In today’s world, going to the library involves more than just checking out a book. Libraries serve as centers for research and learning, allowing patrons to have access to an unlimited amount of resources in various subjects. In Alachua County, the different branches of the public library are where people of all ages can bask in a number of resources and learning opportunities. With the onset of technology, the Alachua County Public Library District has particularly been able to expand on science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) programs, offering several programs to spark the interest of young children all over the county.
At many of the libraries, staff members find new and innovative ways to incorporate STEAM programs into their daily tasks. Library activities, such as story time and crafting, are implemented with lessons on science and technology that tie into what the children may be learning in school at the time.
“We’re focusing on different types of literacy, such as technology and culinary,” said Alix Freck in a recent phone interview. Freck is a children’s library specialist at the Millhopper branch. “We’re really starting to expand our services.”
One of the most popular programs is MAKERspace, which emphasizes the process of creation by exploring new technologies and learning new skills. MAKERspace involves several activities each specializing in different subject areas. Children can practice cooking techniques and try new recipes in FOODIEspace, or make a live-action or stop-motion video in VIDEOspace and ANIMATIONspace.
“With MAKERspace, we’re getting a lot of cool new technology so that when [the children] see it, they’ll think, ‘Wow, I didn’t know the library had all this stuff,’” Freck said. “They then start looking at our other events and start participating more.”
One of the most popular resources involves a pancake machine named the Pancakebot that helps children learn the scientific process of creating a pancake. Children can see the variables involved in the process, including air pressure, heat, and speed, and are able to incorporate a scientific element into their culinary literacy.
Another popular resource is SEWINGspace, where several sewing machines are set up for children and adults to learn to sew. There is also a 3-D printer for science-related crafts. “It’s been really exciting to just be able to have all of this,” said librarian Linda Dean in a recent phone interview. “We started developing these projects that really blossomed.”
Dean’s contributions to the program have helped children of all ages and economic backgrounds. In 2015, the library was awarded a grant for $2,900 from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. This grant allowed STEAM to purchase new equipment and provide access to technology for children all over the county.
“[I] always worry about the kids who don’t have access to internet or technology,” she said. “We’ve had teens from rural areas come in, and it was a very good program for them.”
For Dean, expanding the programs to as many branches as possible serves as one of the most important aspects of her job.
Part of the reason for the growth of the programs can be attributed to the efforts of staff members from all of the library branches in Alachua County. Every six weeks, they come together to discuss innovations in their programs and how they can expand them throughout the branches.
“We discuss what’s new, what’s working, what’s successful and what we want to do next,” Dean said.
Freck said one of the most effective aspects of STEAM is how easily it can be incorporated into daily tasks, such as story time. For library staff members, the goal is for children to learn how to use these skills in their everyday lives.
“The importance of having technology, science and art in your everyday life is part of what makes it so exciting,” said Erin Phemester, senior manager for youth services, in a recent phone interview. “[Children] see how they can make something new and exciting happen.”
Phemester said the programs have sparked a curiosity in children, which allows them to focus on learning how certain things work.
“We encourage focusing on not just the end product, but the process,” she said. “We saw children explore and really wonder about why things happen.”
Phemester said that all members of the community are encouraged to participate in the programming. Some programs even see parents expand their knowledge of technology.
All of the different programs have attributed to libraries becoming expansive centers for resources and as more children and teens participate, the interest in science and technology continues to grow.
“We understand the importance of encouraging not just literacy but curiosity and growth in all patrons,” Phemester said.
Photography by John Sloan