Leverage your local library to expand STEM learning opportunities

Our kids desperately need more STEM learning opportunities. Bolstering science, technology, engineering, and math education is critical to Idaho’s long-term economic prosperity.

The experiential learning that occurs in STEM activities promotes creative thinking, problem solving, and collaboration — skills even students who don’t pursue STEM careers will find valuable.

Furthermore, STEM jobs pay better. More than double, in fact. Idaho’s median hourly wage for non-STEM jobs is $15.60 while STEM-related jobs pay more than $32 per hour.

Those higher wages ripple throughout our economy. Each new STEM job creates five additional jobs — two white-collar jobs like doctors, veterinarians, therapists, and nurses and another three blue-collar jobs like plumbers, waiters, hairdressers, and babysitters.

However, a brain drain prevents Idaho from building the workforce required to fill important STEM-related jobs. The Idaho Department of Labor reports 3,800 STEM jobs go unfilled here annually.

Idaho’s brain drain starts early. Students in first through fourth grade only spend two hours per week in formal STEM education — down from three hours in the 1990s. We start hemorrhaging kids in middle school because STEM is more challenging, and most of them never get back into the STEM pipeline.

Families can help fill this learning gap by leveraging their local libraries. Libraries are far more than just books and have great STEM resources to share, plus their services are free to the community.

Libraries throughout the state offer the Idaho Commission for Libraries’ Fun with Math & Science family workshops and Read to Me programs for young learners. More than 30 libraries statewide participate in the Commission’s Make It at the Library project for help implementing STEM programming that encourages the use of new technology and tools. Some libraries even let you check out Make It kits focused on a variety of STEM-related themes.

Libraries also offer an array of STEM learning opportunities for adults who are out of school and underemployed or want to change careers.

As we begin implementing kindergarten-to-career STEM education programs that help create a more competitive Gem State workforce, the Idaho STEM Action Center is looking forward to partnering with libraries. We have many commonalities, plus libraries are doing some very exciting things.

We recently worked with the Meridian Library District and the Micron Foundation to stage an Hour of Code event at their unBound technology lab. The library loaned us laptops, so all the kids were engaged in online coding through Code.org, and the STEMbusUSA.org STEM bus was parked right outside. Many parents attended, too, and everybody was excited to learn such places exist. What I saw at unBound and what we experienced with the Hour of Code is the future of libraries.

We’ll also undoubtedly engage with libraries statewide via our PK-12 grants. The STEM Action Center’s grant program is not just limited to classroom teachers and school librarians, which means informal educational entities like public libraries and Boys & Girls Clubs are eligible to apply. We just distributed our very first grants — 23 PK-12 grants totaling more than $48,000. We had 104 applicants with $250,000 in needs and anticipate an even bigger response in our next round.

Libraries will undoubtedly play an important role as the Idaho STEM Action Center works to accomplish long-term goals like establishing a statewide science fair, offering internship and mentorship opportunities, connecting industry with educators, and creating a clearinghouse of STEM learning resources. Meanwhile, I encourage you to explore all the STEM resources your local library has to offer.

Angela Hemingway is the executive director of the Idaho STEM Action Center.