Closing Digital Gap: Libraries Offer Youth STEM Programs

It seems today that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and coding are constantly in the news, especially in relation to youth and learning. But, despite near incessant news coverage, there is a continuing uneven access for youth to STEM and coding classes in school, as well as after school.

Gaining prominent attention at the national level is President Obama’s recently released Computer Science for All initiative, focusing on offering more computer science classes. But, it does not emphasize the opportunities for interest-driven learning outside of the school structure.  

One group — libraries — working with youth outside of school is trying to close this digital gap. An example is a recent initiative by the American Library Association (ALA) called Libraries Ready to Code. This ongoing project, undertaken as a collaboration between ALA and Google, is looking at the current offerings for coding in public libraries using an environmental scan, as well as interviews, focus groups, and observations. The findings from the initiative will help to further intervention and engagement with coding within libraries, as well as to inform policy. The initiative is interested in creating equity in coding, so it’s working with libraries from urban to rural settings.

The potential impact for youth is at the local level. Libraries across the country offer STEM programs and makerspaces are a common talking point amongst library groups. These programs offer the potential to expose youth to new interests and new career pathways. The smallest exposure can set youth down a track to become the next great physicist who will take us to Mars, find a cure for cancer, or develop new sources for renewable, clean energy.

But, many libraries are still trying to overcome the hurdles of offering coding programs: limitations in staff training, staff time, and technology. Over the last two years, I have worked with librarians in underserved urban libraries in Los Angeles and Long Beach, offering workshops to help librarians offer coding programs to youth in their community. The librarians had varying comfort levels with coding, but the workshops were intended to be implemented without requiring any coding expertise. The workshops used Scratch, a free, online, visual coding program designed for low barriers to entry.

The participating libraries drew youth from 8 to 18 to participate in interest-driven coding sessions. For the youth participating, they saw an opportunity to explore their interest, as well as viewing coding as important. Felipe, a 15-year-old freshman, came to a hip hop and Scratch class with his cousin, Miguel, 14. Felipe said that they were interested in both hip hop and coding, and that he said, “Well, my cousin, which is his sister, she encouraged us to go to find any experience about this program and see if it, like, it will benefit us.” This demonstrates a family value placed on coding as well as a focus on the future implications of what coding could offer.

Scratch is designed to teach basic coding ideas, coding logic, and computational thinking, which many of the youth intuited from the workshops. Ximena, a 16-year-old who was going into her junior year, described her experience: “My favorite thing about the workshop is learning how coding works, how everything has to be laid out for it to, like, work out properly.”

The program also encouraged creativity. Mario, a 12-year-old seventh grader, liked the online community: “People are always helping you and you’re always in it trying to create everything you can, do the best you can do, just having fun. Just creating anything you want like in your own image.” This resonated with him. Being able to make something that he felt reflected his identity was an opportunity he saw as valuable and having power beyond the workshop. He went on to say, “you could make your own image. It’s really creative, like it could really inspire any kid that’s at our school.”

Banner image credit: Luna Ito-Fisher