Berkeley Public Library promotes ‘STEM literacy’ through new programming

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Ujval Misra/Staff

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It’s 5 p.m. inside the dark blue portable planetarium, and science instructor Julia DeMarines is ready to blast off into space. Before taking off, any astronaut worth their salt knows they need a good countdown. The crowd of about 15 adults and children sitting around the edge of the dome eagerly joins in.

“Five, four, three, two, one!”

At the top of the planetarium dome, a view of the Berkeley sunset is projected, and a dizzying transformation occurs: The Earth comes into full view as the group launches into space.

Presented by the Chabot Space and Science Center, this planetarium show is one of an array of science events hosted by the Berkeley Public Library, or BPL, as an effort to expand STEM programming at the library. This is a part of the Cornerstones: STEM at Berkeley Public Library initiative.

On Saturday, BPL launched the initiative for National Library Week from April 7 to April 14. The Cornerstones initiative is a collaboration between BPL, the Berkeley Public Library Foundation and Cornerstones of Science, a national nonprofit organization that works with libraries to help them develop STEM programming.

BPL is offering a full slate of STEM activities for the week. Programming includes a virtual reality tour of the International Space Station, a film screening on urban farming and a cross-disciplinary gathering of scientists and artists. All events are free and open to the public.

“We’re building STEM programming into the regular operations of the library,” said Sarah Dentan, library services manager. “The same way that we support print literacy and cultural literacy, we’re also supporting STEM literacy. While we had been doing that in bits and pieces in the past, we are now saying this is a regular part of what we do.”

The initiative aims to build upon BPL’s current science curriculum by not only expanding public STEM events but also updating STEM materials, circulating science equipment among patrons and training library staff to discuss concepts such as the scientific method.

“We didn’t have a systematic approach to STEM programming, and we thought it was time to do that,” Dentan said. “The biggest thing we’ve done is not necessarily a new program but a new intentionality to the programming.”

BPL’s partnership with Cornerstones of Science will provide the library access to new partnerships with a network of STEM organizations. Dentan added that Cornerstones of Science has helped BPL assess its current STEM offerings through surveys and stakeholder interviews. In these interviews, BPL found that many participants felt that there is disparity in access to STEM education.

“They said they thought it was really important for programming to be accessible to everyone no matter race, gender, age, socioeconomic background,” said Erica Dean Glenn, senior librarian in the children’s department. “That’s one of our main goals — to make science accessible to everyone.”

Contact Katherine Yen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @k_yen14.