Think Outside the Box When it Comes to Teen STE(A)M Programs

How can you organize STE(A)M (Science Technology Engineering [Art] Math) programs for teens — and actually have them show up? At our May webinar, Teens and Tech: Creating Successful STEM Programs in Libraries, we invited three librarians to share practical planning tips and programming ideas.

  • Heather Booth and Jacquie Christen (Robot Test Kitchen) shared ideas for engaging teen technology programs that any size library can do.
  • Amanda Allpress (Shasta Public Libraries) spoke about a successful graphic design workshop for teens that went beyond the technology to also explore creativity and business.

In addition to programming advice and ideas, our speakers shared some of their programs' shortcomings and what they learned from them. If you're looking to try something new when it comes to teen programming, you'll discover some new ideas to put into action.

Robot Test Kitchen: A Cross-Library Effort

Robot Test Kitchen

Heather Booth (Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, Illinois) and Jacquie Christen (Glenside Public Library in Glendale Heights, Illinois) work together on a project called the Robot Test Kitchen, which is a collaborative project across multiple libraries in Chicagoland. The idea came from a presentation by Dr. Michael Stephens at ILEAD USA, a library continuing-education program on building technology skills.

The Robot Test Kitchen group identified five barriers that librarians might encounter when trying to kick off a STEM program:

  • Support (or lack thereof)
  • Budget
  • Time (particularly during summer reading months)
  • Tech skills
  • Interest — not everybody went into libraries because they were interested in technology!

The Robot Test Kitchen team members met to discuss these barriers and share their experiences, challenges, and successes with teen technology programming. Even though they all had different levels of STEM experience, they found that they all shared similar struggles and ideas. Here are a few of the major learnings that came out of their meetings.

It's Okay to Not Be an Expert

One of the interesting points that Jacquie made was that you don't necessarily need to be technically savvy to lead a STEM program. In fact, you can learn alongside the teens in your program while facilitating them.

It's Not Really About STEM …

… It's about a new way of programming. STEM provides an opportunity for librarians to rethink how they design classes or workshops for teens. I liked this chart that Heather presented:

Comparison chart

Use Failures to Fuel Success

It's okay to fail. And sometimes, your failures can work to your advantage. Jacquie explained that failure — such as a program not installing correctly or a too cumbersome assignment — can encourage teens to use problem-solving skills.

"Making them a part of the problem-solving progress rather than handing them a smooth canned experience — they're going to get more out of it," Jacquie said.

Jacquie also encouraged library staff to be honest in post-program discussions with their patrons and colleagues about any challenges they faced.

Let Youth Lead

Out of all of the learnings from the Robot Test Kitchen, I thought this was perhaps the most important one. Letting youth lead your programs can be scary, but it is also beneficial. It makes your programs more like a club than a class and helps build comradery among the participants. It cultivates leadership and participation for future teen programs.

"More often than not, almost all the time, the kids can help each other solve their problems," Heather noted.

A Graphic Design Workshop for Teens

Graphic design workshop

Amanda Allpress, the teen services librarian at the Redding branch of the Shasta Public Libraries, shared her experiences in organizing a STEAM program. The graphic design workshop came out of the library's Teen Advisory Board's ideas for Teen Tech Week.

This idea is exciting for a few reasons. First, it truly puts the "A" in STEAM because it encourages artistic creativity. Second, the skills can be applied to numerous career choices. Amanda had a friend who is graphic designer, so she invited him in to teach the workshop.

Much to her surprise, only four teens showed up for the workshop. But once the workshop got going, she realized that those four teens could receive individualized instruction and more deeply engage in the workshop.

Amanda explained that the casual tone of the workshop, in which the instructor engaged in a dialogue with the teens rather than speaking at them, helped the participants feel more at ease. The instructor focused more on developing an idea and the process of presenting to a potential client rather than on the technical skills of using a tool such as Photoshop.

Amanda shared a few key learnings from the workshop:

  • Attendance can be a challenge, especially if you're in a small or rural community.
  • Marketing to teens is tough — be creative with outreach.
  • Do less programming during the school year because teens are BUSY.
  • Always engage your Teen Advisory Board on new ideas.
  • Keep on trying — even if you fail.

Do you do teen STE(A)M programming at your library? Tell us about your clubs, classes, and events in the comments below.