Monday, January 12, 2015

Welcome to the BOOMbox, Skokie's STEAM Space! An interview with Amy Holcomb

Just about two months ago, the newest learning space at Skokie Public Library opened: the BOOMbox. Day-to-day management and planning for the BOOMbox falls to Amy Holcomb, Experiential Learning Librarian. She was kind enough to answer some questions about the BOOMbox, the philosophy for the space, and what's taking place in the BOOMbox for library customers from grades 3 through adults.

1. What is the BOOMbox?

Experiential Learning Librarian Amy Holcomb
leading a 2D Printing Boot Camp in the BOOMbox
(photo by Skokie Public Library,
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The BOOMbox is a new STEAM space based on the museum concept of rotating displays but, in this case, rotating interactive STEAM learning experiences. Linked with other library spaces like the Youth Computer Lab and the Craft Room, the BOOMbox promotes extended exploration of ideas and inventions through multiple mediums like 3D printing, hands on textiles, and digital art design. Activities largely use free software, which is also be available on PCs in the Youth Computer Lab, Computer Classroom, and the Digital Media Labs.

The space will have quarterly themes, with Fabrication as the first rotation that runs through February. The BOOMbox is open four hours daily, mostly for drop-in use for youth (grades 3-8), high school students, and adults. Drop-in hours are defined by age group and are offered after school during the week and during the day on the weekends. Drop-in times are designed to promote self-directed exploration alongside mentor-facilitated learning. Weekly youth classes are offered on Tuesdays and bi-weekly adult classes are offered on Thursdays.

2. What was the impetus for creating the BOOMbox?

The library’s high school district is well equipped with modern and emerging technologies. However, several feeder junior high schools are not. A major objective of the BOOMbox is to bridge the tech/info gap between the junior high and high schools. We want to expose kids in grades 6-8 to some of the equipment and software they will see when entering high school. We also wanted to improve their afterschool experience. The library is located across the street from one of the junior high schools and many kids frequent the library everyday when school is out. While pop-up programming in the Junior High Zone and access to the youth computer lab offer safe havens for socializing and, on occasion, educational entertainment, we wanted to expand our offerings for this age group.

3. What types of equipment are available in the BOOMbox?

A painting made via WaterColorBot at a
2D Printing Boot Camp in the BOOMbox
(photo by Skokie Public Library,
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In the current Fabrication rotation, we offer access to popular makerspace equipment. This includes: two UP! Mini 3D Printers, a Silhouette Cameo vinyl cutter, a WaterColorBot, an EggBot Pro, a classroom set of Arduino Inventor Kits, LEGO WeDo kits, MakeyMakeys, and ten 3Doodlers. In addition, we rotate in more traditional arts and crafts supplies for the ultimate maker experience.

In future rotations will feature microscopes, telescopes, robotics kits, sewing machines, and much more. We will repurpose equipment like the 3D printers and vinyl cutter in other spaces before bringing them back for use in the BOOMbox. Other items from future installations, like sewing machines and microscopes, will circulate after their associated rotation. Supplement equipment like tablets and laptops will remain in the space full time for instruction, online tutorials, etc.

4. What types of programs and services is SPL offering in, and in conjunction with, the BOOMbox?

Each rotation offers an assortment of programs and classes for the targeted age groups. The Fabrication rotation offers introductory programs to the makerspace equipment like the 3D printers as well as two-day immersive Boot Camp programs. The programs are designed to reflect connected learning concepts, where the staff member provides some structure but the activities are largely self-directed, have an option for extension beyond the space, and are social. Adult classes tend to be introductory. Moving forward, we’ll host MOOC study groups working off of classes provided by Coursera. Each rotation also offers a family program, dubbed Mission BOOMbox, that offers an engineering challenge related to the BOOMbox’s current theme [see our recent Family BristleBot Challenge]. In conjunction with the BOOMbox, Youth Services is increasing its STEAM programs by implementing pop-up programs for younger children who cannot yet utilize the BOOMbox, namely preschoolers. The Youth Digital Media Lab and Adult Digital Media Lab both continue to offer monthly instructional classes using maker-related technologies.

5. Who staffs the BOOMbox and its programs?

Drop-in times are primarily staffed by two Hands-On Technology Mentors and our Dominican University intern. Mentors are hired for the rotation and are generally high school students with a strong interest in STEAM topics balanced with an interest in coaching and teaching users of all ages.

Learning Experiences librarians primarily staff weekly programs for youth and adults. Librarians and library staff from other departments who have skills and interests in the rotations will also be teaching classes in the space.
Young Adult Librarian Shauna Masura
with junior high students in the BOOMbox
(photo by Skokie Public Library,
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

6. What ages of library patrons can engage in BOOMbox activities?

The Fabrication rotation welcomes patrons grades 3 and up. We have designated youth (grades 3-8) and adult (high school and up) drop-in times and programs. Future rotations will be open to to grades K and up.

7. What are some of your upcoming plans for the BOOMbox, both in terms of the space and programming?

The next learning experience theme is Big and Small and will include scheduled programs, civic science projects, and self-directed activities focused on space concepts, mini computers, chemical reactions, programming, and a bunch of other, for lack of a better word, stuff. Drop-in times will have a much different feel than the Fabrication rotation. We’re also increasing our program offerings.

Other planned rotations include Gardening, Textiles, and Robotics. And each rotation will have a different style of programs/classes and drop-in schedules. We’ve established a BOOMbox Advisory Committee comprised of youth and adult users, local educators, and staff to help direct future rotations and programs.

8. What advice would you give to a library interested in developing their own flexible STEAM space?

The BOOMbox is a full time commitment with a considerable budget, but STEAM spaces don’t have to follow this model to be successful. I encourage starting small, using pop-up programming models that highlight STEAM concepts using readily available program materials. These activities mimic the learning experiences present in an official STEAM space. Libraries can gauge user interaction, gather feedback, and move forward to something more permanent from there.

When determining which equipment to invest in, consider community needs and demand. Not every library needs a 3D printer, even if funding is available.

Additional Resources

BOOMbox Help Page, with instructions and tips for creating your own projects using the BOOMbox equipment and related software

BOOMbox Landing Page, with information about the current rotation and schedule of drop-in times


  1. Hi Amy, Can you explain what you plan to do with MOOC study groups and Coursera classes. I'm not quite sure what you mean. Thanks.
    Ann McGinley, Rio Rancho Public Libraries

    1. Ann, we're planning to offer the MOOC experience in a program setting. We'll choose a course that fits within the theme of the current BOOMbox rotation (for example, when the theme is Big and Small in the spring, we're doing an astrobiology course), then carve out program time and space to invite community members to participate in the MOOC in that setting. A staff person will be present at each meeting over the length of the course (say, 1 meeting per week for 6 weeks for a 6-week course). We'll be providing the necessary materials for the online learning component (technology hookups, etc.), as well as the camaraderie of fellow learners pursuing the same course in a common space.

      This type of program is also an excellent opportunity to highlight resources in our collections that fit in with the MOOC topic.


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