Programs bring the theme of space to life in a way intended to connect with different audiences.

COURTESY ILLUSTRATION: COLLABORATIVE SUMMER LIBRARY PROGRAM - Materials and artwork were made available to participating libraries across the country to fit with this year's summer reading theme, 'A Universe of Stories.'Summer reading at Washington County libraries wraps up Saturday, Aug. 31, as kids, tweens and teens prepare to go back to school next week.

Like many libraries across the United States, the Washington County public library system adopts the theme set by the Collaborative Summer Library Program every year. This year's theme, "A Universe of Stories," nodded to the 50-year anniversary of the first manned Moon landing in July 1969.

"I think people were intrigued," said Jim Jatkevicius, library services supervisor at the Forest Grove City Library. "I think we tried to promote a lot of information."

Jatkevicius is in charge of library programming for adults in Forest Grove. He noted that for some library patrons, there's an element of nostalgia — many of them grew up during the early days of NASA and the "Space Race." Some are old enough to remember landmark events in space exploration: the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human to orbit the Earth in 1961, Apollo 11 "moonshot" in 1969, the near-disaster of Apollo 13 in 1970, the joint American and Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia on reentry in 2003, and more.

"Human spaceflight is less than six decades old," observed Jason-Flor Sisante, who gave a presentation before a mixed group of children, their parents, senior citizens and other patrons at the Tualatin Public Library on Sunday, Aug. 25. "There are people in this room who have been there for the original Space Race."PMG PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Jason-Flor Sisante, a NASA Solar System ambassador, answers questions after giving a presentation on the Artemis program and plans for future Mars exploration at the Tualatin Public Library on Sunday, Aug. 25.

Sisante was among many speakers and presenters at Washington County libraries this summer. A medical researcher by trade, he's an ambassador for NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory — an evangelist, in essence, for the cause of space exploration, rocket science and astronomy. He's spoken at venues across the United States, as well as in Europe.

Sisante's program, "From the Moon to Mars," focused on the challenges of living and working in space and on other worlds, as well as NASA and its commercial partners' plans to overcome them. He discussed the Artemis program, a spiritual successor to the Apollo program of the 1960s and '70s that aims to establish the first long-term human presence on and around the Moon — and lay the groundwork for a manned landing on Mars in the 2030s.

"Artemis is really the dress rehearsal program for what's going to be a much harder attempt to get the first crew to Mars," Sisante explained.

He outlined NASA's plans for the first manned Moon mission since 1972 — tentatively slated for 2024, although Congress has yet to fully fund the program — and walked his audience through an explanation of how NASA will place a space station in lunar orbit, a command module launched from Earth will dock with it, and the astronauts will then board a lunar lander and launch it from the space station before returning.

"If this aggregate system works for the Moon, then there's a good chance it's going to work for Mars," said Sisante.

While Sisante's program was fairly high-level — it was geared toward teens and adults — some of the other programs at Tualatin, Forest Grove and other Washington County libraries this summer were designed for younger audiences.

In Forest Grove, a presenter from the University of Oregon used a young volunteer in a pint-sized spacesuit costume, models of each planet suspended in the air, and plenty of sound effects to explain some basic Solar System facts to her audience of toddlers, elementary-schoolers, and their parents and grandparents. You can't land on Jupiter, she explained, because it's a gas giant. You couldn't live on Venus, because it's too hot. You would weigh less on Mars, because it's smaller than Earth and has less gravity.COURTESY PHOTO: STAR WARS CELEBRATION - Some people connect most to the space theme used for many summer reading activities this year through pop culture, as in the case of this young Star Wars fan with a prop lightsaber at the 2019 Star Wars Celebration in Chicago.

With a broad theme like space, there's a range of programming options for librarians.

"You can approach that theme from a lot of different angles," said Nathan Jones, a children's librarian at the Forest Grove Library.

"Different age groups interact differently with the theme," explained Jillian Coy, Forest Grove's young adult services librarian. "The little ones are very pumped about it. They're excited. It's really easy to get them into it. It's sometimes a little bit harder to reach the older ones, but it still can be easy to make those connections."

"We find the ways that it's going to work well," said Sarah Jesudason, public services supervisor at the Tualatin Library. "For the teens, we took a more pop culture route with it. … With the kids, it was looking at some of the science principles that go in, but in a really kid-friendly way."

Adults, Jatkevicius said, were able to connect with the space theme with programs about the history of space exploration. At one event, the Forest Grove Library showed footage of the Apollo 11 landing.

"People were pretty responsive to that," he remarked. "They liked the nostalgia aspect of that."

In some ways, nostalgia is what NASA is banking on.

The name of the Artemis program harkens back to Apollo — in Greek mythology, they are twins, deities associated with the Moon and the Sun respectively. NASA/JPL's promotional artwork recalls both the pulp science fiction of "Buck Rogers" and vintage travel posters used to advertise "exotic" Earthbound locales. The Trump administration's push this year for more congressional funding for space programs like Artemis coincides with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, a time when more Americans are thinking — and looking back fondly — about the fabled "final frontier."

"We want to reestablish American leadership in space and American leadership when it comes to deep space exploration," Sisante, the NASA/JPL ambassador, said during his talk in Tualatin.

For libraries, space made a good "hook" for getting kids and adults alike involved in summer reading this year.

"We had a lot of fun with it," Jesudason said, adding, "When we have a theme like this, we don't make every single program about it, but we do try to sprinkle it in throughout the summer."

"Different kids are interested in different things, and they latch on to different things," Jones said. "There was quite a number of kids that were fascinated with space and astronauts and that sort of thing."PMG FILE PHOTO - Children's performer and puppeteer Andy Fergeson, better known as Red Yarn, riffed on this year's space theme for summer reading to teach young audiences about respecting one another's personal space.

Coy said Forest Grove librarians tend to use the Collaborative Summer Library Program's chosen theme as "a very loose guide." One program even took liberties with the theme of space to teach children about "personal space" and boundaries.

Throughout Washington County, over the past decade or so, libraries and schools have been intentionally stepping up their efforts to get students engaged with STEAM education: science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, sometimes shortened to "STEM" without the arts. Jodi Nielsen, senior program educator for Washington County Cooperative Library Services, noted the synergy between a space summer reading theme and STEAM-based learning.

"I think that they're always looking for something so that every other year or so, you're tapping into interests that different students have," Nielsen said of the Collaborative Summer Library Program's theme choices.

Whatever the concepts that are being applied, Coy said she tries to use every library program — even the silly ones — as teaching opportunities. As an example, she described an end-of-summer "pizza taste test" she organized for preteens at the Forest Grove Library. Participants did a blind tasting of pizza from different restaurants, chose a favorite and had to explain why. Goofy fun, perhaps, not to mention a free snack — but not a mindless activity, Coy pointed out.

"Going beyond that, they're critically thinking about, and making these connections about, what it is about this pizza — they're defending their choices," Coy said. "They're doing a lot more of problem-solving, and then learning debate and speech skills while they're at it."

She added, "In our jobs as children and teens librarians, we're trying to, slyly, have them learn — because we don't want it to seem like school. They're in school for so many hours a day as it is. So to get them here, to get them in the door, we're making it fun and cool — but also (an) informal learning space where they're leaving it, somehow, with more skills than they started."

Whether it's thanks to the thrill of space, fun and sometimes daffy activities, or good outreach from libraries to schools and families, this year's returns on summer reading were strong, both Jatkevicius and Jesudason reported.

"We're having the best finishing rates that we've ever seen," Jesudason said.

In Forest Grove, the participation rate this year has been higher than it was last summer, Jatkevicius and Jones said.

"Summer went really well this year," Jones said.

Although summer reading ends Saturday, Washington County libraries will soon enter their fall season of programming, with more activities — STEAM-related and otherwise, and for all age ranges — already on the WCCLS calendar.

For Jesudason's part, though, she'll miss this year's space theme. Next year's summer reading theme is "Imagine Your Story," with a myths and legends motif.

"Getting to touch a meteorite is not something that most people get to do every day," Jesudason said, lamenting that next year's theme might not be as hands-on: "I'm not sure how someone's going to bring in a dragon."COURTESY PHOTO: NASA - Pictured here is Zeta Ophiuchi, The Runaway Star, as photographed by NASA's Infrared Spitzer Space telescope. It is moving towards the left at 24 kilometers per second.

By Mark Miller
Washington County Editor
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