STEMfest 2016 draws 8,000 visitors

thumbnail-13On Saturday, Oct. 8, 8,000 participants at STEMfest 2016 spent the day getting their hands into science, technology, engineering and math. The festival featured 98 booths with hundreds of activities, enjoyed by visitors from 110 ZIP codes in three states. Nearly 60 percent of attendees were at STEMfest for the first time. Over 90 percent predicted that they would attend again, and over 80 percent said they would encourage a student they knew to attend NIU. In addition to the engaging exhibits from regional business and laboratories, many of the most popular attractions were designed and staffed by NIU departments.

Geography Maps Out STEM Power:  As always, the Department of Geography saw strong interest in its offerings, especially the tree slices exhibit. By counting rings in slices of tree trunks, visitors could tally different trees’ lifespans.

“Every year, people are so fascinated by the tree slices,” said David Changnon, chair of the Geography department. “They go back and identify where the tree’s growth was during World War II, then during World War I. If the tree is old enough, they can even go back to the Civil War. It really gets people thinking about the natural world.” 

Visitors were also captivated by a new, high-tech geography exhibit: the “augmented reality sandbox,” which uses a 3D camera and digital projector to track physical changes in an old-fashioned sandbox in real time. As participants of all ages made changes in the sand—digging holes, pushing up sand mountains––the projector changed the patterns of light it cast on the sand, using different colors for different levels of elevation.

“A lot of people have heard of augmented reality but [have] never seen it in action,” said Changnon. “When they play with the sandbox, they grasp it right away. You can see their faces light up with understanding of the possibilities.”

STEM Makes Art Soar: The “Wonkavator,” a new exhibit from the School of Theatre and Dance, helped students see the relevance of STEM to the arts and entertainment. Designed and built by technical director Tracy Nunnally, the Wonkavator is a flying elevator prop that can be used by theater groups staging the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory “ stage show. Students were able to examine the elevator’s design up close, talk to Nunnally about the construction process––and even run the computer that controls its movements.

“When students experience tools like the Wonkavator, it helps them realize that STEM is everywhere,” said Nunnally. “It’s a powerful way for them to see that STEM tools and skill sets can play a crucial role in all types of fields.”

STEM in the Kitchen: The day’s best-tasting learning experiences were hosted by the College of Health and Human Sciences in Science You Can Eat. Hundreds of kids made their own instant ice cream using just ice, rock salt, milk, vanilla and sugar.

“To make the cream freeze, they had to learn about how melting points work,” said Brittany Rees, a graduate teaching student in the college’s School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences (FCNS). “There’s a little bit of physics, a little bit of chemistry. They love it, and they definitely never look at ice cream the same way.”

Visitors learned about healthy baking––and the science of gluten––at the FCNS “brownie taste test.”

“We put out samples of two types of brownies,” said Rees. “One was made with oil, the other with applesauce, which is healthier. People got to see that the healthier brownies still taste good, plus learn the science about why you can’t just leave the oil out without a chemically appropriate substitute. It’s a science lesson and a nutrition lesson in one. We gave out copies of the healthier recipe, so hopefully the lesson sticks.”

Vital Volunteers: STEMfest would not have been possible without a small army of NIU student volunteers, 700-strong this year. “It was awesome,” said volunteer Danielle Centeno. “Even though I’m graduating, I hope I can stay involved somehow. I was blown away by the community’s interest in STEM, and I was totally inspired by all those curious kids.”

For the seventh consecutive year, the STEMfest team thanks all our volunteers, sponsors and the NIU administration for their support. See you in 2017!

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