program, you may want to. The reason why Elmer’s glue is sticky are the polymer chains it contains, and this illustration really clearly demonstrates how these polymer chains behave when they are lubricated (the wet glue in the bottle) and when they are dry (the solid, bouncy lump of spaghetti).

It may take students a bit to understand this, depending on their grade level. Words like “molecule” and “element” might be beyond some of the younger students, so creating a glossary can be helpful.

For this age group, I often have them try to see if they can make a batch of “gak” – really stringy, liquidy putty, and a bouncy ball. Students can experiment with different ratios of glue to Borax solution, and might discover a few more tricks about how to make the solution more solid. For instance, the more you mix a batch of silly putty, the harder it will get. Want to know why, or have curious school age kids who do? Check out the teen program below.
Teen Program:

Silly putty is great for a low-key program or a planned science class. Low key allows them to just work out their over-scheduled lives with a toy they probably had as kids. It feeds into the maker mentality because they made the thing they used to have to buy, as well as reinforcing the engineering design process as they try to make the silly putty just the right consistency. If you want hard science though, here’s what makes our Elmer’s/Borax silly putty tick.

Louisiana State University has a great explanation (with graphics!) of what’s happening:

Elmer’s Glue is made up of polyvinyl acetate, which reacts with water to some extent to replace some of the acetate groups with OH (alcohol) groups. The B-OH groups on the borax molecules react with the acetate groups on the glue molecules (relatively long polymer chains) to eliminate acetic acid and form new bonds between the borax and two glue molecules. The linking of two glue molecules via one borax molecule is called polymer cross-linking and it makes a bigger polymer molecule, which is now less liquid-like and more solid.

A model of polyvinyl acetate, the reactive ingredient in the Elmer’s glue.           Copyright © Azim Laiwalla, UCLA SEE-LA GK-12 Program, University of California, Los Angeles

…Many of these borax cross-links occur to “glom” together many polymer molecules turning them into a pliable solid “silly putty”. This really isn’t the silly putty you buy in the store, since it will dry out. Real silly putty is an organosiloxane polymer that doesn’t have any water in it so it doesn’t dry out.

Polyvinyl Acetate crosslinking  with Borax
Illustration and structural formula for the crosslinked Borax/Polyvinayl Acetate result. Copyright © CSACNAS Student Chapter at Texas State University

Get all that? If not, don’t worry – this explanation is about on par with my high school organic chemistry class (and required a lot of refresher before I understood it myself. Essentially, the strings of PVA “spaghetti” get held together by the Boron molecule, holding them in place. The more places that the Boron connects PVA chains, the sturdier the structure and the more solid the silly putty.

Try this activity to give teens (and school age groups, if they’re advanced enough) a clearer picture of how the Borax binds the PVA, also from LSU:

Have about 6 groups of 4 students hold hands and form glue chains. Have them walk around the room. These are your PVA chains.

Then send out 6 individual students to act as borax molecules to grab onto two glue chains – one with each hand. Tell the glue chains that once they are grabbed onto by the borax students that they shouldn’t try to break free. This should result in all the glue chains being linked together by the borax molecules (students). Now that all the students are linked together they represent the more solid “silly putty” that was formed in the experiment. This is a rather good physical analogy to the chemistry going on.

Quick note: while I’ve used the term Polyvinyl acetate, the reaction with water in glue creates polyvinyl alcohol. Dr. Richard Barrans from the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy at the Argonne National Laboratory put the difference between the two like this: “Poly(vinyl alcohol) is a polymer with the repeating unit (CH2-CHOH). Polyvinyl acetate is similar, except that it has an acetic acid ester in the place of the alcohol group: (CH2-CHOCOCH3). Polyvinyl alcohol is actually made from polyvinyl acetate, by cleaving the acetate ester.”  Down to brass tacks, both PVAs make our silly putty.

Interesting to note that the side effect of this reaction is the creation of acetic acid, which, when diluted, is better known as white vinegar. This can lead to further experimentation with acids/bases in your silly putty. For instance, what happens if you mix baking soda into it? Will it bubble and fizz like a baking soda/vinegar volcano?

Wrap up

Have other ideas for making this silly putty recipe appeal to various ages? Let me know. My library does class structures for a lot of the STEAM programs, so explanations and iterative experimentation are important. How do you do STEAM at your library? Any STEAM activities you wish you had better explanation for, or knew how to use with other age groups?

Mud Painting, or How do I use this chocolate pudding before it goes bad?

I do biweekly visits to a local after school program that has about 12 kids, grades K-6. While there, I read a couple stories and do an activity. In the past, we’ve done things like build rockets out of pipe insulator and duct tape and a rocket launcher out of PVC pipe as well as a version of the marshmallow challenge (complete with faux-earthquake). I try to stick to solid all-ages activities, while still teaching them some STEM concepts.

Today was a bit more arts and crafts, although I think the kids loved it. We had been cleaning out the kids supplies, and discovered some pudding cups that had a month left on them. A coworker mentioned mud painting, and the idea was born.

I read The Pigeon Needs a Bath by Mo Willems. The kids had almost all heard of Mo Willems and his pigeon, so there was an understanding of how the book worked. It’s just interactive enough to get them to really settle into the story, and isn’t so simple that the older kids zone out.

I did a quick follow up with Harry the Dirty Dog, which the older kids politely sat through while the younger kids really got into it. They were really upset when Harry’s family didn’t recognize him. Overall, a decent storytime for a large age range.

But then I revealed the activity. So much happiness.

I laid out a big tablecloth on the floor for the kids and handed out sheets of white construction paper. Then each kid got a chocolate pudding cup.

I told them it was finger painting, and that they weren’t allowed to touch their clothes or each other, or in fact anything other than their paper. Surprisingly, they listened, and we only had one dollop on the carpet (it was a really old carpet, so I was told it was fine).

There was a thin line between using the pudding to paint and using it to eat. In the end, we handed out LOTS of paper towels and spoons so they could finish up.

I’ll be in for a special Halloween program there next week for Halloween, which will be pretty science-y, so it was a nice change up to do some art with them.

The picture isn’t mine (I never remember to take pictures), and was done with paintbrushes and actual mud by the wonderful ladies over at Sunflower Storytime.

Mud Painting
Mud Painting

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!

A Visit to MakeShop: Learning for Libraries

I took a class on makerspaces during this last semester of my MLIS. It’s been great – we played with some of the “toys” used in makerspaces to get us familiar with them, but also talked about the grants used to fund most spaces, as well as the goals of a makerspace and why they fit in with libraries. Part of the course was to visit a local makerspace and record our impressions, observations, and thoughts on how what we saw could be adapted for library use.

I visited the MakeShop in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh in the afternoon. I had visited previously after hours, during a maker educator’s session, but had never seen it in active use. I noticed immediately that children were actively engaging in the most basic activities – pre-built electricity and block units, while they required some encouragement to attempt some of the more unfamiliar activities, such as stop-motion photography. I came soon after their new “Maker Story Time” ended for the day, and was able to ask the staff, some of whom also work at libraries and/or have their MLIS degrees, about the way they put the program together.

They follow a basic storytime format – book followed by activity – using several books on one theme to segue into a pre-arranged set of activities. Unlike many storytime crafts, the intention of the maker activity is to allow children to self-direct the actual creation process, providing a clear origin (the book and related discussion), but no formal goal. When discussing this with staff members, they emphasized the importance of letting the children pick out what they think are the important parts of the story, which is contextualized by the activity set up behind them.

They also discussed the importance of a transformable space. Everything inside MakeShop is modular, allowing them to transform an active workspace into a storytime area (complete with rug!) with relative ease, then transition back. This is true of both the open area of the space, which includes several of their exhibit tables and their loom, as well as the interior space, which can be closed off using massive doors. This is where the tools are stored, away from children’s hands when they are not being supervised.

The necessity of supervision was another aspect of makerspaces that came to mind. Children in the museum are required to have an adult with them, which is not always a luxury that public libraries have, and is a struggle I have encountered when doing maker programming with children and teens already. The idea of signed waivers was mentioned, but no specifics were mentioned, as neither myself nor the MakeShop staff were well-versed in the legal implications of a parent-signed waiver. One of the staff members, who had previously worked at CLP Labs, mentioned that the Labs program occasionally sent home waivers to permit maker activities for the entire year, but didn’t know the specifics.

The most important thing, both from the interactions I witnessed and from staff testimony, is that staff in the makerspace require a very specific type of personality – a blend of on-their-feet creativity, a skilled background, the ability to teach (which is not inherent), and a willingness to participate in maker ideas themselves. When I was discussing the idea of iteration as it applied to the permanent activities, the importance of iteration in all things was brought up. Not only a tool for exhibits in the MakeShop, iterative design is used by staff to create basically everything in the space, from hardware to curriculum. Libraries, in their rush to participate in the buzzword-heavy wave of maker culture, are often susceptible to the age-old library adage that the collection makes the library. While the collection may be shifted from books to tools in makerspaces, there is still a temptation to always have the best, brightest, and shiniest, whether or not they are the most helpful. 3D Printers come to mind for both myself and MakeShop staff when this was brought up. (For the record, no one in the MakeShop thought a 3D Printer was particularly useful for makerspaces, especially those aimed at general public use and encouragement of design thinking).

While the reluctance of granting organizations to fund staff positions has been discussed, I wonder if the most important tool in a makerspace arsenal is a passionate maker educator that can communicate the importance of the thought process and the freedom to fail. Machines and supplies can allow for the removal of design constraints in free-use spaces, but are not usually in themselves inspiring or instructional. My takeaway from the MakeShop is that engagement is a human feature, not an aspect of machines. Learning is a constant process, and as the MakeShop staff said to me several times: “Never finished. Always working.” The “build it and they will come” idea that many libraries seem to have about all collections, makerspaces included, needs to be updated and humanized. Human interaction with a library educator will increase relevance of any program or collection more effectively than any number of tools.

Potions and Smoke

By Ralf Johann (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Game of Thrones sort of kind of spoiler alert (for a reference to dialogue only – no plot points).

A couple things happened this week in both TV and the real world that got me thinking.  First, on Game of Thrones, weird red priestess we love to hate Melisandre was talking to Mrs. Stannis Baratheon about humor, lies, and tricking people into being interested in the truth. This is a recap from memory, so forgive the obvious paraphrase:

Mrs. B.: If humor is lies, isn’t it best avoided?

Melisandre: Not always. See these potions? This one, when tossed into a flame, creates a column of smoke a mile high… Some tricks get people’s attention, so that they can see the light. You, Mrs. B, already can look into the light, and need no such tricks.

That bothers Mrs. B. a little. I mean, she’s the most devoted follower of the Red God we’ve seen – she is willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING for what she believes. And the priestess, the one she lets do pretty much what she likes in her personal and political affairs, is now telling her she intentionally tricks people to get them interested. It’s a strange moment to watch as blind faith fights with common sense. Guess which wins.

Pan over to the real world. I was looking at crazy, cool looking demos to do at the library for our Fizz Boom Read! days. One of my friends had posted a picture of his science camp pouring liquid nitrogen over a pool – a strong visual. That video is still private, so here’s something similar:

Note: DON’T JUMP IN THE WATER. People die doing that stuff. Nitrogen will displace the oxygen in the area directly over the water (the cloud) and breathing gets hard, but without the normal signs of asphyxiation. Again, cool to look at, not to swim in.

As I was looking at these demos, considering logistics of whether something like this would even be possible, something I was told came back to me. “You’re not actually teaching them science,” said a well-meaning co-worker. “You’re just wowing them with fireworks.”

It made me wonder. When I do one-off science demos as part of my storytimes or homeschool classes, and don’t dig into them, am I just showing them fireworks? And is there something wrong with “fireworks?”

It made me think about Melisandre, too. Columns of smoke to make the uninterested see something more deeply. To make it interesting when it would otherwise be obscure. To engage them where they are rather than waiting for them to get to me.

Maybe some of them only want the experiments, but there’s no harm in that. There will be a few who see it and ask questions, who will want to know more. They’ll be excited to figure out the why’s and how’s – they’ll learn to ask the right questions and make the right observations.

Maybe the kids can’t all look into the flames and see the truth, but for now, I’m ok with making a column of smoke with a little black powder.


Image By Ralf Johann (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Squishy Circuits

A few weeks ago, I was asked to sub for Homeschool Art and Science – a program run at the library where I intern designed for homeschool children ranging from age 4-14. It’s a drop in program, so there’s a range of ages and attendance that have to be accounted for. I’d never worked on Thursdays, so I’d never seen it in action. I planned to stop in the week before to see how it went. Then I was asked to sub that week too. It was going to be a trial by fire, apparently.

Having survived the first week (Jackson Pollock – the mothers were very forgiving of the amount of paint being flung around), I went into the second week with a better idea of what I was facing. And I was (hopefully) ready.

I’ve been reading up on makerspaces, which are a bit of a buzzword in libraries and museums (even colleges and corporations, sometimes). Wikipedia defines a makerspace as “a community-operated workspace where people with common interests, often in computers, technology, science, digital art or electronic art, can meet, socialize and/or collaborate.” The general idea in a public library makerspace, however, is to provide opportunities and resources for design thinking and skill learning.  I’d recently read a really top-notch book called Design, Make, Play that included articles from makerspace innovators across the country. Some were big – the Exploratorium in San Francisco or NYSCI in New York, where other ideas were more adaptable to my purposes – like squishy circuits.

Squishy circuits were developed at the University of St. Thomas by an engineering professor, Annmarie Thompson, and a few of her students. The challenge was to make something that little hands could play with to explore circuitry. Existing products were frustrating for many children, and were rarely intuitive. Playdough, they figured, was as intuitive as it got. Physics professors had been using its conductive properties for years to demonstrate in classrooms, and Thompson and her team figured they could make something better. Something that could be made at home. Something that could be shaped and molded by little hands. Something that could form not only circuits, but circuit SCULPTURES. And they were going to make it using only things available in the grocery store.

Here’s what they came up with:

Conductive dough recipe

  • 1/2 cup tap water
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 ½ tablespoons Cream of tartar (or 4 ½ tablespoons lemon juice to substitute)
  • ½ teaspoons of vegetable oil
  • food coloring (optional)

I made this is MUCH bigger quantities, since I was prepping for a dozen kids, but it still only took me about 15 minutes to make. I strongly suggest a non-stick pot, however. I didn’t have one handy, and there was a lot of scrubbing between batches.

Put all of that in a pot and mix it up a little. Put the pot on medium heat and keep stirring. It will start to clump up as you go. This will likely feel counter-intuitive if you’re used to baking, where you want most things nice and smooth – deep breaths, you’re doing it right. Eventually, it will get to a consistency where you can form a lump in the middle of the pot. Put the lump of dough on a floured surface (a floured sheet cake pan is great if you want kids to be involved in the next part). You might want to squish it down a bit (I used the bottom of the pot) and let it cool before you knead it. Once it’s cool enough to really get hands on with, knead it to incorporate about another 1/4 cup flour. You’ll feel when it’s at a playdough-y consistency. Don’t add too much flour or it will be crumbly – I made that mistake with my second batch. It worked, but it made things a lot messier.

Insulating dough recipe

  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Distilled water (tap water is ok if you don’t have this, but resistance will be lower in the dough)
  • food coloring (optional)

This one is more kid-friendly to make. Put the flour, sugar, and oil in a bowl and mix it up. Then add the water 1 Tbsp at a time, making sure to mix it all in before adding more. Eventually, it will get clumpy and doughy. Put it on a floured surface and knead to incorporate flour until it feels right. This is where you can make up ground if you added a wee bit too much water, too.

The doughs are ready to experiment with right away, and can be stored in plastic bags in the fridge to max out shelf life (about 2-3 weeks). If you do store them in the fridge, take them out a little bit before playing with them, as they need to warm up a bit to be pliable.

Once the doughs are made, basic experiments can be done with things bought at Radio Shack (some may be cheaper online – I wasn’t willing to risk delivery problems).

Squishy circuit dough in lots of colors


the doughs






LED diode



LEDs (10mm diodes are better for small fingers)




Closed battery casing with switch



and a battery pack with terminals



There are lots of experiment packets online, and I’ll include a few of my favorites at the bottom. Mostly, the kids played around and came up with their own problems and solutions. They started with basic circuits, then moved up to serial vs. parallel circuits, short circuiting, circuit load, and lots more great discoveries – all in less than an hour.

Helpful tips

I made the conductive dough green to help show the kids that it was a like a green light for electricity – power could move through it easily. The insulating dough was red, to show that it was a stop light for electrons. It seemed to help them understand what was happening. It also helped me see when the dough was too “contaminated” to be effective. At the end, we had a lump of brown playdough, rather than red and green, because it had been so mixed up.

We also broke a few of the LEDs legs from bending them a lot. It’s going to happen, so don’t stress too much over it.

The kids also came up with the idea of testing what other materials in their houses were conductive or resistant by using the battery pack and LED rather that a multimeter. This is great, just make sure to take a gander at the safety tips before letting them run free.

Don’t connect the battery pack directly to the LED, it may burn the LED out (or even make it explode).

LEDs only work in one direction, unlike normal lights, due to polarity. To make them work, make sure the long leg of the LED is attached to the same piece of dough as the red (positive) wire from the battery pack. 

Sometimes, thin strands of insulating dough will still conduct some electricity, and the LED will become dimly lit.  If this happens, use it as an opportunity to discuss resistance! This will happen more often if you use tap water for the insulating dough, rather than distilled water. It will also happen more often with certain types of LEDs that require less power. This can also be tied back to the idea that smaller pieces of dough are more conductive (it will make the LEDs glow brighter). This applies to both types of dough.

Crossing the wires on the battery pack is the most dangerous potential – it can short out, heat up, and explode of left too long. Be careful of this if kids are experimenting with putting the leads in the same piece of dough.



Squishy Circuits – Sylvia’s Mini Maker Show – a great intro video. It’s about 7 minutes long and covers how to make the dough, along with basic concepts of electricity and circuits, all presented by a 9-year-old girl. This was my go-to.

Squishy Circuits Project Page  – this is where it started. This provides recipes for bigger batches of the dough, and has some project ideas and a toolbox that shows possible additions to your squishy circuit explorations (including a squishy battery!).

Squishy Circuits Lesson Plan from UCLA – a PDF that contains a lot of background info to help you brush up on circuits, plus a guided exploration that asks kids to test different configurations and see what happens.

Liza Stark’s Squishy Circuits – a PDF that goes over key terms, troubleshooting your circuits, and has great pictures of different configurations.