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It All Adds Up: Incorporating STEM into Programming

by Linda Sawyer

*This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Kids & Books.*

At the recent ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, the acronym STEM was everywhere with multiple sessions devoted to incorporating STEM into library programs for children. In addition, the topic has been jamming library listservs and various online forums and blogs. So, what is STEM?

A Quick Peek at 3 Examples


Source of program inspiration: Early Childhood Educator's Conference, Opening Minds

Online resources: Pinterest and (a website for home care providers featuring concepts and activity suggestions)

Morton Grove Public Library

Source of program inspiration: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Online resources: (daily emails available for parents and librarians to receive simple math problems for young children)

Books used for program: Five Creatures by Emily Jenkins; Hands Down: Counting by Fives by Michael Dahl

Activities: Kids make handprint creatures using die-cut hands then practice counting on all the many "fingers."

Indian Trails Library District

Online Resources: ALSC Blog; Peep and the Big Wide World; Science Discovery

Books used for program: Science Play by Jill Frankel Hauser; The Preschool Scientist by Robert Williams

Songs: "Five Little Monkeys Swinging From a Tree"

Activity: finger puppets demonstrating when there were more or less monkeys snapped up by alligator; children given materials to make their own alligator; then use the alligator's mouth to show which group was greater.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. In response to a feeling that the U.S. is lagging behind other countries in our promotion of the sciences to our children, Presidents Bush and Obama both created initiatives in the education system to address this shortfall, causing local schools to ramp up STEM offerings to their students.

Consequently, many public libraries have been getting requests from parents to do more science-based programming. Math and science clubs for school-age kids now pepper library programming. LEGO clubs and LEGO robotics events, which support early concepts in architecture and engineering, are also growing popular.

In response, my library (Skokie Public) and neighboring libraries began offering more STEM programming for preschoolers and early elementary-age. Here's what three Chicagoland libraries are doing to get young patrons excited about STEM.


Inspired by a conference, librarian Gudrun Priemer came back excited and planned a four-week long parent/child math-based storytime designed to develop math skills in preschoolers called More Than the 123’s: A Math Storytime, offered for 4 and 5 year olds and their parents/caregivers. At first, Gudrun found it challenging to decide on four simple math concepts to supplement with books and activities but once she got into it she found a wealth of material. All of the families came back for all four sessions and their feedback was very positive; we plan to continue the program into the fall.

Morton Grove Public Library

Youth Services staff member, Jess Alexander, who runs their successful math club for grade 3-6 students, was getting numerous requests to offer math programming for the participants' younger siblings. With a background in educational publishing of math books for kids, Jess had been incorporating early math concepts into her toddler storytimes to make numbers joyous and fun for kids. She also created the Mathematics Tea Party, a popular monthly program for children ages 3-5. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the mathematics tea party is, according to Jess, “homage to the brilliant logician and his fantastical world.” By taking something so beloved to children as a tea party and adding a mathematical spin, Jess demonstrates how math can be introduced at a young age and in a fun and engaging manner. She has a grand time creating hats and decorating them with numbers. Jess will often hunker down in the 500s “until inspiration hits and then I gather stories to fit my theme.” While attempting to make math accessible at a very young age, Jess’s goal is to change the perception that math is scary, hard, and not at all fun. She feels her program is successful when children leave the Mathematics Tea Party chattering about how they liked wearing a blue hat, that their tea tasted like “rainbows” and “Dad, watch me count!”

Indian Trails Library District

With the growing demand for STEM programs, the Youth Services staff broadened their technology-based program offerings to cover more components of STEM. Youth Services librarian Katie Burke created three monthly storytimes that highlighted a different STEM aspect. Each program includes sharing stories, songs and concludes with an activity or experiment the children do with their parent/caregiver. When the program featured math, they worked with children on the concept of 'less than' and 'greater than. At their most recent STEM offering, Katie covered the topic of “float or sink,” and the kids got to experiment to see how different things (a plastic egg, a coin, and a feather) float. According to Katie, choosing the hands-on science activity is a bit of a challenge. She’s trying to select age-appropriate experiments that work well in a group setting without being time-consuming or too messy while incorporating equipment and supplies the Library already has on hand. The library counts the program as a success, measured by feedback from parents and high attendance figures, and they plan on continuing STEM storytimes.

As you can see, you don’t need to be a brilliant scientist or genius mathematician to incorporate STEM into your library programs. All you need is a genuine desire to engage kids and an inquisitive approach to finding ideas, which is a skill librarians definitely have!

Linda Zeilstra Sawyer is Youth Services Programming Coordinator for the Skokie (IL) Public Library. She has been a member of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Committee, Intellectual Freedom for Children Committee, Notable Children's Sound Recordings Committee, and Notable Children's Videos. In addition, she reviews for Booklist and teaches children's readers' advisory workshops.