Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Training for Learning: Notes from the Public Libraries & STEM Conference

In the latter half of August, I spent several days in Denver, CO, for the inaugural Public Libraries & STEM Conference. It was a new and relatively small conference--grant-funded and led by folks at the Space Science Institute and Lunar & Planetary Institute, with around 160 total participants from public libraries, STEM organizations, institutions of informal learning, and library thinkers and researchers. I was able to attend as representative both of ALSC and of my own library. I'm grateful for that opportunity, because I really learned a TON. Rather, perhaps it's more precise to say that I heard from many smart and inspiring people, which has left me we lots of little nuggets and bigger ideas to chew on. Either way, I want to share some of my biggest takeaways with you.

The conference logo aimed to combine a compass and a road leading to the horizon--a great visual metaphor for finding direction on the pathway of STEM in libraries.

One of the major goals of the conference was to "Help define a new 21st Century vision of STEM in public libraries." To that end, there was a lot of talking about what libraries are currently doing; what STEM institutions are doing; trends in libraries in general; and what libraries are best equipped and poised to do in this realm.

I had three major takeaways (each with minor components, which I'm discussing in each of three posts):

So let's start with a few givens, several of which John Falk from Oregon State University shared in his opening morning keynote. First, there are over 17,000 libraries in the United States. (An oft-quoted sound bite is that this is a greater number than there are McDonald's restaurants in the U.S., with libraries having around 3000 more locations in this country.)

That's a lot of libraries, as and Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Center shared, we're right up there with firefighters and nurses in terms of community figures with the most public esteem and public favor. So people are favorable toward all those libraries we have in the U.S.

Falk also pointed out that research indicates that the primary reason people engage in STEM learning is to satisfy their personal interest and curiosity. So STEM learning is largely self-motivated, because people have an interest or something they are curious about. Libraries are an excellent place for this, as more and more learning is taking place outside of formal school contexts. Falk quoted that about 3% of a typical American's life is spent in formal schooling--and 97% spent elsewhere. If the library is one of the places that make up "elsewhere," and people are interested in STEM, it would seem to follow that libraries as places for STEM is a serviceable idea.

And this is something that conference organizers and attendees have seen. STAR_Net, a community of practice for libraries doing STEM, did a national survey to see what the state of the field is in this specific area. What they found ties in many ways to preparation, training, and support for the staff who will be implementing STEM in various ways in their libraries. With regard to programming, this survey found that lots of practitioners are looking for off-the-shelf program resources that they can immediately adopt and adapt for their libraries. In terms of training, these same staff are interested in both online and in-person training opportunities to gain content knowledge as well as confidence to offer STEM learning in the library. And finally, it found that staff would like a clearer pathway toward collaborating with community partners when it comes to STEM.

In exploring the survey responses and data from interviews, what becomes more clear is that people say they want more how-to resources. But that statement is just part of the issue, the easiest bit to articulate. The resources are just the front end of the equation; the rest is having interaction with peers and colleagues who can help put those resources into context and practice in practical ways. It's the difference between having a resource manual alone or having a manual and a colleague to go through it with you.

For libraries, STEM practitioners, and folks invested in informal learning in general, this means that we need to refocus some of those energies that we've all been putting into developing our own unique resources. There are plenty of resources available, and the trend of all libraries wanting to create their own from scratch is an instance of reinventing the wheel. A better use of time and energies would actually be to create connections between people and resources that already exist--letting practitioners know what is already available to them rather than asking someone to start from square one.

This comes down to people. What can people do to share what they know, the resources they've created/found/used? David Lankes spoke in his keynote about how libraries themselves are just buildings; as a concept, they are abstractions and thus cannot do anything or have an impact. It is the people in libraries, however, who are real and who can do things and who can create impact. So it's up to people. If practitioners and would-be practitioners of STEM in libraries need to be connected to resources to learn and gain confidence, then it can follow that libraries are the best positioned to help meet this need.

So perhaps my biggest takeaway on this point of training and informal learning is really more of a question: To what extent is it the responsibility of libraries with successful STEM models to train the rest of the profession, especially those without easy access to professional development? If I'm already doing STEM in the library, and as such have garnered experience and created and gathered resources, in what ways it is my responsibility to share my experience and resources with those libraries who haven't had that opportunity, or who are craving more training and context? If we have it, shouldn't we share it? If training as needed, and it is within our capacity to train, shouldn't we train?

I'm inclined to say "yes" to this question in general, although at some point questions of capacity and institutional priorities come into play. But as a general ethos, don't you think our training one another when it's within our power is a good--and in some ways progressive--concept?


  1. ALA was able to bring about huge impact on early literacy by using the train the trainers model. Couldn't we do that with STEM since it's also part of early learning? Train a core group who then train others at conferences who then train others in communities and so on.

    1. Heather, I think the ECRR train-the-trainer model is a great example. That, however, was association-led, and probably had a lot of money behind it. Is that the sort of momentum that is needed for STEM learning for libraries? Or might individual libraries who are heavily involved in STEM best practices feel a responsibility to give their staff time and opportunities to go out and do such trainings? I think there's a big difference between an association investing time and resources in this type of endeavor versus a library taking on that cost itself. And there's the requisite building of momentum, staff power, and funding that goes with both; it takes significant numbers of people and amounts of money to cull together a definitive resource and to go out and train; whose investment should that be? I'm not sure.