Science fiction, science fact

Gillian King-Cargile
Gillian King-Cargile

Gillian King-Cargile remembers well a phone call from an administrator at Sycamore High School, where she’d recently handed out free copies of a science fiction novel titled “The Maze Runner.”

“You made a kid’s mom cry,” the caller told her.

What? How? Was the plot objectionable? The subject matter?

No, she was told, the mother simply had returned home late in the afternoon to find her teenage son engrossed in the book written by James Dashner. “She had never seen him reading for pleasure before,” King-Cargile says. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of putting the book into somebody’s hands, and that can make all the difference.”

That enthusiastic and positive reaction is common for NIU’s STEM Read team, which was among this spring’s honorees at the Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships Recognition Ceremony. STEM Read uses live and online programs to inspire readers to learn more about science, technology, engineering and math concepts in popular fiction.

Readers enjoy the books on their own or with school or library groups. They then meet at NIU or online to explore the science behind the fiction through hands-on activities, presentations by NIU faculty and staff, author visits, interactive games, collaborative writing projects and more.

STEM Read is part of the P-20 Center’s suite of STEAM Works programs in the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development. Program contributors, including NIU’s Kristin Brynteson, Mary Baker and Jacob Johnson, draw on their multidisciplinary backgrounds in everything from visual art and education technology to filmmaking and engineering to create fun and innovative experiences.

All STEM Read programming is posted online as NIU works to build the pipeline of students seeking STEM careers.

“The program originally started in 2011, as a way to work with teens at the local libraries and get them excited about STEMfest,” King-Cargile says. “We had really great events, and we’d get about 10 kids, so we started to think about how we could make these more impactful and get more students involved.”

Field trips – the next is scheduled Nov. 17 and 18 – bring students to NIU’s campus to participate in day-long games based on the STEM concepts from books. Throughout these events, students get to meet and learn from the sci-fi authors and guest speakers from NIU’s STEM departments and partner organizations such as Argonne National Laboratory and the Midwest Museum.

Participants also tackle science challenges related to the books. “A fun and interesting story makes the subject a little less intimidating,” King-Cargile says, “and these field trips get them deeper into the subject matter.”

Usually choosing the types of books that the kids are already reading, the STEM Read team chats with librarians and publishers who suggest great titles. They also take requests from the readers themselves.

Meanwhile, the program now publishes its own works through the NIU Press.

King-Cargile is the author of the Stuffed Bunny Science Adventure Series of educational children’s books – “The Toy and the Twister,” “The Toy and the Tide Pool” and the forthcoming, “The Toy and the Test Drive” – illustrated by NIU alum Kevin Krull.

“Our number one goal is to foster enthusiasm for reading and learning,” King-Cargile says. “Reading for pleasure translates into being much more successful in school and throughout life, and when we celebrate good books and explore them further, we get kids excited, more engaged and doing better in school.”

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