College program promotes STEM in rural libraries
The National Science Foundation has awarded Dartmouth a $3 million five-year grant to turn small, rural libraries around the nation into STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — learning centers. This project, called “Rural Gateways,” is led by mathematics and computer science professor Daniel Rockmore and co-investigators Karen Brown of Dominican University, John Falk of Oregon State University and Meighan Maloney of Dawson Media Group.
Rural Gateways follows on the heels of “Pushing the Limits,” a previous project also led by Rockmore that involved rolling out materials for informal science events to 100 libraries across the country. This project was also co-sponsored by the Dawson Media Group, Rockmore said.
“Through that, we began to think about the impediments for librarians to do additional things,” Rockmore said.
Rural Gateways was a natural follow-up to this first initiative, he said.
“The new project just funded is trying to better understand how to help librarians in rural communities feel better able to act as informal science providers,” Rockmore said. “That means helping people find information and hosting science-themed events.”
This project, which Maloney described as a “book club and video discussion program,” entails training librarians to facilitate science events and discussions and providing books and videos to the libraries centered on different science themes. Community members all receive a copy of each book.
The four primary public programs offered at each library are knowledge, nature, survival and connection. Periodically, discussions are held to talk about the contents of the books or videos.
For the nature theme, one of the books read was “When the Killing’s Done” by T.C. Boyle. In the book, the characters on an island are in conflict about whether to save or destroy an invasion of black rats, which are non-native to the island’s environment, Brown said.
This was an example of a science theme presented through a novel, Brown said, that explores the question of how to balance different aspects of nature and naturally-occurring events. Coupled with the book was a video interview with Boyle about how he came to use science in his work.
There was also a human interest video of 10 to 15 minutes about a triple amputee who was using technology to push his physical limits. Brown said that one of the objectives of “Rural Gateways” is to discover new ways of using science and technology to push our own limits.
“I think that the NSF is very interested in making libraries part of the informal science ecosystem,” Rockmore said. “Librarians are also becoming more and more interested in becoming informal science providers.”
Rockmore explained that the libraries involved in the project are located around the country, and that they are looking for a healthy geographic distribution of participants rather than concentrating on one state or region in particular.
Since many of the rural counties where the libraries are located do not have science museums, the informal STEM centers provide the ideal source of science learning in the community, Rockmore said.
“Public libraries are centers in the community for public dialogue, engagement with resources and partnership with community organizations,” Brown said. “This project really encourages small and rural libraries to think about libraries as centers for community engagement.”
Brown said that adults often prefer to learn in free-choice environments, such as museums and parks, rather than traditional school or educational settings. Hence, the libraries adhere well to the “out-of-classroom” learning environment.
Maloney said that projects like Pushing the Limits and Rural Gateways help community members develop an interest in science and empower them to become better citizens.
“Science literacy is necessary for citizens to be part of a democracy,” Maloney said. “You need to be informed about what is science and what isn’t.”
She said that scientific knowledge can have political, cultural and social impacts, and can improve the world around us.
Director of South Carolina’s Georgetown Library Dwight McInvaill and his team have been involved in the promotion of technology, particularly toward youth, since 2006. Prior to being involved in the Rural Gateways project with Dartmouth, his library had used a $600,000 grant from a local foundation to hire one full-time teen-tech librarian and part-time librarians at each of the four branches, including headquarters.
They were also able to hire someone to teach youth how to write the programming connected with the creation of video games, McInvaill said.
“We have expanded one of our libraries and have a huge room dedicated to teen tech,” he said.
With the Dartmouth initiative, McInvaill’s patrons were particularly enraptured by Boyle’s novel.
“We loved the book and loved the video that went with the book,” McInvaill said. “We engaged a scholar to actually talk about the scientific merit of the video and book and then we also had one of the agencies in the community that does scientific research to come in and do an exhibit.”
In many instances, his library had to order additional copies of books because of the great amount of community members engaged in the project.
“The people were very engaged in the discussions and they did not want to leave — we had a full house every time we did the program,” McInvaill said. “We would still be doing the [Dartmouth] program if we hadn’t run out of money.”
McInvaill recommends that for the future, thought should be put into how to scale back expenses and make the program available to a much larger population. He suggested that for the purposes of reducing costs, the training of librarians could be done online through webinars and e-readers could be used.
Nola Ramirez, a librarian in Gustine, California, was paired up with a high school teacher to facilitate the question-and-answer session each time after participants had read the story or watched the movie.
“They trained us so we knew what to expect since we were the ground-breaking libraries,” Ramirez said, as she was part of the original 10 libraries involved in the Pushing the Limits project.
Videos were also taken at the training sessions held in Oregon in order to be used as examples for future library participants, she said.
Ramirez said that the program engaged the whole community, with participants ranging in age from mid-teens all the way up to people in their 80s.
“It was a wide range of ages,” she said. “It spanned different generations, so we could get different inputs from different generations.”