Make It! at the St. Helens Public Library

The St. Helens Public Library received a grant of $20,000 from the NW STEM Hub. We talked to Youth Librarian, Gretchen Kolderup, about how she’s brought STEM into the library. 

Interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Tell us how you got into STEM and why you decided to bring it into the library.

I actually did my Bachelors degree in math and was a massive science nerd in high school. Even before that, as a kid I was into science and math and things like that, and my dad was a mathematician who made math seem interesting and cool. Also, lots of my friends are software developers and I learned some coding in college. I guess it's a thing that I've always been around and have been interested in and have felt a sense of talent and mastery around. I feel comfortable with it and excited about it, so once I saw libraries start to do more STEM stuff I was like, “Oh, yes, this is going to be great!”

I think a lot of the time when people think about the library, they think about books, but I think a more accurate mental model is that when you think about the library, you think about learning. We recognize that in 2019 you don't just learn by reading; you learn through all sorts of different means, and we recognize that the Humanities are not the only thing that people want to learn about. I think that, especially as libraries have done more and more events and classes, we’ve had an opportunity to broaden what we're doing beyond literary things and Humanities things and to get into all of the different ways that kids learn and create and share themselves with the world. 

It's not even that I want kids to learn about circuitry or whatever other topic specifically -- it's that I want them to develop themselves. I want them to develop this identity of themselves as someone who enjoys learning and exploring and trying new things and making stuff. That's what I'm really excited to see happen: kids having an idea of how something is going to work and trying it and realizing that it doesn't quite work, but if they change this particular part of it, then it will work. They'll keep practicing and keep trying and keep refining their ideas, and they’ll get better and better at what they're doing, and persist through it when it's hard and collaborate with each other -- all of that soft skills stuff. I feel like libraries are such a great place for kids to do that kind of thing because there's no expectation that it has to look a particular way or that there is a right or wrong answer. It's a pretty low-stakes, high-excitement place to come and figure out what you're interested in and learn more about that thing. 

Q: What does the STEM programming look like and how has the grant from the STEM Hub impacted your programming? 

I've been trying to incorporate more STEM-related things into all of the stuff that we do. For example, I've been including more science experiments and math activities into our preschool storytime in addition to the usual early literacy activities, and for our teen anime club, we’ve done some different maker activities.

But I think that the really big, exciting STEM thing that we have done is creating the Make It! Series. It launched in January 2017 and is a STEM and maker after school program for elementary school kids. They register ahead of time for a multi-session workshop around a particular topic or technology. It has evolved over the last two years.

In the spring season of 2019, we did zines, coding with the Dot and Dash robots, a circuitry workshop, and a stop motion animation workshop. The classes are totally free; all of the youth programs that we do are totally free. I've tried to build them to be very kid-directed, so they'll start out a more structured in the beginning, especially if it's a tool or technology that they've never really used before, but then by the end of it, we're trying really hard to give them the space to freely create and follow their own interests.

That's the big thing that the STEM Hub supported, and I feel really proud of it. We were also able to hire a high school intern, Lillian, which meant we could have more kids in our programs and more individualized attention for them. She also helped with activity development and with helping plan a new service we will offer in the fall. Over the summer, I’ll write a more formalized curriculum than the loose activity plan I usually work from, but it’ll be written specifically for a non-formal education space. Then other non-formal learning organizations, like libraries or after school clubs, can use that and not have to come up with their own set of activities ahead of time or try to adapt something that’s written for a more formalized classroom environment. STEM and maker stuff is something that I’m interested in and feel a passion for, so it’s comfortable for me to design activities or just riff on something, but I know that not everybody who works with kids is naturally inclined toward STEM or maker stuff, and maybe they want a little bit more help in figuring out what that should look like.

The grant from the STEM Hub was 3-5 years worth of program spending all at once for us, so it really accelerated what we could do.

Q: How do these programs change the students who participate?

Oh, I can share a story about that. At one of our Dot and Dash workshops, there was this tween girl who was really getting into it, and in between sessions she went home and put the Dot and Dash Blockly app on her phone. Even though she didn't have a robot, she could still work on the programming. She came back the next week and looked at me and she was like,  “I learned about variables!” in this super-proud voice. That wasn’t a topic we were going to get to in the workshop, and she was just so proud of herself. She was so excited to share that with me.

Her parents wound up getting her a Dot and Dash set for her birthday because she was so into it. I don't want to take too much credit for that, but I do really like that the library program could be the thing that sparked her excitement. And as a 10-year-old girl, she was able to have this really positive experience with beginning to learn to code, and she wanted to go home and learn that more seriously more deeply. I like to think that now, if she's going to take a computer science class or do another after school coding thing, she'll go into that with confidence and with the feeling, “Oh I've done this before. I know how this works.” Obviously there's still so much more for her to learn before she’s really coding, but I think coming into a learning situation with that kind of self-identity and confidence is a really good foundation. Then if something gets hard, you're like, “Oh I’m fine, I’ve figured out hard things before,” or “I'm good at this, I'll figure it out eventually.” And no one is going to be able to tell her that girls don't code because she's gonna be able to say, “I know about variables.” 

Q: How would you describe the value of the NW STEM Hub?

Immeasurable. Obviously this grant has been really helpful in deepening and broadening and accelerating our after school programming and being able to do really awesome things like having a high school intern and giving me the space to think long-term about what this might look like, but beyond that, the STEM Hub has also been a fantastic source of connection.

I have met other people in Columbia County and beyond who are doing cool, non-formal learning things or who are doing cool maker things, and that has sparked all of these different ideas. And in some other cases, it has meant more resources coming into the library.

I was helping out with the Columbia Works project for a little while, and through that I got to develop a closer relationship with Carissa Chism, the College and Career Readiness Coordinator at the high school, and because we had that relationship, we were able to have her do a lot of the recruiting when we were looking for our intern. It was really awesome because she was able to have a deeper, broader reach than we would have, and I think that's why we had such high-quality candidates.

In big ways and in little ways, the STEM Hub has been an accelerator for what we've done, and I'm so thankful for it. I was feeling a little bit alone before, but now I feel connected and supported, and that's really nice.

If you want to connect to with Gretchen about any of the programs at the St. Helens Public Library, you can reach out to her through email. 

Bianca Valvezan