The Northern Illinois University STEM Read program is designed to get pre-college students interested in the sciences through compelling literature. While the program has a wide variety of selections, its director is reaching out toward the younger crowd through a stuffed bunny, particularly in local libraries.
Gillian King-Cargile began STEM Read as an extension of NIU outreach efforts on science, engineering, technology, and mathematics. In the early days, the program involved selecting compelling books and taking readers around campus to explore the sciences behind them.
"We’d take them to cool places like the observatory or the psychology labs, and we had them looking at slime mold and lots of different things, and we decided to take this online, and then it grew from there," she said.
It started small, with about five children, but now encompasses about 850 readers. Yet much of STEM Read’s selection was limited to teen novels. King-Cargile wanted to reach out to younger children and decided to write a book of her own, and partnered with illustrator and NIU graduate Kevin Krull. The book was going to cover tornadoes, and she was well acquainted with Doug Sisterson, a climate scientist at Argonne National Lab. However, she found that storm books were somewhat limited in scope.
"They fell into two rough categories," King-Cargile said. "One was true-life stories about tornadoes, and they were very terrifying. It was like 'the baby was the only one left alive,' and the other side of that was there were more metaphors. The storms weren’t really storms, they were like 'your grandmother blowing you a kiss from heaven.'"
Instead of these two extremes, King-Cargile wanted a fast-paced adventure story that still took storms seriously. And for a protagonist, she chose a plush rabbit with a bear on his shirt.
"Our stuffed bunny is the main character, and he always gets separated from his boy Jack; and then has to meet other toys and find a way to think his way back to Jack," King-Cargile said.
For the first book, Bear the bunny gets left outside during a storm and gets sucked up by a tornado with Sadie Scientist, a doll belonging to Jack’s sister. The dialogue between Bear and Sadie brings in facts about tornadoes, and both eventually make it back to their owners. King-Cargile said Bear’s curiosity plays an important role.
"The bunny is a little bit fluff-brained, and he doesn’t always know what he’s doing," she said. "So he can ask the silly questions that we might all have in our head."
Response to the first book, The Toy And The Twister, was quite positive.
"We premiered it at the DuPage Children’s Museum, and we had Doug Sisterson in there from Argonne; and everybody liked it and they said, 'Hey, this should be a series,' and I said 'Hey, OK.'"
From there, King-Cargile would write two more books, introducing tidal life by having Bear swept up by seagulls, or discuss solar power and kinetic energy by joyriding an R/C car. She noted Jack isn't always responsible with his toys, but loves them nonetheless. In addition, King-Cargile said the books have garnered interest from a wider variety of kids than she expected.
"I have lots of times when I’m doing story times at the library and the little kids will kind of walk up and look at the picture closer," she said. "And other kids like them too. I’ve read in schools for up to sixth grade; and the older kids really want to know how I wrote the book, and they want to know more of the creative writing side of it.”
At her library readings, King-Cargile often includes extra activities, such as drawing various tide pool creatures, or racing matchbox cars down cardboard ramps, to go with The Toy and the Test Drive. Though it’s not explicitly a science lecture, Theresa Winterbauer, Director of Youth Services at the DeKalb Library, likes the combination.
"Because of the common core -- science, non-fiction -- we’re trying to emphasize more of that," she said. "Gillian does a great job reading with the kids. She has a real rapport with the children, so we’ve been very happy with her programs."
Publicizing these books isn’t as straightforward as other titles, since the primary focus of NIU Press is academic works. However, King-Cargile said much of the publicity comes from word of mouth, teachers who've attended STEM Read training sessions, or librarians who hear about the books from kids.
The Stuffed Bunny series currently comprises three books, but its future is uncertain because of state budget cuts. Nevertheless the books remain popular at local libraries, and King-Cargile continues to promote science through STEM Read. But if she has a chance to write another book in the series, King-Cargile says it probably would involve dinosaurs.