ESC 20

Hello, ESC 20’s leadership group for school librarians! You can find today’s slide deck here.

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Book Recommendation: Innocent Experiments by Rebecca Onion

Remember this clip from the White House Science Faire of President Obama helping 8th grader Joey Hudy shoot off a marshmallow cannon he made with the help of the folks at Home Depot? So did reporter and author Rebecca Onion, who mused about what this revived focus in informal science work meant.

She set forth to study the informal science movement over the past 100 years in a series of vignettes collected in the newly-released volume innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States (University of North Carolina Press | Amazon | Project Muse (subscription required) | Google Books Preview ).



As shown in the the table of contents below, her research takes her on remarkable journey.


Chapter 1 takes her to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum between the World Wars, with descriptions of children (mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly male) learning classification and tree identification but ultimately leading to a group of boys running the museum’s wireless system.


Chapter 2 studies the rise of chemistry kits and the ways in which the “naughty” behaviors of those who used them (again, mostly white, middle class, and male) began to be seen not as mischievous but as scientific. Chapter 3 looks at the movement to identify and showcase scientific talent (again, with males as key figures and female budding scientists as those guided by males, dating male contestants, or visiting the Hope Diamond), with a desire to find prospective scientists who also met society’s ideals for sociability. Oh, and most of them, just to be clear, were mostly male, mostly white, and mostly middle-class. See the pattern?

Chapter 4 delves into the role of science fiction, particularly the worlds created by Robert Heinlein. (Teachers and librarians, beware: he’s got harsh words for both of these traditionally female-dominated professions, though some of his harshest words were reserved for his editor — and Newbery Honor awardee Alice Dalgleish).

Chapter 5 looks at the early years of San Francisco’s Exploratorium and wonders aloud if, just as with the male chemistry kits, the movement to learn science through exploration is more about play than about scientific acquisition. Thankfully, gender plays less of a role here, but the pedigree of the Exploratorium’s founder makes for a good jeopardy question, as it is none other than the brother of Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project.


Screenshot of Table of Contents of Innocent Experiments

I’ve been recommending this book to everyone I see because it raises some crucial and critical questions about the role of informal, out-of-school science in the development of the scientific workforce and in the development of science skills. Here are some of the many questions that my team and I found ourselves asking as we read:

  1. For decades, there has been an intent to develop more scientists through interventions like museums, science competitions, and even science fiction. Has it worked? To what extent?
  2. What is the difference between “cool” science (think of the hair-raising Van de Graff generators or the Diet Coke and Mentos explosions at a Maker Faire) and the day-to-day work of scientists? Does interest in “cool” lead to professional engagement? What is the missing piece there?
  3. What pieces need to be in place in order for children to not only experience science but develop meaningful/rigorous scientific understanding?
  4. Over and over again, there are events in American history that are that generation’s Sputnik. (Think, for example of President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech, in which he referred to the need for more research and development by calling it “our generation’s Sputnik moment“) Do we succeed in rising to the challenge today? Historically?
  5. Today’s maker movement has been accused of catering to an audience that is primarily male, well-educated, and middle class, the same population Ms. Onion refers to repeatedly in movements of the past. How do we get past this as the primary audience, 100 years later?
  6. Do we have the right players working with young people to develop scientific thinking, understanding, processing, and reasoning? How would we know that we were successful in this way?
  7. One of the implicit themes of Ms. Onion’s book is that perhaps what we’ve labeled as informal or out-of-school science is actually play. Yet politicians and decision-makers are often far more committed to spending money on science/STEM/STEAM/STREAM/STREAMS/HAMSTER (!!) than on play. Should we try to change the narrative? What are the risks/benefits of doing so?

All in all, this has been one of the STEM/maker books I’ve read lately that has challenged my thinking the most. I highly recommend it. You can get started reading it below, as much of the first chapter is available via Google Books.

Anyone else read it?

[Cross-posted at MakerBridge and Making in Michigan Libraries]



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Booklist Makerspace Webinar

[decorative] image with name and date of webinar

Hi! Today is the Booklist webinar on Making in Early Elementary Grades! These links may be helpful:

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Quotables: Barack Obama on science, technology, and American ideas

Barack Obama is guest-editing this month’s Wired. Gotta say I will miss a president who can name-drop Grace Hopper. From his editorial:

[W]hat really grabbed me about the film [The Martian] is that it shows how humans—through our ingenuity, our commitment to fact and reason, and ultimately our faith in each other—can science the heck out of just about any problem.

I’m a guy who grew up watching Star Trek … [w]hat I loved about it was its optimism, the fundamental belief at its core that the people on this planet, for all our varied backgrounds and outward differ­ences, could come together to build a better tomorrow…

I believe we can work together to do big things that raise the fortunes of people here at home and all over the world…

Let’s start with the big picture. By almost every measure, this country is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, 30 years ago, or even eight years ago. Leave aside the sepia tones of the 1950s, a time when women, minorities, and ­people with disabilities were shut out of huge parts of American life. Just since 1983, when I finished college, things like crime rates, teen pregnancy rates, and poverty rates are all down. Life expectancy is up. The share of Americans with a college education is up too. Tens of mil­lions of Americans recently gained the security of health insurance. Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks to lead our businesses and communities. Women are a larger part of our workforce and are earning more money. Once-quiet factories are alive again, with assembly lines churning out the components of a clean-energy age…

This kind of progress hasn’t happened on its own. It happened because people organized and voted for better prospects; because leaders enacted smart, forward-­looking policies; because people’s perspectives opened up, and with them, societies did too. But this progress also happened because we scienced the heck out of our challenges. Science is how we were able to combat acid rain and the AIDS epidemic. Technology is what allowed us to communicate across oceans and empathize with one another when a wall came down in Berlin or a TV personality came out. Without Norman Borlaug’s wheat, we could not feed the world’s hungry. Without Grace Hopper’s code, we might still be analyzing data with pencil and paper.

That’s one reason why I’m so optimistic about the future: the constant churn of scientific progress…

Because the truth is, while we’ve made great progress, there’s no shortage of challenges ahead: Climate change. Economic inequality. Cybersecurity. Terrorism and gun violence. Cancer, Alzheimer’s, and ­antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Just as in the past, to clear these hurdles we’re going to need everyone—policy makers and commu­nity leaders, teachers and workers and grassroots activists, presidents and soon-to-be-former presidents … We need researchers and academics and engineers; programmers, surgeons, and botanists. And most important, we need not only the folks at MIT or Stanford or the NIH but also the mom in West Virginia tinkering with a 3-D printer, the girl on the South Side of Chicago learning to code, the dreamer in San Antonio seeking investors for his new app, the dad in North Dakota learning new skills so he can help lead the green revolution.

That’s how we will overcome the challenges we face: by unleashing the power of all of us for all of us. Not just for those of us who are fortunate, but for everybody. That means creating not just a quicker way to deliver takeout downtown but also a system that distributes excess produce to communities where too many kids go to bed hungry. Not just inventing a service that fills your car with gas but also creating cars that don’t need fossil fuels at all. Not just making our social networks more fun for sharing memes but also harnessing their power to counter terrorist ideologies and online hate speech.

The point is, we need today’s big thinkers thinking big. Think like you did when you were watching Star Trek or Star Wars or Inspector Gadget…

We must continue to nurture our children’s curiosity. We must keep funding scientific, technological, and medical research. And above all, we must embrace that quintes­sentially American compulsion to race for new frontiers and push the bound­aries of what’s possible. If we do, I’m hopeful that tomorrow’s Americans will be able to look back at what we did—the diseases we conquered, the social problems we solved, the planet we protected for them—and when they see all that, they’ll plainly see that theirs is the best time to be alive. And then they’ll take a page from our book and write the next great chapter in our American story, emboldened to keep going where no one has gone before.

Gosh, we’ll miss his optimism!

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Things Learned On The Road This Summer, Part II

Blank Cover for Made Magazine

Last month, I wrote about some of the things we had learned traveling the state with maker professional development.

This month, I’d like to focus in on one finding in particular: the relative lack of awareness of Make magazine and the ensuing implications in rural and underserved communities.

Partway through the summer, we changed our summative activity that the end of the three-day workshop. Our colleague Amber created a blank parody cover of Make magazine called Made, and we invited participants to imagine that Made was going to create a special issue focused solely on their makerspace. They were asked to provide the cover headlines that would relate to the vision they had worked on during the workshop.

And that’s where things got interesting. Overwhelmingly, only one or two attendees had ever heard of Make magazine.

So what are the implications of this? What does making look like when the flagship publication isn’t a reference point?

Our observations are that without that supposedly canonical reference point, making in libraries and K-12 schools (our two primary audiences) tends to be:

  • the STEM tinkering model of commercial kits, not raw materials put to work to create a personal vision
  • more focus on soft skills
  • less focus on drones and more integration of stereotypically female activities like sewing, quilting, and knitting
  • more focused on low-cost activities that can scale up for groups rather than individual activities that cost $50+
  • less focused on Arduino and professional-grade coding

Do you notice anything similar in your space?

Cross-posted from the MakerBridge blog

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National Archives animated GIFs from Giphy

What’s not to like about this, from a set of animated GIFs made from National Archives footage?

h/t Kathy Ishizuka, SLJ Newsletter

Animated GIF of girl checking out library book from seated librarian, probably 1950s

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Quotable: Unplugging

Image that reads, "Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you. Anne Lamott"

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Booklist Webinar on Early Elementary Making Coming 10/20!

[decorative] image with name and date of webinarPlease join me for a free Booklist webinar, sponsored by Cherry Lake Publishing, on Thursday, October 20, 2016, at 2pm Eastern / 1pm Central.

Here’s what I’ll be talking about:

Primary-aged children are natural makers. They couple their imaginations with the physical and digital worlds as they poke, prod, push, pull, pixelate, and produce.  Whether using digital tools, circuits, robots, or recyclables, many of the core questions are the same: What is our role as facilitators of maker mindset and purposeful exploration? How do we set up spaces that welcome creative interactions with materials and peers? In celebration of the launch of the Makers as Innovators Junior series for K-2 students, Cherry Lake Publishing invites you to engage with these concepts and build or refine your vision for playful thinking. Presented by series editor and University of Michigan School of Information faculty member Kristin Fontichiaro and moderated by Books for Youth editor Dan Kraus.

You can register here. If you cannot watch the webinar live, an archive link will be sent to you a few days after the live event.

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Hello, AASLH!

I’m delighted to be joining Paul Orselli and Lisa Brahms in a workshop on making in museums for the American Association of State and Local History. You can find my slides here.

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Things Learned on the Road This Summer, Part I

Thanks to funding from IMLS, I spent much of the summer on the road, working with librarians, educators, and community members to envision and think about community-responsive making in rural and underserved communities. Here are some things I learned (or re-learned) from stepping outside the current maker narratives:

  • Balancing traditional maker activities (e.g., log furniture) with new technologies (e.g., CNC routing) remains a challenge, in part due to financial constraints.
  • Future Farmers of America and 4-H remain highly influential avenues to making and hands-on learning in communities.
  • One powerful, persuasive personality can mobilize many others.
  • 3-D printing, seen as a critical tool in many urban and suburban maker narratives, simply isn’t financially viable in many rural libraries, though they might be found in local high schools.
  • The maker movement in libraries is codifying around youth and STEM primarily, with a big emphasis on playing with pre-made items (e.g., Snap Circuits, LEGO, K’Nex).
  • Despite the current youth and making focus, we got a lot of questions this summer about making and senior citizens, something we’re really interested in, too!
  • Underwater remote operated vehicles showed up as an in-class or extracurricular activity in three of our sites. Robotics was even more popular (in part because Michigan’s governor has actively supported and incentivized the incubation of FIRST Robotics programs).
  • Incubator kitchens are specially licensed facilities to help nascent food businesses get started. That this is a state-licensed activity tells me there is more support for non-tech-based small businesses than we previously anticipated.
  • Multiple communities pointed to farmer’s markets as a hub for creative handmade products.

What did you learn this summer? I’ll be back next month with more learnings.

Cross-posted to the MakerBridge blog and the Making in Michigan Libraries site

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