Cedar Rapids Library explores effective summer learning activities for underserved youth


Andrew Cejakemig (right), 12, plays musical notes on a cardboard guitar he made and programmed while Logan Bieber, 12, works on his coding while Jen Eilers of the Cedar Rapids Public Library looks on during circuits and coding camp at the Cedar Rapids Northwest Recreation Center last Wednesday. The free, week-long camp sponsored by the Cedar Rapids Public Library gives kids hands-on experience in completing circuit and coding projects, like playing musical notes on a cardboard guitar. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Madison Strickland, 13, cut out the neck of her future cardboard guitar during a Circuits and Coding Camp tour at the Northwest Recreation Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday. Madison will wire the guitar with conductive copper tape and program musical sounds that will play when a circuit is closed. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

AmeriCorps volunteer Olivia Calvin tries out a cardboard guitar as she works with 12-year-old Scout Weiler during a STEM camp at the Northwest Recreation Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Cedar Rapids Public Library’s Jen Eilers works with 12-year-old Gabe Scott as he tapes copper tape to the frets of his cardboard guitar during a STEM camp at the Northwest Recreation Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Madison Strickland, 13, colored a cardboard cutout of a hot pink electric guitar, wiring it with conductive copper tape and programming musical sounds on a computer, so she could play the cardboard like an electric guitar.

The Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy eighth-grade student did it using a Makey Makey – technology that connects objects to computer keys using a circuit board, clips and a USB cable to send a signal to the computer – during a one-week free circuit. Coding and circuitry camp she attended last week at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.

The Circuits and Coding Camp is one of three science, technology, engineering, and math-based summer programs at the Cedar Rapids Public Library under an initiative of the Urban Libraries Council to explore effective summer learning activities for underserved youth.

The Cedar Rapids Public Library was selected to be one of 22 libraries across the United States and Canada – including public libraries in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – to be part of the initiative.

After the summer session, the participating libraries will meet to discuss what worked and what can be improved in order to produce good practice recommendations to share with other libraries.

The Urban Libraries Council has worked for more than 50 years to stimulate research and form strategic partnerships to help libraries achieve better outcomes in education, workforce and economic development, digital equity and racial and social equity.

Coding — communicating with a computer to tell it what to do — is one of Madison’s favorite hobbies, she said. She started learning to code in an elective course she took in sixth grade and has been passionate about it ever since.

When she heard about summer camp, Madison said, “Sign me up. I want to do this,” she said. “I feel so lucky to be a part of it.”

Kevin Delelecki, program manager for the Cedar Rapids Public Library, called for the library to be part of this Urban Library Council initiative, saying it aligns closely with the goals the library has already set for itself.

These include understanding the library’s role in social equity and working to become intentionally anti-racist, he said. The initiative is a two-year commitment, ending in December 2023.

The initiative is to help libraries transition from summer reading programs to summer learning programs, Delecki said. Participating libraries will take what they learned this summer, assess what went well and what could be improved, and apply it to summer programs in 2023, Delecki said.

The Cedar Rapids Public Library offers programs for middle schoolers because “that’s where we start losing kids,” Delelecki said.

“In elementary school, they get excited about everything. In high school, they can explore what excites and excites them,” Delecki said. “College is a ‘lost zone’ where they don’t always have the freedom or opportunity to explore what excites them.”

The camps strive to present science, technology, engineering and math in a way that engages students, Delecki said.

Up to 15 children can participate in each camp. The library is no longer accepting applications from participants.

Another activity the students did at Circuits and Coding Camp last week was to write down instructions on how to make a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This was made more difficult because when writing code for a computer, you have to think about every step, said Jen Eilers, programming librarian at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.

“It wasn’t as easy as they thought it would be,” Eilers said. Students forgot to include instructions for tasks such as removing the lid from the jelly jar, opening the bread bag and taking a slice of bread out of the bag, she said.

During the first summer camp in June, campers learned about sustainability at Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids. Children calculated their carbon footprint, learned how to reuse objects, native plants and how to identify them, and collected scraps which they used to create works of art currently on display at the library.

“How can you take something like an old T-shirt and make something new out of it?” Eilers said. “We don’t often think about the reuse part of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’.”

“My sustainability kids were so into helping the earth and helping each other that it gave me hope for the future,” Eilers said. “There’s so much bad news and working with these kids made me feel like we might be okay.”

During the final camp – Art and Technology Camp at McKinley STEM Academy, Monday through Friday – campers will create stop motion videos. They will write a script, create tricks and sets for the videos and learn how to edit.

At camp, kids can focus on fun, play and experimentation without worrying about grades, Eilers said.

“I hope what we do inspires them,” Eilers said.

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