A new emphasis on science programs will allow patrons of the Berkeley Public Library to check out telescopes. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Berkeley Public Library, armed with a generous grant and the assistance of a science literacy foundation, is expanding its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programming.

Starting Saturday, April 7 and continuing during National Library Week (April 8-14) and beyond, the library is offering interesting and hands-on science classes for children, teens and adults. Patrons can talk to scientists, watch the night sky in a portable planetarium show, learn about urban farming, or take virtual reality tours through the International Space Station or the human body. They can even check out telescopes, microscopes and science kits.

“The same way we built print literacy through materials and programs and we built art literacy through our arts program, we also want to be building STEM literacy,” said Sarah Denton, a library services manager who has been working on the program.

The library has long offered science-related activities but has now developed a richer and more holistic approach to STEM education thanks to the infusion of money and curriculum and program development assistance, said Denton. It has also created a dedicated webpage to see all the programs at a glance.

The Stephen M. Silberstein Foundation donated $46,200 to the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, which gave that money and other support to the Berkeley Public Library. The Cornerstones of Science Foundation, a Maine non-profit that supports public libraries offer stellar science experiences, helped Berkeley assess its programming and develop additional classes and ideas, according to Cynthia Randall, the executive director of Cornerstones. Cornerstones was founded by the brother of Silberstein’s late wife, Anne Grodzins Lipow.

Denton said the library reached out to the community to find what residents wanted. While schools teach STEM, not everyone has equal access to out-of-school science offerings, she said.

“It really became clear to those of us doing the planning that access to STEM resources and experiences really is a social equity issue,” said Denton. “There are lots of wonderful opportunities for STEM in the Bay Area and a lot of them are expensive. The library is a place for free and open access with very low barriers to entry for people of all ages to engage with STEM.”

This is also a time when the federal government is reducing the availability of information about science.  Since President Trump’s election, information about climate change has been scrubbed from or hidden on many federal government websites, according to a report by the Environmental and Data Initiative Project, an organization “comprised of academics and non-profit employees that promotes open and accessible government data and information.”

Part of the Cornerstones of Science mission is to provide access to free, non-partisan resources to the public and give the scientific community a public communication vehicle in which to discuss critical issues, said Carroll.

The Berkeley Public Library was already advanced in the way it promotes science literacy, said Carroll, but has now taken a more methodical approach to STEM programs. Some of the libraries Cornerstones works with are in rural areas and are the only places outside of schools where STEM programs are offered. There are no aquariums or planetariums around.

The library has purchased more STEM-related books and is now circulating science kits, including telescopes and microscopes. The library will train staff so librarians can more effectively incorporate STEM into public programming.

To introduce Cornerstones to the public, Berkeley Public Library is offering a week of STEM programming at every location and for every audience during National Library Week, April 7-14. All of the events are free and open to the public:

STEM Fair at the Claremont Branch, Saturday, April 7, 2-4 p.m.: Meet scientists, representatives from science organizations, try out hands-on activities, and enjoy presentations about current research. Some of those exhibiting at the fair include the Cal Virtual Reality Team, Coderbunnyz, Sandia Labs, Scientific Adventures for Girls and UC Berkeley Pilipino Association of Scientists, Architects and Engineers (PASAE).

Planetarium Show at the Central Library, Monday, April 9, 5-7 p.m.: Explore the night sky in a 20-minute portable planetarium show from the Chabot Space and Science Center! Three shows, at 5, 5:45, and 6:30 p.m. Call 981-6223 to register, registration is required.

STEM Play-Date at Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch, Tuesday, April 10, 10-11 a.m.: Babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and their caregivers are invited to our free-play session with STEM toys like Kodo Kids’ Discovery Ramps, KEVA Planks, Duplos, and more. Children will learn through activities that stimulate brain growth, social development, and creative problem-solving.

Virtual Reality Tour at the West Branch, Wednesday, April 11, 5-6:30 p.m. and Thursday, April 12, 6-7:30 p.m.: Take a tour through the International Space Station or a voyage into the human body with our VR headsets. This program is designed for ages 12 and up.

“Growing Cities: Examining the Role of Urban Farming in America” Film and Discussion at the North Branch, Wednesday April 11, 6-8 p.m.: Watch the film “Growing Cities” (from the Library’s streaming film service Kanopy) and then have your questions about the urban farm movement answered by members of Oakland’s own City Slicker Farms.

Teen Make Some Thing! at North Branch, Thursday, April 12, 3:30-4:30 p.m.: For this special edition of the library’s regular bi-weekly teen crafting program, staff will be teaching soldering basics as participants complete a simple electronics project.

STEAMBreakers at the Central Library, Saturday, April 14, 2-5 p.m.: A social gathering designed to bring together science professionals, artists, and the public in a fun, casual setting to discuss the intersections between science and art. Enjoy a keynote address and participate in a fun, cross-disciplinary creative challenge.

See other STEM programs.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...