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Beyond digital literacy: STEM learning ideas from library professionals in the UK and Ireland

14 August 2020   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Rabeea Arif
Beyond digital literacy: STEM learning ideas from library professionals in the UK and Ireland

Midlothian Science Festival
Libraries are not just books — if indeed they ever were… [We need] strong advocates who see the library as a place where STEM-rich learning takes place.
– Research participant

STEM across nations

Internationally, we have much to offer each other as our communities grapple with the advances of the 21st century. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning is a key part of conversations about education, policy, the economy, and our future. Library professionals from various communities across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, and Ireland participated in research on STEM learning in libraries. In the words of one research participant, STEM learning in libraries is about ‘promoting lifelong learning; critical literacy and digital literacy; inspiring young people on careers of the future’.

Current STEM rich learning experiences and future STEM events and services
Library staff in Scotland spent a day in November 2019 trying hands-on STEAM activities, such as My Robotic Friends. Credit: Keliann LaConte/University of Edinburgh.

Other recent research with library professionals in Australia and the U.S. has identified the many benefits of offering STEM learning for library customers — and also shown that lack of staff time and funds are among the challenges in this work. International collaborations are already leading to the exchange of innovative ideas. The American Library Association (ALA) has been a part of ground-breaking work on STEAM learning in libraries with U.S. library professionals, and their International Relations Round Table (IRRT) actively promotes Sister Library relationships with libraries and librarians throughout the world. Browse through Libraries Seeking Sisters by geographic area or type of library. Use their checklist to plan and develop your goals for a Sister Library partnership.

This article presents insights collected from August - December 2019 through 89 survey respondents and 17 interviewees from public libraries, who participated anonymously in a Fulbright Global Scholar project, which was hosted by the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences. The majority (95%) of research participants have offered STEM events, and over half of respondents (52%) offer STEM frequently. Here are highlights from their experiences with equipment, collaborations, and variations on STEM learning formats.

Discuss these insights with your colleagues and potential collaborators using the full research summary: Libraries & STEM learning: results from a survey of libraries across the UK and Ireland.


Library professionals listed the equipment that they have found to be most effective in supporting STEM learning in their libraries. The top recommendations are:

  • BBC micro:bit
  • LEGO
  • 3D printer
  • Makey Makey
  • Tablet, such as an iPad
  • Raspberry Pi
STEM learning equipment wordcloud
Research participants listed many types of equipment that they use to support STEM learning. This word cloud depicts several of the more popular suggestions.

Library staff who are new to these types of equipment would benefit from hands-on tutorials on how to use them. Even more important, how can that equipment be used to support customer creativity, active learning and other skills? Not only can staff from other libraries help in this area, but so can informal educators at museums and science/discovery centres.

I think 99% of our [STEM] activities are very successful because they are things that people haven't had access to in the past.
– Research participant


Working in partnership…enables you to work with people who have expertise in STEM. That's what their expertise is, and we have the venues and the demographic who are not engaged in STEM.
– Research participant

Not all libraries currently collaborate with external service providers, but some library staff described how external organisations with STEM expertise and/or STEM resources are essential. About half of research participants collaborate with coding education franchises or charities; many also rely on volunteer ‘ambassadors’ of STEM subjects and universities. Notably, STEM employers such as industries and non-university research institutes were not listed as collaborators to the extent than more education-focused organizations were. Such organisations could potentially help young people learn about the careers of the future.

There are a few key areas where collaborators — in other libraries or from STEM or education organisations — could support STEM in libraries. Research participants ranked the following as top needs:

  1. Contacts to access local STEM expertise and/or resources (e.g., guest speakers)
  2. How-to procedures for facilitating hands-on STEM activities, games, crafts, and demonstrations
  3. Announcements of funding opportunities you can apply for

What does STEM learning look like in your library?

Coding is the top format offered by research participants — but libraries are offering so much more! Their STEM offer — now and in the future — is shown in the following chart. Hands-on STEM activities are also offered by 75% of these libraries. Over half offer art-based STEM activities (or ‘STEAM’).

Current STEM rich learning experiences and future STEM events and services
Libraries across the UK and Ireland are currently exploring different ways to incorporate STEM learning into their events and services (left side). For the future, nearly all research participants selected hands-on STEM activities as a service that would be successful with their customers (right side).

In thinking about new ways to engage customers in the future, research participants reported their interest in other STEM-rich experiences, such as interactive exhibits, STEM-related reading events, and history-based STEM activities. A ‘STEM-event-in-a-box’ may also be useful. Informal learning organisations, such as science/discovery centres, are a good source of advice and examples of easy-to-use STEM activities for events. Informal learning organisations could also provide insights on science cafés and citizen science projects.

[STEM events] should be enjoyable, fun and provide a sense of achievement and where possible bring people together to learn collaboratively
– Research participant

Share your ideas!

How do these insights compare with your own experiences in digital literacy and STEM learning?

What equipment that you have found to be most effective in supporting STEM learning in your own library?

Do you have a STEM collaborator? How did you first start working with that collaborator? In what ways does your STEM collaborator support your library’s goals?


The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the US Government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the US and the people of other countries. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of its author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the US Department of State or any of its partner organisations.

Header image: Midlothian Science Festival photographed by Keliann LaConte


Alan E. Negus says...
Posted 19 August 2020
Library staff in Scotland spent a day in November 2019 trying hands-on STEAM activities, such as ... I suggest 'no comment'.

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