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Building Robots at the Library With LA Makerspace

In Los Angeles, libraries aren't just for reading.

Since 2012—in partnership with LA Makerspace—more than 4,000 children have gathered at 134 libraries for maker workshops that focus on developing STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) skills. Educators and library staff, meanwhile, have been schooled in the latest coding techniques, robotics programming, stop-frame animation, and even Minecraft.

PCMag recently visited a library in North Hollywood to observe a STEAM workshop. There was an instructor, but no manuals, lesson books, or white boards in sight. Instead, a group of about 20 5- to 7-year-olds were learning about electrical connectivity by joining hands and pretending to be a circuit. They then examined components in front of them and were given options of what they were called; they shouted responses like "Transistor!" and "Photocell!"

The main objective of the workshop, though, was making autonomous, light-sensitive "Shy Bots," which "run away" and appear shy when exposed to light. Everyone received a paper plate, transistor, batteries, mini electronics "breadboard" and a photocell, together with duct tape and other sundries.

LA Makerspace and LA Public Library STEAM workshops

In the course of the free, two-hour session, the children learned to fail without shame or censure; they tried, tested, tried again, and figured it out. At no point were they provided step-by-step instructions to learn by rote, or ordered to sit passively and wait for a grown-up to give them the "right answer."

"For 35 percent of people in L.A., the only access they have to broadband is at their local library," Mya Stark, executive director of LA Makerspace, told PCMag. "At LA Makerspace, in partnership with LAPL, we help libraries extend their mission of bringing knowledge to the public, beyond books and into skills-learning, giving communities access to tech literacy they wouldn't be able to get any other way."

The maker movement shows librarians that they have "a responsibility to spark the interest and nurture a lifelong passion for STEAM beyond the classroom," said Vivienne Khan Byrd, a librarian with the LA Public Library's Exploration and Creativity Department. "The critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration skills acquired through making and STEAM learning are necessary to succeed in school and the job market in the 21st century.

Full STEAM Ahead Program"Previously many librarians had not felt that comfortable, or confident, with leading math and science programs," she acknowledged, "But we knew we needed to expand our role in educating the next generation. That was the momentum behind LAPL starting the Full Steam Ahead initiative, where parents can check out our calendar on the workshops, like this one today, taking place at their local library."

During the event, 7-year-old Chloe wasn't very talkative, but she was willing to give a demo. Covering up the photocell on her robot with a finger made it stop; with a finger removed, the robot zoomed off around the table as light made its way in. She appeared delighted to have made something from scratch. "It's ALIVE," she said, beaming.

Nearby, 8-year-old Ismail was concentrating hard on making his own robot come to life, by testing that the wires were connected to the motor properly. "I liked learning about how a circuit works, and how we can compile one to make our own robot spin around," he said, as it finally sprung into action.

His "library lab" partner Zaid, 9, joined in: "I enjoyed how the staff gave us a graphic illustration by joining hands to pretend to be a circuit and then helped us to, independently, create a robot."

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Isamil's mom told PCMag that she'd brought him to the workshop because she studied engineering in her native India, and was slightly disconcerted to find out her son's local elementary school didn't have a strong science focus. "I'm so thankful to the library to providing this workshop today," she said.

Lauren Rodrigues, the LA Makerspace course instructor, is a former science teacher. "Several of the children just learned that direction matters, because, on a lot of their Shy Bots, they had the transistor connected in the wrong way, and that changed the direction of the flow of electricity," she said. "These are all difficult concepts to grasp, but by 'doing' rather than listening to step-by-step instructions, they get to comprehend it in a deeper, more useful, way."

As the children wrapped up their Shy Bot projects, decorating them with feathers, googly eyes and, in some cases, naming them, it became clear that what looked like controlled chaos was actually redefining how children are educated in STEAM. Because, let's face it, by the time this group of kids starts work, their AI-enhanced silicon cousins will be able to do many things better than them. Initiatives like LA Makerspace are prepping Chloe, Ismail, Zaid and their contemporaries for the future they will inherit.

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