Portland library packs up ways to ‘go do science’

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PORTLAND — In an effort to promote access to science, the Portland Public Library has started letting families take home something other than books.

The library recently launched a program that lends backpacks filled with tools to help children explore the outdoors and become citizen scientists. There are six different Family Science Backpacks, with themes ranging from birding to stargazing.

Samantha Duckworth, the library’s science and technology team leader, said the program stems from a desire to “equip people to go do science.” She said the program, which is designed for all ages, gives families fun and educational ways to explore.

Jenna Mayotte, the library’s associate director, said the science program is a way to continue education in the summer, when students are not in school. She said because the backpack program is meant to be fun, the activities don’t feel like homework assignments.

“Libraries are really well-positioned to provide fun learning,” Mayotte said.

A backpack can be checked out for one week by an adult. A family can take out one backpack at a time; all of them are at the Sam L. Cohen Children’s Library, in the main branch at 5 Monument Square.

Duckworth said while the library makes a concerted effort to promote summer reading, there are also ways to learn without reading through a book. In the stargazing backpack, for instance, families can learn how to read a star chart. Patrons can also check out a telescope the library offers as well. Each backpack has related items to borrow.

“It’s like a kit to get started and pique their interests,” Mayotte said.

Duckworth said the backpacks are “a great example of how we’re trying to develop science literacy.” Last fall, PPL was named a pilot site for a project to enhance the public’s exposure to science. Funded partly by a $1.1 million grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the library began offering access to scientific tools and equipment, books, media and professionals within the scientific community.

Mayotte said the project became possible through a grant from the University of Southern Maine’s Thoughtful Giving Foundation. And, so far, Duckworth said the backpack science program has been a hit. The program was launched in the past few weeks, and the backpacks have all been checked out.

In addition to birding and star gazing, the other subjects offered are bugs and butterflies; hiking, which includes tree and plant identification; rock hounding, which is a type of amateur geology; and water wonder. Tools specific to the activity are included. For example, the birding backpack contains binoculars, a bird call with a CD to identify bird calls and a magnifying glass.

Duckworth said the tools are designed to be used anywhere, from deep in the woods to a city sidewalk. Not everyone has access to far-off places, so it is a way for people to be outdoors and active.

“We say everyone should check them all out,” Duckworth said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

The Portland Public Library is lending Family Science Backpacks at the Sam L. Cohen Children’s Library at the main branch on Monument Square.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.