How to Hold a Successful Tech Outreach Program for Seniors
The Kenosha Public Library outreach department does just that. We present programs and pop-up libraries in local senior apartment complexes and assisted living facilities. To customize each experience to our audience, we offer a “take-out menu” of programs that activity directors can choose from.
While looking for new things to try, we turned to our youth services department, which was offering coding camps and tech programs for kids. Their tech tools seemed like fun for any age, so we borrowed their Ozobots, Makey Makeys, Spheros, Osmo, littleBits, and Snap Circuits and took them to a local senior apartment complex.
We held this first tech tool open house by setting up a station for each gadget, with two library staff members circulating to help. Most seniors jumped right in, and we lured in the reluctant ones with a Makey Makey banana piano — because who wouldn’t want to try playing a piano made out of a banana? The residents had a lot of fun at this program because it was very different than their usual fare, and it became known as our Tech Toys for Seniors program.
The Benefits of a STEM Seniors Program
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities are usually aimed at students, with long-term goals of improving academic success and career prospects. School and work, however, are two things that our senior audience has typically finished. At our Tech Toys for Seniors programs, we don’t offer instruction on everyday technology like phones or tablets (that’s a whole other program), so why would senior organizations be interested?
Even though we started this seniors program just because it was fun, we quickly saw many other benefits:
- Playing with the gadgets stimulates curiosity and creativity, which is enriching for people of all ages.
- The program often ends up being collaborative and social, with attendees talking, laughing together, and helping each other. The event fosters interaction and fights isolation, which helps mental well-being.
- The activities are often completely novel to the participant, and new experiences are good exercise for the brain.
- Experiencing success with unfamiliar technology is often a surprise to the participants, and it boosts their overall confidence.
- While we aren’t trying to teach for retention or mastery, when participants are coding, they are applying computational thinking to problem-solving.
- It’s fun — everyone should have some play in their lives!
The Tech Tools
- Ozobots are dome-shaped robots that are a little smaller than a walnut, with sensors on the bottom that they use to follow a line on a surface. Color codes can be incorporated in the line to make them do tricks like spin, turn, or have a burst of speed. The Ozobot website has printable mazes and racetracks. They’re often used with kids to teach coding and can do some advanced maneuvers, but for our seniors program, we give people blank paper, the color code key, and the printables, and they have fun drawing various designs, experimenting with what works best, and chatting.
- Sphero is a spherical robot the size of a baseball that is controlled by a mobile device using the Sphero app. We show the participants how to navigate the app menu to make it perform tricks. It has over a dozen stunts, including acting like a flamenco dancer by playing music and jiggling around; going “atomic” and shaking and jumping wildly; and turning green, croaking, and hopping like a frog. It can even pass gas, which is surprisingly popular. It can also be driven around the room by steering with the tablet, which participants enjoy.
- Osmo is a game that works with iPads. The iPad sits in the Osmo stand, and the user does various activities with pieces they place on the tabletop in front of the iPad. A reflector attaches to the top of the iPad to reflect what’s happening on the tabletop to the iPad’s camera, and things happen on the screen based on what the user does on the tabletop. Tangram puzzles, word, and number games are what we use the most.
- littleBits are a system of gadgets that teach how a circuit works. Users construct a working circuit with a power source, a switch, and an output. The categories are color-coded, and components can be switched to make various things. Switches include a variety of physical switches, pressure sensors, sound sensors, and more. Outputs can be lights, buzzers, a long fiber-optic string, fans, and a variety of other things.
- Makey Makey is a small kit made up of a circuit board, USB cable, and alligator clip cords. You can connect the circuit board to a laptop, the alligator clips to the circuit board, and go to the Makey Makey website for activities. We’ve used the piano and the bongo drum activities. Once the Makey Makey is set up, we stick the other ends of the alligator clips into something conductive. We use bananas for the piano and a grapefruit and orange for the bongos. The user holds one alligator clip, and taps the fruit with the other hand to complete the circuit and play the instrument. This is our favorite tool to use to lure people who are hanging out in the doorway, reluctant to come in.
We occasionally use other tools, too: Coderpillar, Snap Circuits, Circuit Scribe, Magformers, and Cozmo are some we’ve used. We steer clear of tools that look like they are for preschool age, have too many non-renewable parts, are difficult to manipulate, messy, or are too similar to things participants have seen before. Look for things that are quick to execute, not too complex, and can generate joy.
How to Run a Senior Tech Program
We bring our own Wi-Fi hotspot (or use the facility’s Wi-Fi), extension cords, the tech tools, and all the necessary materials: paper and markers for the Ozobots, a laptop and bananas for the Makey Makeys, and tablets for the Spheros and Osmo. Advertising of the event is taken care of by the location’s activity director, and usually consists of a listing in their calendar and a poster, plus extra recruiting by their staff. Below is a step-by-step guide for planning your own senior tech program:
- Plan to bring two people if possible; it takes two to keep participants engaged, happy, and successful.
- Charge everything the night before (and buy fruit if you’re using the Makey Makey).
- Pack everything in wheeled carts or suitcases.
- Don’t forget library handouts and photo release forms.
- Allow 30 minutes for setup, and expect early arrivals.
- Get furniture in place. We ask for at least four tables, but six is best. We’ve made do with one table plus a piano bench; just use whatever is available.
- Put out something that doesn’t need Wi-Fi first for early arrivers to keep themselves busy (littleBits or Magformers, for example).
- Bring up your Wi-Fi and start laptops and tablets.
- Establish all the connections: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, tech tools to tablets, and tech tools to laptops.
- Welcome your guests.
Focus on making sure the participants have success with the gadgets, and have fun in the process. People will leave if they’re not having success, the tool doesn’t work, or they’re not having fun. The goal is not to teach, but rather to facilitate an entertaining and engaging new experience. When we have inevitable tech glitches, we immediately steer people to other activities. Keep the action moving, watch for people getting frustrated, and keep the party hoppin’!
5 Tips for Making Your Seniors Program a Success
- Search for Grants: We are fortunate enough to have an outreach department to plan programs like this, as well as a youth and family services department that was already using tech tools and were happy to loan them to us. Many of their acquisitions were grant-funded. Many libraries may not have such a fortunate situation, and, in that case, some grant writing may be required. You’ll find lots of tips for writing a successful grant on Demco’s Ideas and Inspiration blog.
- Practice an Elevator Pitch: Activity directors, residents, and even library staff will not immediately understand what the program is or why it’s a good idea. When I pitch the Tech Toys for Seniors program, I focus on using these key phrases in a very short statement:
- We bring fun gadgets from the library.
- It’s open-house style with stations.
- We’ll move around and help everyone use the tools and have fun.
- It’s not a class or a talk to learn about phones or computers.
- It’s something really different and unique for the residents.
- There is no experience necessary. We’ll make sure everyone has success and has fun using the gadgets.
- Take the Program on the Road: We’ve tried the program in a library building, but only one or two people came. Holding the seniors program right where people live makes it easier for them to attend, but it also serves to strengthen their small community by bringing them together with their immediate neighbors for a fun time.
- Learn the Tools: Technological glitches will happen. Practice each tool before you go. Take enough tools so that if you can’t get one to work on the spot, you can set it aside and take up another.
- Make a Checklist: Think carefully about all of the things you will need. Transporting the gear can be a challenge. Using two people with wheeled suitcases and planning enough time is the best solution we’ve found.
We have taken the tools to multiple senior housing locations, including independent apartments and assisted living, and have done multiple programs at two locations with new tools. At one seniors program, a resident named Yolanda came in and sat at the Osmo the whole time doing the tangram puzzles (no one else even got to try it!). We only showed her once how to navigate to the next puzzle and next level, and she took it from there. Afterward, the activities director told us that Yolanda was 99 years old and rarely stays at programs. The director said, “It’s just so great to see her interacting independently with technology!”
The amazed expressions and cheerful socializing are fun to watch. One resident who has dementia was completely flabbergasted by the Ozobot being able to follow the snowman drawing she made and kept laughing and saying, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing!” When one man played a recognizable song on the Makey Makey banana piano purely by accident, he jumped in surprise and said with a huge smile, “I made a song!” At one of the locations we’ve been to multiple times, there was a group that only worked with the Ozobots. The four of them sat at a table drawing, talking, laughing, and experimenting with what worked and what didn’t.
Word is spreading, and we have several new locations booked in the coming months. It’s such a fun program to conduct because we get to see curiosity, discovery, and cooperation in action. We all can use more fun in life!