Every library innovates in its own way based on its resources, patron demographics, and funding. At the ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition, these projects are celebrated during an awards ceremony. Information Today, Inc. is one of the companies sponsoring an award, and this year, it went to an initiative that promotes gamified STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) learning for young patrons.
The ALA/Information Today, Inc. Library of the Future Award of $1,500 and a citation is presented to an individual library, consortium, group, or support organization that plans, develops, and applies a patron-training program that explores IT in a library setting. Congratulations are in order to 2017 winner Muncie Public Library (MPL) in Indiana, and Akilah Nosakhere (director), Rebecca Parker (technology coordinator), and Stuart Cotton and Daniel Allen (digital mentors), who were at ALA to accept the award.
Reaching the Peak of STEAM Achievement
MPL’s Digital Climbers program, part of the library’s Connection Corner and Maker Loft makerspaces, encourages patrons age 8 and older to interact with the tools there—including 3D design apps, Snap Circuits, Adobe Photoshop, and the Osmo game system—in a self-guided way to challenge themselves, improve their skills in the STEAM fields, and earn rewards for each task they complete.
As of the ALA conference, there were 185 kids signed up at Connection Corner and more than 250 signed up at Maker Loft. “While we have hundreds of kids signed up at any given time, and the program does get pretty busy, it’s more manageable than it sounds. Many kids who sign up are only occasional users. Our active users, who participate on a daily or weekly basis, usually range between 20–50 kids at each location. That’s a lot of plates to spin at once, but the amazing Digital Mentors and staff at both makerspace locations handle it with aplomb,” says Parker.
Patrons work independently to earn badges and points to work toward intermediate, advanced, or expert levels. As they progress, they “climb” a floor-to-ceiling mountain posted on the wall of each makerspace location, where MPL’s digital mentors track their advancement by displaying their names and badges. They can redeem the points they earn from completing challenges for snacks and prizes, such as the opportunity to create an item on the 3D printer for free or play NBA 2K16 on the gaming PC.
There are designated times for tracking Digital Climbers’ points and challenges at both locations. Connection Corner’s program takes place 3 days a week, but patrons can work independently at other times. Digital mentors like to help participants get started on a challenge, but then they step back and observe, roaming the room in case anyone has questions. Since the tasks are self-directed, kids can pick and choose which activities interest them. “Too often kids come into the library to check out our tech, but don’t actually give it a chance or spend any time challenging themselves to learn it more deeply. This program gives them the impetus to do that,” says Parker.
She and her team add new challenges and incentives frequently, and they foster mentoring relationships with the participants so they can feel comfortable pushing them to try new tasks. Parker enjoys challenges that give her one-on-one time with the kids. For example, she will sit with a Digital Climber and teach him or her how Photoshop is used to manipulate images, especially in magazines. Together, they use Photoshop tools (the clone stamp, selection tools, layer styles, etc.) to alter a celebrity photo. Then, the participant can feel comfortable completing a challenge independently, such as changing the hair, eye, and clothing color of someone in a photo.
Digital Climbers Expands and Evolves
Parker, Cotton, and the former manager of Connection Corner, Drew Shermeta, created Digital Climbers in summer 2015 when they realized that young patrons were spending time at Connection Corner after school without their parents or guardians. “They had spent the entire [school] day being told to focus, listen, and follow instructions, so our goal was to create challenges and activities for kids that gave them choice, power, and independence,” says Parker. They realized that to get kids’ attention, they would need to offer incentives and provide an atmosphere of relaxation and fun. In January 2016, MPL officially launched the program at Connection Corner and expanded it to Maker Loft at the Maring-Hunt branch in February.
Parker says the biggest challenge was incentivizing a willingness to explore. Participants would be tempted to choose a category, such as Snap Circuits, and work on those challenges almost exclusively. “They could gain points quickly in something that they found easy, and so they had no interest in pushing themselves to do different, more challenging tasks. Our solution was to track the challenges they completed in detail, prevent them from gaining points for repeated challenges, and put point caps on certain popular activities so that you could only gain a few points per day on them,” she says. “This led to incredibly detailed and time-consuming data tracking, which we still do to this day. Our hope is that in the future we’ll find some kind soul willing to build a simplified data tracking module for us so that we can relieve ourselves of all the binders and Excel spreadsheets we’re currently using.”
Digital Climbers is expanding outside MPL’s walls. The nearby Carmel Clay Public Library’s STEAM learning space is piloting its own version, with Parker and her team’s help. “They’ve personalized it and are loving the freedom that it gives them,” says Parker. “In their most recent report to us, they talked about how the independence that it gives kids is really appealing to the school age audience that they’ve traditionally had a more difficult time engaging.”
MPL’s program is constantly evolving as the library acquires new technologies and learning toys and as the team evaluates patron needs. “I would honestly love to see this program available at makerspaces and libraries across the country,” says Parker. “What I love about it is how customizable it is—you can alter the rules, data tracking, rewards, and challenges to suit your own needs and your available resources.”
In photo, from left to right: NewsBreaks editor Brandi Scardilli with Muncie Public Library's Akilah Nosakhere, Stuart Cotton, Daniel Allen, and Rebecca Parker (courtesy of MPL)