Once upon an algorithm: library's STEM storytime

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by Laura Hagar Rush, courtesy of Sonoma West Times and News

STEM (which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is all the rage in education circles these days and no wonder. In our ultra-competitive economy, students with strong STEM backgrounds are far more likely than their peers in the humanities to get into elite colleges and, afterward, to get jobs that pay a living wage (not to mention having a deeper understanding of how the physical world works).

So it shouldn’t be surprising to see STEM popping up in all sorts of unlikely places, like at the local library’s children’s fairy tale hour.

What do fairy tales have to do with STEM? Ask librarian Courtney Klein; she’s been offering STEM Story Time at the Sebastopol Library (CA) for a year now. She started last fall with a series of story books, introducing children to the solar system and other astronomy concepts. This fall, she’s been focusing on fairy tales, using classics like “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” “Three Little Pigs” and “Rapunzel” to introduce children in kindergarten through third grade to basic engineering concepts.

“It’s super fun,” Klein said. “This part of the series focuses on what I call ‘fairytale engineering.’”  First, Klein reads her young charges a story, and afterward they talk about the book, then do a craft/engineering project. 
“In August we did the ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff,’ using the book by Paul Galdone, which follows the traditional story about how three goats come to a bridge and have to confront a troll who wants to gobble them up, and they use their wits to trick him.”
When it came to the engineering part, Klein added a plot twist, asking the children to imagine that, instead of confronting the troll, the goats decide to build boats to float across the river instead. She introduced the concept of buoyancy and put out an array of materials — wine corks, old sponges, clay — and challenged the children to create two boats: one that would work and one that wouldn’t. “Then we analyzed what happened,” she said.

In September, she took a similar approach to the “Three Little Pigs,” in which three pigs make their homes out of brick, wood, and straw, only one of which survives the huffing and puffing of the local wolf. “Again, we used the Paul Galdone story, which sticks very close to the original”— meaning the pigs that fail this architectural test get eaten. “Then we talked about the strength of different materials and also the different kinds of homes that are built around the world to help people survive in different environments.”

“Then I put out a buffet of materials — popsicle sticks, clay, cardboard rolls — and asked them to build a house that they thought would withstand the wolf’s breath (my blow dryer).”

Klein throws a little history into the mix as well. “Fairy tales can seem really mean and harsh to kids,” Klein said, noting that the consequence of doing the wrong thing in a fairy tale is often death, “so we talk about that and about how fairy tales are really a window into another time where life was different and much harsher.”

The gender politics of the original ‘Rapunzel,’ the tale of the teenager with very long hair who’s locked in a tower, were a bit too harsh for Klein, so she chose a modern, feminist retelling of the tale, where Rapunzel saves herself with the help of some forest animals — as opposed to waiting for a prince to save her.

“She comes up with a creative way to escape,” Klein said, “so, taking that cue, we created some simple machines, using incline planes (also known as slides), levers (see saws) and pulleys (zip lines). We used keyboard boxes for each kid’s castle tower, and the challenge was for Rapunzel to engineer her own escape.”

Klein believes combining these two seemingly unconnected things — fairy tales and science — “builds a love for storytelling, while at the same time instilling a love for the sciences.”

She hopes this early exposure to scientific concepts will help the children later on in school.

“I feel like these concepts stick more when you tie them to real, tangible things. When I was in school, it was all rote memorization. I like the idea of building a context for learning scientific concepts. It helps it sink in and helps kids connect the dots.”

STEM Story Time starts up again in spring, when Klein will be reading stories with an eye to helping children understand the botanical world.