Aug. 20, 2020
Reading time: 3 minutes, 26 seconds

While serving as a school library media specialist for more than a decade before moving to higher education, Dr. Melissa Johnston made an observation that would affect her future as well as others in the field.

“I noticed that I didn’t work with the math and science teachers nearly as much as the language arts and social studies teachers,” she recalled. “As I moved into academia, I carried that knowledge with me. It became apparent to me the reason school librarians are not working with STEM teachers is because they were not prepared for working with teachers in those areas.”  

Today, Johnston is an associate professor in the University of West Georgia College of Education’s (COE) Department of Educational Technology and Foundations. Together with the University of Buffalo’s Dr. Dan Albertson, she received the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2017.

Dr. Melissa Johnston 

“This grant is significant because it addresses a real need in the field of school librarianship and national priorities,” she said. “STEM education equips students with the skills needed to take advantage of career pathways in their regions, strengthens local workforce development, and increases employment opportunities.”

The National Science Foundation’s National Science Board estimates that by 2026, STEM jobs are predicted to grow by 13 percent compared with a 7 percent growth in the overall U.S. workforce.

“Therefore, STEM education is a focus in education,” she said. “I believe that a school library media specialist equipped with advanced digital information skills, coupled with applied STEM knowledge, can engage students and support teachers by facilitating meaningful use of digital resources and, in turn, provide real-world collaborative opportunities for STEM learning.”

The grant, “Rural Engagement to Advance Learning in STEAM Digitally (REALISD),” has been such a success that Johnston’s funding was extended, continuing the project for another year.

“There is a high need for this professional development for school librarians,” she explained. “In the first two years of the project, we have had over 400 school librarians apply for 80 available slots.”

The past two summers, school library media specialists from nine states attended professional development workshops in which they learned about the methods and standards behind STEM education, digital tools to support instruction, how to support teachers by utilizing emerging technologies, and how to identify funding opportunities.

The participants then completed a three-hour credit master’s level course through COE’s Instructional Technology, Media and Design program. In the class, each student built a STEM-in-Practice action plan for their schools and documented the implementation progress throughout the school year.

Johnston described UWG as uniquely poised to train media specialists exploring STEM subjects.

“The school library preparation program at UWG is the largest in the state and focuses on school library media specialists as leaders in technology integration,” she explained. “The faculty are well respected in the field and have research interests and practical experience in these areas. As we continually update our program to meet the needs of our students, it is important to stay current, and supporting STEM education efforts in schools is currently a need in the field.”

As a faculty member at UWG, Johnston witnesses the struggles rural schools have with STEM initiatives, such as tight budgets, limited technological infrastructures, struggles with recruiting and retaining teachers, and few professional development opportunities.

“Even in rural areas with resources and access to technology, there is a lack of educators who possess the necessary content, technological and pedagogical knowledge to facilitate applied STEM learning,” she said. “Students in rural areas need additional support that school library media specialists can provide.”

Due to COVID-19, the REALISD project is on hold until summer 2021. Johnston looks forward to helping the next round of school media specialists find their place in STEM education.

“While school librarians do not have to be experts in all curricula, they do need to know enough about the pedagogy and the standards that guide each of these areas,” she concluded. “This project allowed me to address this gap, but more needs to be done.”