Peanuts and Robots: Wilson County Public Libraries and Maker Education in Rural Texas

Linda Downs recently told me that you can see a giant peanut resting on the lawn of the Wilson County Courthouse in Floresville, Texas. The big civic peanut has become something of a town mascot and, in conjunction with the annual Floresville Peanut Festival, memorializes the rural region’s early 20th century role in peanut farming. Linda, the technology coordinator for the Wilson County Public Libraries (WCPL), a two-time Maker Corps partner site, conveys an infectious enthusiasm when describing the festival as a home to local crafts and craftsmen.

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Linda’s interest in local making stretches well beyond the Floresville Peanut Festival. Throughout our conversation, I learned how her own efforts to couple making with Wilson County Public Libraries has not only revitalized local investment in education but also ignited the library’s growth. In fact, up until just over a year ago, Wilson County Public Libraries was actually just Wilson County Public Library, serving all county residents from a single branch in Floresville. With only 4 full-time staff members, WCPL opened two new library branches in late 2014: the Sarah Bain Chandler Public Library in the small town of Stockdale and the Poth Branch Library in the even smaller town of the same name.

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Despite the colorful picture Linda had painted of strong town tradition, it’s not surprising that Floresville, whose population remains under 7,000, and its surrounding community, composed primarily of ranchers and farmers, struggle at times to offer robust educational and recreational programming, especially for young children. But after being blown away by what she saw at the Mini Maker Faire in Austin back in 2014, Linda discovered in the maker world a way to address this need. A year later, she found herself leading the library’s efforts to organize a mini maker faire for Wilson County while building out the library’s hands-on, project-based programming. With the aid and inspiration of a thriving online community of makers from around the country, WCPL sought to unite the region’s diverse artisans, makers, and craftsmen together to engage and inspire the county’s youth. The Wilson County Mini Maker Faire reached over 100 kids and adults in May of 2015 and showcased everything from the art of flint-knapping to the creative use and reuse of duct tape.

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WCPL stumbled upon Maker Ed while planning their makerspace. Using Maker Ed’s Resource Library for guidance and inspiration, Linda seized another opportunity to sustain the growing interest of county youth in making throughout the summer. In the summer of 2015, WCPL unveiled the Stockdale branch of their library as a part of Maker Ed’s Maker Corps program. Bringing in two local school teachers as well as a high school graduate with a background in computing as their Maker Corps Members, the small library branch met an existing need for summer programs and ultimately played a role in the growth of the public library.

Linda repeats with conviction how Maker Corps in Stockdale helped to increase countywide exposure to WCPL. “People have found the library,” she told me. Upon the start of the Maker Corps summer program, “they tripled their attendance to the library and they have kept up the attendance since then.” More surprisingly, the draw was not only local, but region-wide. Parents and children traveled up to 45 miles a day to participate in Maker Corps “because there was nowhere else for them to go to find those kinds of programs.”

The combined successes of both the Wilson County Mini Maker Faire and the Stockdale branch’s Maker Corps program have affirmed the Floresville branch’s forthcoming move to newer and improved headquarters, complete with Wilson County’s first educational makerspace. Some materials and resources acquired and used during the summer program will contribute to outfitting this space, while others have found a new home in library circulation, where patrons may now check out such maker favorites as Squishy Circuits for experimentation and play in their own homes.

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In addition, these successes have informed the shape and direction of the libraries’ year-round programing. Embracing new technologies, WCPL quickly became a littleBits global chapter, received a Lego WeDo grant, and found partnership in a statewide robotics program called Bots and Books. Nevertheless, WCPL still hopes to secure further funding for an additional combined reading and making resource called the StoryTime STEM Take-and-Make Collection, which features pairings of materials and literature organized by theme or subject.

The libraries’ enhanced robotics offerings don’t merely complement traditional library literacy programs. They also substantially supplement STEM education outside of the library in the local public schools, where extra-curricular robotics and engineering courses, clubs, and workshops have disappeared. Bridging the gap between the library and the Floresville Independent School District, Linda has reinstituted robotics clubs at both of the city’s elementary schools.

By the end of our conversation, I had corrected any assumption that public libraries were merely repositories for books. Now aware of libraries’ increasing engagement in the promotion of digital literacy, 3D printing and more, I appreciate their value as versatile forces of growth and empowerment in their local communities. The case of Wilson County Public Libraries, in particular, also highlights the unique impact making can have when coupled with education. Linda’s version of maker education taps into an inherent local predisposition to make, as one sees on display at the Floresville Peanut Festival, and blends it with innovations in technology previously unavailable to the predominantly rural ranching and farming community. The outcome is a fuller life of learning for county youth. 

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