It's definitely an asset as a community librarian to be a brainstormy kind of person, open to new ideas and eager to figure out ways to meet community needs and accommodate patron requests. But as any practicing librarian will tell you, there are only so many hours in any given day, week, and month. There are only so many library staff available to do the work at hand. Even going at full tilt, all hands on deck, there will be limits to what we can accomplish.
Sometimes it takes a while before a perfectly wonderful idea can be executed. So frustrating! To take the edge off the pain of these limits, I keep an ongoing Google Doc list of program and library marketing ideas. In 2014, in collaboration with some truly outstanding community partners, I was finally able to execute one of these waiting list ideas, initially known by the unfortunate working title, "Science Fair Fair."
During science fair project season in the Fall of 2011, I was working the reference desk. We were flooded with kids needing science fair project ideas and researching various science topics they thought might make good projects. It struck me that the many of the students coming to us for help were doing so because their parents didn't have a background in the sciences. They came to the library for help, and faced a ref desk staffed with English, history, and philosophy majors. We could help them with research, and guide them to the science fair idea books, but who was going to help them choose and refine a unique and significant award-winning project?
The information resource the students needed most in the early stages of science fair project development was access to mentors in science, math, and engineering. How to achieve that? One morning, during a vigorous shampoo, I had a vision of a STEM mentoring fair at which students could meet with adults practicing in the various fields addressed by the science fair project categories. South Louisiana is awash with all sorts of STEM professionals, teaching at community colleges and universities, providing healthcare, monitoring wildlife and environmental changes, performing agricultural and marine research, and working in petrochemical and related service companies.
Surely we could entice some of those practicing STEM professionals to the library to meet with students, who would benefit both from the science fair advice and from the collective vision of all of the interesting science careers they could pursue.
While other projects took priority over the next couple of years, I kept mentioning the Science Fair Fair idea, undaunted by the terrible working title, to potential partners when I happened to run across them. Feedback was generally encouraging, and most said they would be willing to work on the project with the library when we decided to move on the idea.
Finally, I mentioned the notion to Nathan Cotten, STEM Curriculum Specialist with the Terrebonne Parish School District. Bingo! Nathan happened to be sorting through incoming 2013 science fair project proposals at the time, and enthusiastically welcomed the idea of a mentoring event that might help students develop the kind of truly engaging projects that get kids hooked on STEM and actively considering STEM careers. We got permission from both my library director and the Assistant Superintendent of the Terrebonne Parish School District to pursue the project as partner organizations, and were off to the races.
Other partners joined us along the way, including the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Preserve (BTNEP), Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), Bayouland RC&D Council, the Busy Bee Clinic, Terrebonne General Medical Center, and the USDA Sugarcane Research Facility across the street from our main library. We had high school volunteers from the library FLAG program (Future Leaders of America's Gulf), and college volunteers from Nicholls State University. A chemical and an electrical engineer joined our mentoring team from Williams Engineering.
Thankfully, our first try was a success -- 35 kids assisted from a variety of public schools, one private school, and two homeschooling families. The highest participating school was Mulberry (10 students) and the best represented grade level was 6th grade (17 students). With parents and siblings, overall attendance was just over 100, and our visitors were evenly spaced, so no family had to wait very long, and all got lots of good one-on-one help. We think we could increase those numbers in future years, and already have Science Rocks! 2016 on the calendar and in development.
Project ideas ranged from better ways to clean windows, to paper airplane experiments, robotics challenges, and best ways to eliminate bacteria. Our volunteer mentors were impressed with the students, and the students reported learning a lot from the experience. One fun part of the project is still ongoing -- our "Science Fair Theater" playlist on YouTube, which you can still access at mytpl.org/scifair. Originally our event information page, we've transformed it into a science fair resource page for the rest of the school year, and will re-purpose it for event information and promotion in May.
In the end it was worth the wait. The right time to launch Science Rocks! was definitely when we had the partners in place to make the program come to life. Good partners make all the difference!