I remember as a kid watching Julius Sumner Miller on the local public broadcast channel. Professor Miller was known for his cool science experiments and awesome, Einstein-esque hair. (If you haven’t seen any of his episodes, be sure to look some up on YouTube. Professor Miller is really fun to watch and educational, too.)
His shows—some of which were even in black and white!—were watched on a TV that required us to get up and turn a knob to change the channel. (I guess I’m dating myself here, but I digress.)
Over the years, other TV shows have come along to let new generations of kids know that science can be fun, such as Magic School Bus and Bill Nye, the Science Guy. So, although it’s currently a hot buzzword, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education efforts outside the classroom have, of course, been kicking around for a long time.
All the people behind these TV shows know that kids are naturally curious. At my workplace, Community Library in Sunbury, Ohio, we also want to build on this curiosity. For the last couple of years, in particular, my department has been working to provide a variety of STEM-themed programs for our young patrons.
We’ve been fortunate to have some great inspiration from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in this department. NASA supports STEM education both in and out of the classroom, and it is also reaching out to the public in general to share information about its new missions.
Now, I will admit that for most of my life I had been a run-of-the-mill fan of space and space travel. As a kid, I remember the teachers wheeling a TV in to watch space shuttle landings, and I always thought it was kind of cool. But I never really thought much more of it.
That all changed in 2013 when I earned a spot at NASA’s Space Science Training, “It’s A New Moon.” This was hosted at NASA’s facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. While we were there, participants were also invited to the LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) Mission Launch. This workshop for informal educators taught participants about the formation of the moon. NASA educators also led us in fun, hands-on activities we could easily duplicate for children’s programming at our own libraries. (I also have to add that, as workshop participants, we became certified to borrow lunar disks from the Johnson Space Center (JSC). These display pieces actually contain rock and dust samples from the moon. I did request one from JSC, and it was really a rush to hold a piece of history in my hands!)
At the Wallops Island workshop we were also treated to VIP seats for NASA’s spectacular night-time LADEE launch. If something like that doesn’t get your blood pumping about space science, I don’t know what will! Needless to say, I returned from Virginia bubbling with enthusiasm and soon partnered with our local school district to present hour-long, lunar-focused presentations in each of the district’s second-grade classrooms. During these programs, kids got to experiment with crater creations and “moon ooze.” They also made and launched their own Alka-Seltzer powered mini-rockets.
You Don’t Have to Be a Rocket Scientist…
Speaking of rockets, at the lunar workshop we were given some great online resources. These sites quickly demonstrate that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be able to present great STEM programs. For example, the NASA educators introduced us to the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s (LPI) website. This organization supports STEM public outreach efforts, and its site is a wealth of information.
LPI’s Explore! program offers libraries and other informal education facilities free online STEM activity materials about both the Earth and space. These projects are aimed at children ages 8 to 13. (Click the “Hands-On Activities” section when you visit the “Explore!” page, and you’ll see a host of topics, such as the moon, comets, and ice worlds.)
Additionally, I receive emails from the Explore! Program with NASA updates and LPI event/workshop opportunities. If you develop programs for children ages 8 to 13 and are interested in joining this listserv, click here.
Drop Some Raw Eggs at Your Library
A few weeks ago Community Library took our second-grade space science program on the road for its second year. This time we changed it up and replaced the crater and moon ooze activities with an engineering challenge: create something that will help a raw egg survive a drop of approximately nine feet. (At the LADEE workshop, NASA also gave us a great flowchart to help explain the engineering design process to kids.)
The first time we piloted the egg-drop experiment was at another NASA event the library hosted in December 2014. This was a launch party for Orion, which is NASA’s new exploration spacecraft, designed to take astronauts into deep space. Eventually the goal is to use Orion to send a manned mission to Mars. A design challenge for NASA’s Orion engineers was this: how to slow the test capsule, speeding back into Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 miles per hour, to 300 MPH, and then to 20 MPH, allowing it to splash gently down into the Pacific Ocean. The egg-drop exercise takes students through the same design process that engineers use in their jobs: 1. Define the problem. 2. Explore. 3. Design. 4. Create. 5. Try it out. 6. Make it better.
I’m happy and proud to say that some of the eggs survived and that all the designs had a lot of thought behind them. I always take the opportunity during this activity to point out that engineering is a very creative endeavor. I also use this exercise as a venue to say that even if a group’s egg broke, the students didn’t really fail. Instead, they learned something valuable: what not to do the next time.
We received a lot of great feedback on this program from our patrons, who also loved the official Orion giveaways NASA sent us, including bookmarks, wristbands, card stock 3D models to build, lapel pins, and so on. To wrap up the program, we served space-themed snacks, like Moon Pies and Tang. (As a strange side note, some discovered Tang for the first time that evening, while others relived some childhood memories. I, personally, was surprised to find out that Tang was still around!)
Adventures in STEM
Beyond our in-house, science-themed programs, here at Community Library we are also proud of our After School Adventures series. Piloted in the spring of 2014, this STEM-based program takes fun activities to our school district’s third and fourth graders, featuring STEM concepts in fun and accessible ways.
Looking ahead, we have recently accepted an invitation from NASA to host what we’re calling a “Happy 25th, Hubble!” event in April. This will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope’s launch and its quarter-century of unprecedented images of space. My contact at the Johnson Space Center was even able to arrange a speaker for us: fellow Ohioan Gene Zajac, a Solar System Ambassador for NASA. We’ll also be planning some fun activities for the event and will end the program with a cake featuring the Hubble 25th anniversary logo.
Community Library’s STEM-based programs have been well-received by our patrons. We’ve garnered many compliments. Both parents and children enjoy coming to these events, and on the flip side, I’ve been having a great time planning and presenting them.
If you haven’t ventured into space science in your youth programming, I urge you to give it a try. Like space, the programming possibilities may be endless.
Fonda Kendrick is Head of Youth Services at Community Library in Sunbury, Ohio. She began as a page in high school and helped the library with its card catalog retro-conversion during college. Six years after graduating from Otterbein College, she found herself back at the library, this time in the Youth Services department. Fonda has now been Head of Youth Services at Community Library for 10 years. She considers watching LADEE’s launch one of the coolest moments of her life.