Community Relationships to Build Family Access to STEM Learning

Jan 29 2019

Authors: Keliann LaConte, Anne Holland, Lisa Lewis, and Michelle Ross

The STAR Library Network team shares tips and ideas for using community dialogues to raise up family and community voice and build partnerships in designing STEM-related library services. 

Partnerships are key to any work that is to have lasting impact for youth and families. How do you start those crucial conversations that lead to relationshipsand, ultimately, collaborations and partnershipsin your community

Through the STAR Library Network (STAR Net), public-library staff are sharing their successes and challenges in engaging community stakeholders in STEM, and then leveraging those partnerships to provide programs and services for families. STAR Net focuses on helping library professionals facilitate STEM learning for their patrons by providing “science-technology activities and resources” (STAR) and training to use those resources. In this blog, we draw attention to a new resource that can be of particular interest to librarians, as well as to anyone working with families, to build the important conversations and foundations that make partnerships successful and concrete; namely, community dialogues. 


Credit: Show Low Public Library

Community Dialogues: A Way to Raise Up Family and Community Voice

Community dialogues are loosely facilitated discussions that provide opportunities for STEM education stakeholders and community leaders to discuss common community-based challenges and aspirations. The goal is to open new channels of communication to help build stronger partnerships among librarians, early childhood programs, schools, and others within the learning ecology. The STAR Net team focused on STEM equity when developing the Community Dialogue Guide, but dialogues can really focus on anything that’s meaningful for your community. Dialogues generally begin with introductions, a description of the goals of the session, and conversations about an understanding of STEM, with a particular focus on underrepresented groups as well as community needs. 

Community Dialogues in Action

Our conversations with those who have conducted community dialogues suggest that the dialogues hold the promise to:

  • Expand their understanding of their patrons’ feelings about their venue and its programs. Community dialogues have helped librarians better understand families’ desires and needs. For example, at Show Low Public Library (Arizona) one of the main lessons for librarians was that STEM can be quite intimidating, and some of the people in the Show Low Public Library dialogue group believed that these activities only attracted science-minded people. The librarians also found out that most people thought STEM only related to college-educated people. There was quite a bit of discussion on how much STEM-related programs must cost and where the money comes from. The librarians were given ideas on ways to communicate better on how STEM happens around us every single day and how they could educate their community about that.  Because of this discussion, Show Low Public Library has created programs that make STEM-related activities approachable, interesting, and fun. They have achieved much better participation because they reached those who are curious about STEM, and generated new ideas for different organizations to partner with that they had never heard of before the dialogues.
  • Begin conversations about how libraries can better serve ethnically, economically, and geographically underserved and underrepresented audiences. Community dialogues helped broach conversations about who visits the library (and other venues in the community), why some people might not be walking in the door, and potential ways to better reach out to families that might be furthest from opportunity. For instance, librarians at Show Public Library were somewhat disappointed that they did not hear back from several of those who were invited. However, seven people did attend, and the discussion was very thoughtful, with everyone contributing. The group included several people from the city government, each of whom had definite opinions that differed based on their responsibilities. Holding community dialogues on a regular basis (say, annually) can draw in representatives who weren’t able to attend the first event.
  • Connect with potential partners and local organizations that have a shared interest with the library and community. Dialogues ignited new ideas for partnerships and collaborations. For example, the St. Albans library branch (West Virginia) set out to build new partnerships through the community dialogue and raise awareness about library programs and services. Having just hired a new branch manager, the library found this was an excellent opportunity to form new connections with community members. One of the biggest takeaways from the community dialogue was the fact that the library needs to do more outreach events to promote its services. 

Tips and Ideas for Conducting Your Own Community Dialogues 

Libraries that have conducted these dialogues have shared the following tips:

  • Be strategic in deciding who to engage in dialogue. These events are intended to engage those who haven’t historically had a voice in your planning process. Consider reaching out to leaders who represent families who experience barriers to coming to your venue (for example, due to distance or transportation limitations).  This might include the mayor, community services director, educators, administrators, and organizations like radio stations, museums, and libraries that have successfully brought these voices to past dialogues. While this list focuses on community “movers and shakers,” remember the people who have a pulse on the happenings in your community. For some of our libraries this has included the owner of the local sandwich shop, a retired teacher, or even a supermarket employee!
  • Think outside of the box about whom you invite. Consider inviting a broad range of individuals who reflect the people in your community and will contribute in a productive way. The focus of the dialogues (in this case STEM) shouldn’t necessarily dictate those you ask to join. For instance, the local theater doesn’t necessarily seem like a natural fit for a STEM-related dialogue, but the representative who attended a recent dialogue at the St. Albans branch of the Kanawha County Public Library was great. He pointed out that there is a lot of STEM involved with theater: set building, lighting, electronics.
  • A relationship is the first step toward true partnership. Add a personal touch:make sure to follow up invitations with emails and phone calls.
  • Focus on facilitation. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak; this should be your main job as facilitator! Call on people by name if you need to. If the conversation gets heated, this is a good thing! It means people care. If conversation is slow, consider doing a hands-on activity or icebreaker to get people energized. Successful dialogues have had anywhere from 5 to 40 people. Do what is manageable for YOU.
  • Use dialogues to help prepare and test out new programming. Through STAR Net’s Project BUILD (Building Using an Interactive Learning Design), libraries and STEM professionals from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) participated together in community dialogues in six libraries and used the information they gathered to understand how best to prepare and launch a new series of four “Ready, Set, Create!” library programs (see Text Box 2). Community feedback helped to increase the likelihood that the materials would be used widely and enjoyed. 
  • Have fun! Bring food! Making this a party rather than a chore encourages people to talk! And remember that your first dialogue might not go as planned. Learn from it and try again!

Credit: Clarksdale Carnegie Public Library

Below are a series of resources to help you plan and facilitate your own dialogue:

Community Dialogue Guide: This guide provides information for public libraries on how to host and conduct community dialogues.

Ground Rules: These sets of ideas will help you facilitate a productive, positive discussion.

Sample Invitation: You can adapt this invitation to invite others to your dialogues. 

Project BUILD: Connecting Engineers, Librarians, and Families


Project BUILDis led by the Space Science Institute’s National Center for Interactive Learning in partnership with the American Society of Civil Engineers and the University of Virginia. The project is funded through the National Science Foundation.[i] The goal of Project BUILD is to inspire and educate youth about STEM careers. In Project BUILD, staff from libraries and ASCE volunteers co-facilitate Ready, Set, Create! programs, which have been designed to engage youth in grades 2–5 along with their caregivers. Families solve challenge-focused (real or simulated) problems using an engineering design process, which models how engineers work to build a better world and improve the local community. Adults and children alike are drawn in by the opportunity to use technology, such as circuits, apps, and off-the-shelf education kits. Critical to any endeavor supporting youth and their caregivers, the partnerships are dedicated to providing a fun, active learning experience for program participants. The participating libraries include: African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, Broward County, Florida; High Plains Library District, Greeley, Colorado; Overbrook Park Branch Library, Free Library of Philadelphia; Cuyahoga County Public Library, Cleveland; Anchorage Public Library, Anchorage, Alaska; and Kanawha County Public Library, Charleston, West Virginia. ASCE branches and sections include ASCE Broward County Branch, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; ASCE Northern Colorado Branch, Fort Collins, Colorado; ASCE Philadelphia Section; ASCE Cleveland Branch; ASCE Alaska Section, Palmer, Alaska; Marshall University Student ASCE Chapter; and West Virginia Section ASCE.

You can find collections of these activities, along with family guides and ASCE resources, on STAR Net‘s STEM Activity Clearinghouse for the following topics:

[i] Project BUILD material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant number DRL-1657593. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.