ASEE PRISM - September 2000
Last Word
Aging Books Leave Youngsters Behind the Times

By M. Ellen Jay

Engineering is a largely misunderstood profession. When adults were asked about the field in a recent survey, more than 60 percent admitted that they were not well informed; among women, the number jumps to 78 percent. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that even with engineers playing a pivotal role in developing the technologies that maintain our nation's economic, environmental, and national security, more young people aren't going into the profession.

One cause may be the state of K-12 school library collections. Many school collections are outdated because the last major infusion of money for collection development came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided funds specifically designated for school libraries. In addition, in recent years, funding for print materials has been cut drastically in favor of providing computer technology.

Proof of this erosion is apparent when a library catalog lists a civil engineering handbook from 1959; Great Moments in Engineering, 1964; and How Do They Build It?, 1972. Books this old stand little chance of turning on the reader to the engineering and scientific marvels of modern times. In a neighborhood K-5 school of 725 students in suburban Washington, D.C., only 21 math titles are available, and of these, 11 are copyrighted before 1975. Among the 11 are Heavy Is a Hippopotamus, 1954; Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, 1956; and Lotus Caves, 1969. While the first title is a picture book that presents the concept of weight with examples of objects that are heavy and light, the other titles are novels--not very useful for the development of mathematical concepts.

This situation becomes more understandable, but all the more crucial, when the same school's librarian observed that she had scarcely $2,000 a year to purchase all print, non-print, and computer software, and that this money came from donations.

Collection development is critical, especially when funds are short. Additions to school collections must support the curriculum and methods of instruction. When there is little market for a topic, publishers are reluctant to publish it--and writers do not produce manuscripts that will not sell. This cycle ends with a dearth of materials for libraries to purchase. Often the best they can supply will be materials for free choice or recreational reading such as craft books, collections of science experiments, or biographies of inventors. When a publisher recognizes a link between an identified market (gender studies) and an underdeveloped informational need (engineering), then titles dealing with successful women appear. Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women, and Cool Careers for Girls in Computers are just two well-reviewed 1999 titles that reflect this trend.

A common misconception is that the Internet is a viable substitute for access to balanced, quality collections. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it is the interaction between students, qualified library media specialists, classroom teachers, and quality materials that makes the difference. There is an obvious need for change. Children have a natural curiosity and interest in figuring out how things work. Deciding on a career in science or engineering often stems from an early curiosity about the how and why of nature and mechanics, as well as creativity in finding new ways of doing things. The question becomes what happens during the school experience that inhibits the development of these natural instincts. School reform initiatives suggest the need for providing more experience with authentic problem solving and collaboration.

Instructional activities in schools need to provide all students with collaborative experiences analyzing problems systematically and logically, as well as communicating their findings. The value of research needs to be conveyed and the vocabulary of scientific and technical concepts needs to be reinforced. Students need to be taught information literacy skills on how to seek out, use, and evaluate information from all types of sources.

So what can engineering educators do--as an association and as individuals--to improve the current situation? First, support the need for increased funding for school libraries and school library media specialists at the local, state, and national levels. Second, help provide materials for which you would like to ensure student access. Talk with publishers about the need for updated collections and encourage colleagues and authors to write appropriate materials. And finally, check the holdings and make requests for materials related to engineering careers.

By getting involved in keeping our libraries strong in any or all of these ways, you may be getting a child or two hooked on science who otherwise wouldn't have been. You will also be helping to remind students that they can still learn a thing or two from something other than the Internet.

M. Ellen Jay is a school library media specialist
at Damascus Elementary School in Damascus, Maryland,
and immediate past president of the American Association of School Librarians.