Tag Team Tech: Wrestling with Teens and Technology August 2017

High Tech Programming on a Low Tech Budget

Janice Scurio

This scenario may be your reality: you want to provide engaging technology-based programming, but the library’s budget is facing yet another round of cuts. An unfortunate pitfall of tech programming is attempting to provide the latest and greatest gadgets and that can be strenuous on a meager or unpredictable budget. Providing computers to teens in a public library setting can be difficult as in most situations, as they’re forced to share computers with the general public, causing access to the internet to be monopolized. As for directed programming, there is a wide array of possibilities to bring to your library’s teens. Coding workshops introduce children and teens to beginning JavaScript programming as well as concepts of UI/UX (user interface/user experience) design. Sufficient hardware to teach youth the building blocks they’ll need to enter the tech world or pursue a degree in a STEM field can be difficult; ideally, each student should have their own computer but this is not always possible due to high demand and attendance at these programs, coupled with the lack of resources.

Not to mention that staffing can be problematic. Some library staff may not feel comfortable with technology, let alone using computers, apps, and other gadgets with teens. Some may lack the know-how, or some may not even know where to start.

It’s no secret that these programs are high in demand and popping up everywhere. Where would a beleaguered librarian even begin? Fortunately, there are a handful of resources even a technology neophyte can have in their arsenal. Lacking money? Lacking staff? No problem.

Tech Lending

If your library or library system has constraints with physical space, storage for laptops can compete with other materials, not to mention the security parameters and maintenance laptops require. If your library lacks internal information technology support, your staff would be responsible for troubleshooting problems and making sure the laptops are in good working order.

The incurable problem with purchasing technology is its eventual obsolescence – what is the latest and greatest today may be irrelevant tomorrow. Making a long term investment on a limited budget might not be the greatest idea – however, borrowing technology can certainly be an option. Part of a regional system? Inquire into kits that can be checked out – laptops, Arduino, Makey Makey, LEGO Robotics – these can travel with ease to your location, without the liability of having to store and maintain them long-term.

Don’t know where to begin with any of the tools mentioned above? You’re not alone. Many regional systems will have a youth services program specialist that can advise on what would work best for your location. Also, teen volunteers are wonderful in terms of being knowledge bases and may even be willing to lead programming for you if given the agency. Rely on your peers for programming ideas, and of course, past editions of this column for ways to engage teens with borrowed technology.

Grants

Perhaps ownership is a better fit for your library – having more permanent technology present in your library ensures easier and regular access for teens. With the support of an information technology team or a tech-savvy librarian, laptops can be easily managed and can last, if maintained via software updates and routine hardware inspections.

If this seems like more of a convenient methodology, then apply for grants – community foundations, tech companies and philanthropic arms of organizations are always looking for new projects to fund. Providing technology, especially to underserved areas is an important cause that deserves attention and needs to be funded.

In writing your grant, it’s okay to aim high – what do you envision for your location? A pop-up coding class for teens that is a weekly/monthly series? A weekly Minecraft LAN party? Laptops for teens to check out and use in the library? How many laptops can your location feasibly hold and maintain?

It’s also important to assess the needs of your library, and the needs of the surrounding neighborhood. Currently, how well are your programs being attended? What is the attendance rate for children and teens at your library, and could that number possibly grow with the influx of new families moving to the neighborhood? Are the schools in your library’s neighborhood offering a technology-based curriculum, and could the library possibly subsidize technology access?

It’s also good to include your course of action in your grant – what will the programs look like, and who will lead them? Will you hire an outside vendor to come teach them, or will you take on the task of leading programs yourself? How often will they occur? How will you promote them? Will you have a marketing and outreach strategy?

With any grant, you will probably need to foresee a measurable quantitative outcome. A popular statistic is attendance, but you can also look at circulation statistics to examine if more books are checked out as a result of more technology being in the library. The two are not mutually exclusive, but circulation can spike especially during high program attendance. Qualitatively – be sure to mention capturing the experience teens are having. Anecdotes are always great to add to a grant report, as well as photos showing the teens having fun and learning in the library.

Community Partnerships

Got your money for laptops and other peripherals? Borrowing from a local consortium? Great. Now, what? Can you host an intro to JavaScript programming workshop for middle schoolers? You don’t necessarily have to take on the task by yourself. Many not for profit organizations would be happy to help – many offer free workshops offering JavaScript-based code block programming as well as user experience/user interface design, all important tools to have under one’s belt for a successful career in the tech world. Groups like Girls Who Code will often offer workshops led by an established tech professional who makes programming fun and accessible. Local programming language groups in your area will often have a philanthropic arm – Java, Ruby, Python are all languages with a strong, growing user base and have frequent meetings (they may even already be meeting at your library).

Many of these organizations are simply looking for space to host their programming events at a location that will offer them attendees as well as space – and if you’ve got both at the library, they want to hear from you. What better mutually beneficial partnership is there?

Closing Thoughts

Don’t let a dismal-looking budget squash your dreams of bringing engaging, relevant technology programming to teens at your library. With a network of support from other partners like a regional system, local tech and programming organizations, and community foundations, it’s certainly possible to bring your dream program to life with a few conversations with the right people.

Additional Resources

Girls Who Code – a nationwide organization with local chapters, offers support for library-sponsored coding clubs https://girlswhocode.com

Hour of Code with Swift Playgrounds – lesson plan from Apple in support of Hour of Code during Computer Science Education Week  https://images.apple.com/retail/code/hourofcode_guide.pdf

Iridescent Learning – a wealth of resources for students, parents, and educators to promote STEM education for kids and teens http://iridescentlearning.org

Janice Scurio is a teen services librarian in Madison, Wisconsin. With an extensive background in information technology, she has served as an expert advisor for other libraries looking to implement more youth STEM programming, such as Minecraft and LEGO robotics. When not at the library, she enjoys karaoke, eating sushi, running marathons, and making fun electronic music.

 

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