March 23, 2018

Pushing The Limits Grants Teach Science Through Fiction

The Pushing the Limits grant, aimed specifically at small and rural libraries, offers libraries subtle STEM programming aimed at adults not already interested in science topics. Modeled on the American Library Association’s long-running “Let’s Talk About It” program, Pushing The Limits is organized around four works of popular fiction that explore broad scientific themes. Libraries will partner with scientists in their community to come and lead informal discussions of each book.

Described by Al Bennett, formerly of the California State Library, and Larry Grieco, director of Gilpin County Public Library, as an “on ramp for people who weren’t looking to get on the highway,” the Pushing the Limits discussions will be focused on developing “a new appreciation of science as an endless stream of questions” rather than imparting facts, and promotional materials will focus on the selected books rather than science in general.

The books chosen include T.C. Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done, for the Nature segment; Eric Larson’s Thunderstruck, for the Connection segment; Clive & Dirk Cussler’s Arctic Drift for the Survival segment, and Jean M. Auel’s The Land of Painted Caves for the Knowledge segment. An optional fifth segment’s title has yet to be determined.

Each participating library will receive a $2500 grant, out of which they can pay honoraria and travel expenses for their expert (or experts; libraries can bring in multiple partners if they choose). They will also receive multiple copies of the chosen books and program resources including videos, promotional materials, discussion questions, evaluation tools, and training. (While the pilot training is being conducted in person, once the program widens it will be online.)

This year, 20 pilot libraries are testing the program, including 2012 Best Small Library in America, the Independence, KS, Public Library. In 2013-2014, some 100 libraries will be selected for the grants, which in turn were funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. “If you apply, you’ll probably get it,” emphasized Bennett and Grieco at the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) conference in Raleigh, NC. ARSL membership is not required to apply for the grant, but Bennett and Grieco said they expected the majority of grant recipients would be ARSL members.

The creators (which include ARSL, Califa, Dartmouth and Oregon State University, library consultants, and filmmakers the Dawson Media Group) are in talks with potential funders and state libraries to ensure that the materials developed by the program will remain available to libraries who wish to continue hosting Pushing The Limits-style programs even after the grant money is spent.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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