STEM/STEAM Programming Doesn’t Have to Be Scary, Unless It’s Halloween
By Dawn Treude, Library Assistant, Scottsdale Public Library
This month the Scottsdale Public Library is offering our young patrons Scream STEAM, science with a Halloween twist. With activities like Frankenstein’s Hand, Balloon Banshees and Troll Boogers (don’t worry, it’s liquid glue and starch), we took a departure from typical coding or robotics programs and let simple household items shine as the stars in simple, yet satisfying activities. The results sent happy shivers down my spine.
As the demand for STEM/STEAM programs continues to grow, two responses typically come to mind—delight or fright.
Youth Librarians never tire of engaging with our young patrons, but not all of us have a background in math and science. Figuring out what to do with the kids can be tricky and time-consuming as you study and practice STEM/STEAM activities.
The turning point for me came in earlier this spring when I read an interview in YALS, the journal of the Young Adult Library Services Association, with Shannon Peterson of the Kitsap Regional Library in Washington State about its Make, Do, Share: Sustainable STEM Leadership in a Box program, which was funded through IMLS grant. The grant proposal made the point to identify “librarians as co-explorers and community builders instead of experts” when it came to STEM/STEAM participation.
As I read those words a weight lifted off my shoulders. I don’t have a strong background in math or science, but I certainly know how to explore new things.
About this time I’d been preparing for what we call Slimeology. In studying about polymers and slime making, I happened on The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science by Sean Connolly (2008, Workman Publishing). In it, Connolly uses everyday items to create catchy-sounding experiments, like Frankenstein’s Hand, which simulates a gloved hand coming to life under an acid (vinegar) and base (baking soda) mixture. This was the activity that inspired Scream STEAM.
Once I had a theme, it wasn’t too difficult to find other experiments that could be tailored for a Halloween program. I used the Balloon Banshee (a lesson about friction and sound) from Connolly’s book, re-named Slimeology to Troll Boogers and discovered a fantastic dip-your-hands-in-it blood tray that I christened Werewolf Blood from the I Can Teach My Child website. I wanted to do a candy dissolving experiment as well, but thankfully the Youth Services Coordinator and STEM/STEAM Librarian reigned me in a bit and helped me design a workable forty-five-minute program.
We started with Frankenstein’s Hand because I knew the kids would enjoy it through the entire program. I prefilled cups with the vinegar and the baking soda in the latex glove. The kids then placed the glove over the mouth of the cup, shook the fingers and waited for the hand to come alive. I used this time to talk about chemical reactions, acids, and bases and share some facts about sodium bicarbonate.
Next, we moved on to Werewolf Blood (I chose the name due to how closely related humans and werewolves are). I’d hydrated the water beads (from the floral department at Michael’s) the night before in a large plastic tray. The beads have this fantastic soft, slimy feel to them and shimmer in the right lighting. These were the red blood cells. We added white blood cells (ping pong balls) and platelets (small foam rectangles) and renamed the leftover water in the tray plasma. The kids had a blast running their hands through the mixture but I didn’t manage to convince everyone it really was Werewolf Blood.
After cleaning our hands, we moved on to ghost lore with Balloon Banshees. Most of the kids had never heard the word banshee before and were interested in this Irish lady specter, but I did modify the facts slightly and said she signaled bad news, rather than death. This experiment uses only a balloon and a small hexagon nut but does require adult-level balloon blowing skills. The nut is placed inside the balloon and it is blown up. Then you grab it from the tie end and move your hand in a circular motion and wait for the shrieking to begin. The friction as the sides of the nut move along the inside of the balloon produces an eerie sound. The rate of motion effects the sound, so the kids were able to try a variety of speeds. We had a few balloons pop and rather than cause a fright, that served to increase the excitement level.
Before we moved on to our last experiment, we checked on the hands to see if they were still alive. They were.
By far the best experiment in terms of interest and ick-factor was Troll Boogers (Slimeology in disguise). The experiment failed. I’d poured too much water in the mix, resulting in a blob of glue and starch boogers in a watery soup. This gave me a great opportunity to talk about mistakes in the lab and how important they are to learning. The kids still had a blast with their creations and delighted in picking the right color to add to the mix based on the type of troll whose boogers were in your bowl. (For example, Garden Trolls have green boogers.) The kids loved all my snot and booger facts. The most expressive looks and groans came when I held up my one-quart pitcher as a visual aide to demonstrate how much snot your body produces in a day. We talked about polymers, liquids and solids as well. Everyone’s hands were filthy with sticky goo and I don’t think I’ve seen a happier group.
My takeaway from this program is that there is definitely a place for a variety of STEM/STEAM programs in the library. Simple doesn’t necessarily mean boring, and for systems or schools without the funding for robotics materials, household science packs a big punch in terms of payoff for children to see, feel and understand. Adding a seasonal or pop culture theme can create more interest and draw bigger attendance. The response was positive enough that we’re creating another seasonal program this February, You Gotta Have Heart.
Dawn Treude is a Library Assistant in Youth Services at the Arabian branch of the Scottsdale Public Library in Scottsdale, Arizona. She enjoys creating themed programming for youth of all ages and has been known to create wizard wands and lightsabers when the need arises.
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