Henry Popov, 6, pours salt into oil and water, creating bubbles that replicate a lava lamp.
TARPON SPRINGS – In the quiet halls of the Tarpon Springs Library, Youth Services Librarian Joy Herrera has created a science lab.
Twice a month, Herrera hosts the after school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) lab, providing students with hands-on creative ways to experiment, build and create.
“I knew (STEM) was important in schools, and this was an opportunity to help reinforce what students are learning in the classroom,” Herrera said. “That’s what libraries are for.”
In recent years, Florida schools have increased focus on science and math classes. In the spring of 2011, the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics released their Florida STEM Strategic Plan, including goals for increased performance on all National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science and math exams.
In 2009, 40 percent of fourth graders scored proficient or advanced on their NAEP math exams and 31 percent scored similarly on science exams. By 2017, the plan calls for 60 percent of fourth graders to score proficient or advanced on math exams and 51 percent on science.
The plan also looks for a reduction by half in achievement gaps between white and black students by 2017.
Now, Herrera has taken it upon herself to do her part outside of school; she’ll do anything, she said, to help teachers and parents increase learning.
Since January, the library’s STEM labs have introduced elementary school students to the principles behind dozens of scientific crafts, including slime, bubble prints and balloon rockets. Last month, Herrera led a small group in creating “lava in a cup,” a makeshift lava lamp of water, vegetable oil and salt.
Scientifically, the oil floats on top because it is lighter than the water; the salt, which is heavier than the oil, sinks into the water and takes some oil with it. When the salt dissolves, the oil rises to the top of the cup again, creating the bubbles found in your parents’ lava lamps.
And for the most part, the kids got the science.
“Oil and water can’t mix,” 10-year-old Jack Popov explained to his 6-year-old brother, Henry, as Herrera demonstrated the experiment.
Six-year-old Sidney James added that the salt would push the oil down to the bottom of the cup.
“I just want to see how much (salt) I can put in,” Sidney said. And he fit a lot of salt.
The Tarpon Springs Library also keeps a number of STEM kits available for check out in the youth department. Each box covers a different scientific subject, complete with reading materials and experiments to back up the information. Kits can be checked out for free with a library card.
On the library’s website, a science database, including articles from scholarly journals, magazines, newspapers and other reference materials, is available for free with an account linked to your library card.
“We really try to encourage science here,” Herrera said, “and get kids excited.”
The after school STEM program is held on Tuesdays starting at 3:30 p.m. twice a month. The program is free for children between 6 and 12 years old.