When educators move from traditional instruction to innovation, there are many structural challenges that can slow their progress. It’s not just a matter of teacher enthusiasm. They also need access to materials to support new ideas. The National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) four-year old effort to identify and encourage the best in children’s STEM literature was no exception. It would not be enough to recommend a few good books. The initiative was led by Missouri educator Carrie Launius. Among the goals were ways to encourage publishers to recognize how creativity and innovation could be fostered through reading, and to provide materials that met those goals. And, of course, they had to be confident that these books would sell. A well-publicized national competition would go a long way to accomplishing these goals.
Towards that end, in 2014, NSTA, working in partnership with the Children’s Book Council, set out to recognize and encourage the best in STEM process-based literature. To begin, they had to develop a rubric featuring criteria that didn’t focus on content. The structure of the publishing industry doesn’t easily adapt to new ideas and new genres—especially when their use in the classroom has not yet demonstrated profitability. Trade books that are used to support various school content areas (like science or engineering) are often marketed and sold by specialized sales reps in those areas. Very few teachers use reading to support lessons in mathematics or technology (coding) so there isn’t an easy path to creating that niche. The rubric would have to clearly encourage publications that emphasized creativity and problem-solving “habits of mind.”
Working to create the rubric, a committee of members representing each of the STEM disciplines asked a series of questions: “How do you define creativity?” “What is the difference between a book about an innovator and a book that shares that person’s thinking stance?” “How can the processes of artists, engineers and scientists coalesce?” “How is a book of puzzles that are all in the same pattern distinguished from one that presents a different challenge on every page?” In essence, the committee wanted a rubric that would illustrate paths to innovation. Given the committee’s focus on habits of mind rather than on specific subjects, it was clear that the group was pushing the boundaries of “the best” to include what educators now call STEAM.
The Children’s Book Council provided the finalized rubric to the publishing industry and invited them to participate in an annual Best STEM competition. They hoped to see changes in both submissions and the market over time.
In the first year over 300 books were submitted. Of the original submissions, about 50 were deemed unrelated to STEM at all. Most of the rest were focused on one of the content areas rather than habits of mind. The competition’s 31 winners included one on architecture and two on entrepreneurship without disciplinary connections.
The second year 350 books were submitted. Twenty-four were considered unrelated to the rubric. Ultimately 22 were named “Best” including one on architecture, one on music, and a book of biographies in poetry. In 2018 only 25 of the 374 books submitted seemed totally unrelated to the rubric but even among those, a few could be “on the table” due to their unusual topics. Twenty four books were awarded “Best STEM” but none of those were about arts or social studies issues. Still, the judges were encouraged because, even though they didn’t win, there were a number of high quality books on color, sculpture, crafts, economics and other topics.
While the numbers do not seem to indicate a significant change in the balance of publications for children, subjective data from news stories, presentations, and focus groups indicate that a broader definition of STEM is growing. At the NSTA national conference in April, 2018, teachers who attended 8 sessions on the interdisciplinary literary process clearly realized that art and architecture, economics and entrepreneurship, music and manufacturing could help young readers appreciate persistence, creativity, and divergent thinking.
Getting publishers to recognize the practical and financial value of issuing STEM-based titles, like integrating instruction, is a long-term challenge. Meetings with publishers are scheduled in the near future, along with a series of events featuring 30 or more award-winning authors at the NSTA regional conference in St. Louis in April, 2019. To see the most current lists of STEM-related children’s books go here.