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IMLS Convenings Focus on Learning Spaces, STEM

August 12, 2014

By Maura Marx
Deputy Director for Library Services, IMLS

Editor’s Note: IMLS recently hosted a series of three strategic priority meetings, each focused on a different priority. The sessions were designed to help inform future strategies, particularly for the agency’s National Leadership Grant program. The first, held at the New York Public Library on April 29, examined national digital initiatives. The second, held at the San Francisco Public Library on May 15, addressed learning spaces in libraries, and the third, held at the Chicago Public Library on June 5, focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

Over the past few months, we’ve been processing the rich commentary of our colleagues, fellow funders, and subject experts from our strategic priority meetings this past spring. Following discussion of the national digital platform in April, our conversations turned to learning spaces in libraries in May and to STEM in June. These two convenings offered several overlapping strands of thought.

At the learning spaces in libraries convening in San Francisco, our discussion examined maker spaces, learning labs and digital commons—any and all library spaces that enable participatory learning. We delved deeply into connected learning, partnerships, and evaluation of the types of learning happening in these informal spaces. The Bay Area Maker Faire provided a fantastic backdrop to our conversation and we were thrilled to be able to draw on the expertise of a fantastic group of colleagues from public, state, and academic libraries, the research community, library schools, associations, nonprofits and other funders.

Next, at the STEM learning in libraries convening in Chicago, we shared existing models of informal STEM learning and discussed the challenges of scale, content expertise, and diversity. Again, we heard recurring themes of hooks and triggers for youth, the role of mentors, and the importance of co-design.

Several related takeaways emerged:

First and foremost, we heard continuous questions about the library workforce and the facilitation, technology, and community building skills that are needed to support youth and STEM programming. Should librarians have these skills? If yes, how do they go about learning them? If no, can partnerships alone fill the gaps? If somewhere in the middle: how are library schools adapting to the shift toward participatory learning, and how does that extend to continuing education for library professionals? Participants also expressed a need for national platforms to share best practices learned through initiatives such as the Learning Labs, supported by IMLS and the MacArthur Foundation.

We wrestled continuously with the subject of evaluation. One funder called on the library community to help shape new measures and outcomes that would truly describe the valuable learning happening in our spaces. We discussed digital badges at length as a potential solution for sharing competencies across formal and informal learning contexts. We agreed that we’ll need to research and work on developing measures that won’t interrupt the flow of informal learning.

Convening videos and notes are posted here—please take a look! All three IMLS Focus meetings have helped inform priorities in this year’s National Leadership Grants program. Please note that we’ve added an October 2014 deadline and are working on a streamlined application process. We’re incorporating a preliminary proposal into our application process so that applicants will find out, before doing the work of putting together a complete application package, whether or not their proposal is most closely aligned with the agency’s funding priorities. The preliminary proposal process has many benefits. Because of the shorter format, applicants invest less time upfront, still get feedback early on, and have better “odds” for funding when submitting full proposals.  We look forward to seeing how this new system works, and we thank everyone involved in IMLS Focus for their thoughtful contributions.

Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program