All 7,500 participants in STEMfest 2015 had the opportunity to engage in a full day of hands-on fun exploring science, technology, engineering, and math.
The sixth annual STEMfest included participants from more than 98 ZIP codes, 633 NIU volunteers and 85 exhibitors who offered more than 200 activities to explore.
But many young attendees received much more: for them, STEMfest’s impact extends for years, sending them down paths toward greater engagement with the increasingly crucial STEM fields – engagement that NIU is perfectly positioned to make happen.
That Light Bulb Moment
Consider Sarah Derylo, a NIU student who attended the first-ever STEMfest in 2009, when she was a freshman at St. Charles East High School.
Derylo always enjoyed her science classes, but STEMfest activities got her excited in a whole new way.
“I remember, at one exhibit, there was a bike hooked up to a light bulb, so you could pedal and see how much energy it took to make the light,” she recalls. “That was like a switch flipping in my head. It was a whole new way of thinking about science, and it made me so excited to learn more.”
This excitement stuck. Today, Derylo is a full-time student at NIU, majoring in middle-school math and science education. “Events like STEMfest were really influential in my major choice,” she said. “That’s where I first realized how powerful it is to teach these important concepts in a really captivating way.”
Though still an undergraduate, Derylo is already active in her field, teaching three days a week at the Mathnasium in South Elgin. She also staffed the NIU Math Club’s booth at this year’s STEMfest, using dice roll activities to make concepts of probability come alive for the next generation of STEM enthusiasts.
The Write Path
Unlike Derylo, Andy Sima is still in high school. But STEMfest has already influenced his trajectory and led him to opportunities he would not have had otherwise.
In 2012, Sima learned about NIU’s STEM programming from a family friend who urged him to enter a sci-fi short story contest administered by the university’s STEM Read program. He won, then showed up at STEMfest to collect his award: a scholarship to attend one of NIU’s STEM summer camps.
Unfortunately, he was too busy to attend that summer, but in 2013 the determined sci-fi lover entered again – and won.
As result, Sima was able to attend that summer’s “Preventing the Robopocalypse” STEAM camp. “It was absolutely fantastic,” he says. “I got to live in an NIU dorm, meet new people, learn about robotics, and get better at creative writing, too.”
Sima also met Daniel H. Wilson, the author of the “Robopocalypse” novels around which the camps was based. “He helped me get an internship for a science-fiction and fantasy publisher, which helped me learn all sorts of things about the industry.”
Now Sima is a judge for the STEM Read contest. He also works for STEM Read, contributing video commentary and short stories illustrating scientific concepts to the program’s website, where they are viewable by students around the world. Last summer, he attended NIU’s creative writing camp, where he continued to hone the skills he hopes to someday use as a professional writer.
“Whatever happens with my sci-fi writing career,” he says, “I’ll know it got started thanks to STEMfest.”
When Alana Wilcox came to her first STEMfest, she already knew she had a passion for engineering. She didn’t know which sub-field to focus on, however.
Walking around the exhibition hall, the high school senior stopped at every engineering-related exhibit, talking to professionals and to NIU students about their work.
The conversations she had that day helped Wilcox decide to focus on industrial engineering. While still in high school, she started interning at Custom Aluminum Products in Genoa, solidifying her interest in the field.
Currently, Wilcox attends Kishwaukee College on a full scholarship from Custom Aluminum Products, where she still works part-time. Eventually, she will transfer to NIU to study industrial engineering.
“Attending STEMfest definitely influenced me in a positive way,” Wilcox says. “And once I saw all NIU had to offer engineers, I knew it was a definite option for my college plans.”
With six enormously successful events in the books, and plans already under way for STEMfest 2016, stories of young people inspired by the annual celebration will continue to emerge for years to come.