One of the things I’ve struggled with as a high school librarian is makerspaces. At my large suburban high school, students have ample opportunities to take STEM/STEAM-related classes that allow them to create the types of projects they might make in a library makerspace, and those classes are taught by teachers who are much more knowledgeable about science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math than I am.
Although my co-librarian, Elaine, has done a fantastic job of introducing and managing a 3D printer program in our library, we wanted to do more. But what? We found our answer last year at a state conference where I attended a workshop called “It’s STEAM-y in the Library.” My friend and colleague, Kelly Oliva, who is the librarian at Liberty High School in Wentzville, MO, was the presenter.
Kelly started the workshop by sharing her “makerfail” story, one many librarians can relate to. When she first created a makerspace in her library, Kelly had visions of igniting student passion, fostering authentic learning, and encouraging critical thinking. She put out supplies such as duct tape, Legos, beads, glue, and discarded CDs along with how-to books and carefully curated online resources. Then she waited for the amazing student creations.
But she never saw any.
Kelly says,“Only weeks after unveiling our makerspace, I realized the students were gluing the Legos together in the shape of hearts, using glitter paint to decorate the walls, and poking holes in the CDs to string them together with yarn. I joked with a friend that I was housing a ‘takerspace’ instead of a ‘makerspace’ as students started to make it a habit to ask if they could remove supplies I had on hand to complete last-minute classroom projects. I went from being a sideline cheerleader to a makerspace housekeeper, regularly scraping up dried glue from the table and crawling around on my hands and knees to save spare beads before they were sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.”
A New Plan
Though she was disappointed, Kelly didn’t want to give up on the idea of a makerspace because, as she says, she saw “value in giving students the opportunity to create without having a grade assigned to their product.” Kelly’s colleague, Wentzville Middle School librarian Brooke Brockman, had had a similar experience with makerspaces, so the two of them collaborated on a new idea: a monthly STEAM challenge.
Kelly says, “We decided that instead of opening the doors to a space with ‘endless’ supplies and no clear expectations, we would instead promote monthly STEAM-based challenges with specific guidelines. Some months we invited students to use the maker materials to tackle a challenge, but I became more and more interested in introducing challenges that integrated free tech tools that I thought would engage students. And the students have risen to these monthly challenges in ways that have amazed me!”
Kelly shares the monthly challenges through language arts classes and through her library website. She incentivizes the event by making it a contest. One winning entry is selected each month, and the winning student receives a small prize, such as a $10 gift card to a nearby business or a spiritwear item from the school store. Moreover, some of the language arts teachers offer extra credit for participating in the monthly challenge.
One of Kelly’s early monthly challenges asked students to create a short video reflecting on their connection to a banned or challenged book. She says, “Students were rapping about Junie B. Jones, using the green screens to disappear under Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, and genuinely speaking from their hearts about books they have loved that have, at some point, been banned or challenged in the US. They were fired up about the fact some of their favorite childhood books had been threatened by censorship at some time.”
In the three years Kelly has been sponsoring the program in her library, the most popular challenge asked students to create a personal logo using Canva or Google Drawing. Seventy-one students (out of 13,40) completed the contest that month.
As Kelly expected, the Monthly STEAM Challenge has allowed her to build relationships with students she didn’t see before because it attracts new patrons, while avid readers who frequent the library have branched out and tried new activities through the contests. But the program has had unexpected benefits as well. For instance, because students have been talking about the neat activities they’ve tried in the library, more teachers are collaborating with Kelly on lessons and activities.
Examples of Monthly STEAM Challenges
Some of the other monthly challenges Kelly has sponsored include:
- Google Hangouts with Mystery Guests – Classes visited the library to ask questions of a mystery guest via Google Hangouts. The goal is to figure out where the mystery guest is located.
- TinkerCAD Challenge – Students had to design and print one of the following: a coffee mug with a handle and the school’s initials OR a six-sided die with numbers.
- QR Scan-venger Hunt – Working in groups, students started with a clue that directed them to a QR code. The QR code linked to a Google Form with multiple choice questions, the answers to which revealed the clue to the next QR code.
- Choose Your Own Adventure Story – Students used Twine to create a “choose your own adventure” story.
- Public Service Announcement – Students created a PSA on preventing opioid abuse.
- Tweet-sized Horror Stories – During the month of October, students were encouraged to write horror stories no longer than 280 characters.
- The Great Thanksgiving Listen – Students were encouraged to use the StoryCorp app to interview an elder during the month of November. The interviews were uploaded to the Library of Congress.
Easy to Adapt
Elaine and I started implementing the Monthly STEAM Challenge in August. This month’s challenge is to make a six-pointed snowflake. Our other challenges — creating a faux stain-glass window out of construction paper and tissue paper, a 3D printer challenge, writing Tweet-sized horror stories, and the Great Thanksgiving Listen — are all ideas we “borrowed” from Kelly. While our program hasn’t yet achieved the popularity that Kelly’s has, it has been successful as multiple students have participated four of the five months we’ve done it. We know it will take time to cultivate widespread student interest and participation.
This program provides an easy and low-cost way to integrate purposeful makerspace activities into our library program. Students who take part say the challenges are fun and engaging. Moreover, each challenge fits in with the AASL Standards by encouraging students to create and explore. If you are looking for something new to try in your library, I highly recommend adapting Kelly and Brooke’s clever idea.
Author: Margaret Sullivan
Margaret Sullivan is a librarian at Rockwood Summit High School and also serves as the Lead Librarian for the Rockwood School District. A past president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, Margaret’s professional interests include advocacy, teacher collaboration, professional development, equity, and YA literature. You can connect with her on Twitter @mm_sullivan.