Contra Costa County Libraries Blast Off with Space Exploration

How one librarian is exploring new frontiers in STEAM programming
Lafayette/Pittsburg, CA
Ginny Golden

Ginny Golden, senior community library manager for the Pittsburg and Bay Point libraries in Contra Costa County, California, doesn't consider herself a "tech and science person." So how was she able to pull together one of the coolest STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) programs we've seen? Through community alliances and outreach!

Two years ago, she brought the exciting field of space science into the Lafayette Library and Learning Center with the help of one of the library's board members. Now, in her new role at the Pittsburg and Bay Point libraries (also part of the Contra Costa County Library System), she's blasting off the space program for a whole new audience.

Asteroids, Astronauts, and Aliens!

Dr. Race with kids

The Lafayette Library hosted a flurry of space-related STEAM activities, including hands-on workshops, stargazing, astronaut training activities, alien creation challenges, lectures with real NASA scientists, and so much more. The library hosted family-friendly events for patrons of all ages, from space-themed story times to firing rockets. 

The space science program took shape through the help of Dr. Margaret Race, senior research scientist at the SETI Institute. Dr. Race works with NASA on astrobiology, planetary protection, and risk communication. She also formerly sat on the foundation board for the Lafayette Library. Golden collaborated with Dr. Race on bringing NASA's rich resources to the public library.

Dr Lee, Dr. Race, Ginny Golden, and Andy Weir

Dr. Race introduced Golden to Dr. Pascal Lee, another scientist at the SETI institute, who became an invaluable part of the space science program. He is the co-founder and chairperson of the Mars Institute as well as director of the Haughton Mars Project at NASA Ames Research Center. He's also the author of Mission Mars, a nonfiction children's book on the human exploration of Mars. Dr. Lee also acted as judge for an essay contest for the local schoolchildren. The Lafayette Library also hosted a discussion with Andy Weir, author of the popular book-turned-movie The Martian, with Dr. Lee and moderated by Dr. Race (see the image of all three together above with Golden). 

The Lafayette Library and Learning Center: A Community Living Room

The Lafayette Library and Learning Center opened its doors in 2009 after almost 10 years of planning and building. It's also home to the Glenn Seaborg Learning Consortium, a partnership with the region's leading arts, culture, and educational institutions. The space science program truly fit into the library's mission of being "a community living room" because it attracted young children, seniors, and everyone in between.

The Next Frontier: Pittsburg and Bay Point Libraries

This year, Golden is planning to re-create the same programming at the Pittsburg and Bay Point libraries. Although they're in the same county, the Pittsburg and Bay Point communities are much different from the Lafayette community.  For example, in 2013, 11.5 percent of people in Pittsburg and 17.2 percent of people in Bay Point were below the poverty line, compared to only 2.9 percent of Lafayette residents.

The Bay Point Library, in particular, is quite different from the new, modern Lafayette Library. It's much smaller and shares its space with the local middle school's library. But this shared space has some advantages: Golden plans to coordinate the space exploration programming with the sixth graders' science curriculum.

The library plans to purchase a copy of Mission: Mars for every sixth grader at the school and correlate library programming with the teachers' lesson plans. As a former teacher and school librarian, Golden has a good sense for working with schools and has already brought the middle school's principal on board with the program.

"Bringing the science center to the library, we're exposing the children to programs they might not otherwise experience," Golden said.

Contra Costa Libraries' Year of STEAM

The space science programs at the Pittsburg and Bay Point libraries are just one piece of Contra Costa County Library System's Year of STEAM for 2016. The 26 community libraries in the county will be hosting programs for community members of all ages. Golden says that the library system is working with space and science organizations, such as NASA, local universities, the Chabot Space and Science Center, and more.

Golden also mentioned that the library system will have STEAM kits that will travel between the libraries with microscopes, slides, Legos, and other technology. She said they'll be purchasing more 3D printers, and hosting more coding in the library programs. Tech-savvy staff will be floating among the different library branches to help with training.

Summer reading will also have a STEAM theme as well, and in the fall, there will be a focus on the "exploration stations," interactive hands-on activities that will be hosted at three or four of the libraries. Golden said the libraries are looking into life sciences topics and hope to bring in guests from the local Lindsay Wildlife Museum and the Oakland ZooMobile.

At the heart of these STEAM and space exploration programs is the opportunity for learning in a space that isn't a classroom. When learning is fun and informal, people of all ages tend to retain the information better. 

"We're a learning center and provide opportunities for people to explore topics in ways they might not be able to do on their own."

Bringing Space Exploration to Your Library

Rocket girl

The San Francisco Bay Area, where the Contra Costa County Library System is located, is famous for its science, space, and technology companies and institutions. But even if you think your library isn't in a tech- or science-rich area, you might be surprised by what's in your backyard. Golden recommends seeking out and connecting with your local high schools, museums, universities, and special interest clubs. These connections might just open the door to other organizations or individuals in the science community that you weren't aware of.

"Be open to whatever opportunities you can find," said Golden.

She also recommends starting small with your space exploration programs. Try incorporating a space-themed book into story time, or host an astronomy club meetup at the library. She also recommends checking out online resources, such as NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program, STAR_Net (Science-Technology Activities and Resources for Libraries), and the SETI Institute for Educators.