True Confessions: My STEM program failed and it was not fun (but I still learned something)

Programs, True Confessions

This summer I’m using the CSLP theme “Spark a Reaction” and have structured most of my programs around STEM concepts as a result. Today the program was using borax, glue, and corn starch to make a bouncy ball, and talking about what molecules and polymerization are. Instead of a bunch of kids making a cool project that worked, it just felt like a fail all around.

Fail 1

I tried it at home with my own kids and it looked like this:

Fail 2

Of the five kids signed up for my program (not too bad; it’s a small town) one showed up. One. Single. Kid.

Fail 3

After my failed test, I found a better recipe that worked…. ok.  At the suggestion of another librarian, I converted the “how to do it” program into a scientific method focused program. I printed up experiment sheets where I listed my recipe and my results, then left space for their recipes and their results. What could go wrong?!

Here’s what went wrong: When you give a kid who doesn’t have the chance to play and experiment at home unlimited options for playing and experimenting, she doesn’t know where to start. She was having FUN mixing bizarre concoctions that would never form into a ball together. She loved that when she tried to bounce a hunk of goo that was dripping out of her fingers it just splatted flat onto the table. She had no idea what I meant when I suggested she adapt the recipe I set out (and don’t get me started on the difference between teaspoons and tablespoons…). She didn’t leave with anything resembling a bouncy ball and I was left with a decent mess to clean up.

Fail 4

I had it all wrong. It wasn’t about making a bouncy ball after all.

As she was leaving, she told me how excited she was to come to the other teen programs I have scheduled this summer. And then she said, “It’s so cool! We get to come here for FREE and try all these different things and learn a bunch of cool stuff.”


Fail 5

I had clearly missed something.

I wasn’t having fun, even though she was, and I wasted the opportunity to engage her further. In my plan to let the teens explore on their own, I assumed that they’d have certain preexisting knowledge which would help them create something substantial. I didn’t plan for it to be a time of pure exploration, and if I had, it would have felt like a bigger success.

I hope that what I take forward from this experience is a reminder to be more present with my teens. To have more conversations with them and figure out just what it is that they want to learn and gain in my programs. I intend to embrace the spirit of playful exploration more fully next time too. Anyone can buy a bouncy ball in a quarter machine at the grocery store, but it’s something rare for a teen or tween to be given the opportunity to make a mess, try new things, learn a thing or two (even if it’s not what I expected she’d learn) and have fun doing it. That’s what I can provide them.


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