School librarians can be crucial partners in STEM

Tags: , , , , , , , Categories: Archive


Most people associate libraries with books, and therefore with subjects related to books: reading and writing. Although modern libraries have extensive technological resources in the form of computers, media equipment, and digital presentation materials, they are seen primarily as places to explore literature.

But Dr. Mega Subramaniam, assistant professor of information studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, wants everyone to see them as tools for something else: STEM.

Facilitating identity development in STEM

Subramaniam’s research focuses on how libraries, with their rich technology resources and staff trained in inquiry, can be used as holistic tools to further student interest and engagement in STEM subjects.

One key role that school libraries can play in STEM subjects is in helping students develop their “identity” towards STEM. Many sociocultural theories of learning, which consider classroom content in the context of a students’ background, indicate that a student’s perception of how they fit into the world of science and math can greatly affect their achievement in those subjects.

“The concept of STEM identity development… is based primarily on two major concepts,” said Dr. Subramaniam. “One is developing interest in STEM, and the second part is… developing identity trajectories, being able to map out the path that they would take towards having a STEM career.”

Students participate in the Sci-Dentity Project at their middle school library.

Students participate in the Sci-Dentity Project at their middle school library. (Photo credit: Mega Subramaniam)

Subramaniam’s team runs a project called Sci-Dentity, where students engage in after-school programs designed to integrate STEM and storytelling through various media. The sessions, incorporating written and visual stories as well as video game design, are facilitated by librarians in area schools. The project combines an exploratory environment with resources that present science in many different contexts, such as literature or film, giving students a multidimensional perspective on STEM.

“Things that the kids really got into include the movie I Am Legend. Many of our students are minority students, so they sort of connected with Will Smith being the scientist in that movie,” said Subramaniam. “Because there was a lot of interest on Will Smith specifically and Will Smith’s story, we… asked them to find science stuff that Will Smith did in the movie. So the learning of science is… things that they find sort of connect to them as they are doing this. We are hoping, in this process, we will slowly be developing their identity.”

Library technology can engage students

Along with the motivation to pursue STEM, students also need exposure to tools that are relevant to STEM fields. Beverly Mullen, a librarian at Benjamin Banneker Middle School, notes that another key reason libraries can offer something to STEM teachers is their wealth of technology resources, and the expertise that librarians have with technology. A former engineer, she became a librarian to combine her interests: “I love technology, but also books and information and working with kids.”

Mullen collaborated with a science teacher at her school to help students create a field guide for a wetland on the school property. The students used library camera equipment to take pictures of plants and animals, and then both print and computer resources to identify them and create the field guide. Mullen thinks that this technology was key to making activities that students might not ordinarily like more exciting.

“The bibliography was so funny… obviously we always teach that skill as a librarian, and most people think it’s like going to the dentist for a root canal,” said Mullen. “But we showed them NoodleTools, which is a citation, note-taking creation kind of thing, and we were talking about it downstairs in the classroom, and they were all like “Wow! This is great! Let’s go upstairs and do some research!” The difference was really very apparent.”

In addition to the field guide project, Mullen also runs a TV show with students, where they often highlight projects that the science department is doing.

“The kids just love creating things and using the tech. It’s their world, and it’s really that piece of engagement that we need to get in order to get them interested in this stuff.”

Teachers need time, understanding to incorporate libraries into lessons

There are many challenges to getting STEM teachers to incorporate school libraries into their lessons. A recent study conducted by Subramaniam indicates that one problem is teachers’ perceptions of what libraries can and cannot be used for, or an incorrect understanding of what librarians are trained to do.

Library was essential to the field guide project that Banneker Middle School students worked on. (Photo credit: Beverly Mullen)

Library technology was essential to the field guide project that Banneker Middle School students worked on. (Photo credit: Beverly Mullen)

“Math teachers perceive that the librarian is great, they do a lot of stuff, but that they work with other subjects, not math, that they can’t ever work with math because they don’t know math,” said Subramaniam.

“Librarians also feel that math teachers will not entertain them as an expert in technology.”

Muellen notes that many teachers in her school have tight time constraints to complete curricular objectives, and so are hesitant to add new lessons. Sometimes it is hard for teachers in a department to stay on track with each other if they cannot use library resources at the same time.

“I think the most effective thing is to show them what other teachers have done… because if they see it, they want to do it,” she said. “I think if they understand that they have support and we can help them take care of a lot of the logistical piece of it, and get the kids going with it, they’re on board.”

With many states adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, a state-developed curriculum that emphasizes hands-on, interdisciplinary learning, and the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, Subramaniam said she believes it will be hard for STEM teachers to go without incorporating library resources into their work. Librarians could potentially make that transition easier, both by using technology to engage students in STEM subjects and by teaching them the inquiry process in a new environment.

“Librarians are trained on how to develop inquiry questions… and know how to teach it to students. That’s what they’re trained for, right? And in addition to that they can also teach the students how to evaluate the results that they get,” she said. “Science and math teachers are definitely capable of doing this, but they themselves are stressed, and I think it’s time for them to pull resources that they have in the school, which is the school librarians.”