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Role models, hands-on learning stars at STEMfest

October 25, 2017

Thousands of area kids who attended NIU’s STEMfest event last weekend took at least two things home with them: the idea that science can be fun and the realization that all types of people can be scientists.

Nearly 7,000 children and families packed NIU’s Convocation Center, where 800 diverse NIU students and faculty amazed and entertained them with engaging, hands-on learning experiences. And whether the experience involved lasers, robots or even a high-tech sandbox, virtually every child got a chance to see someone engaged in scientific inquiry who “looks like them.”

“I love that STEMfest is such a great reflection of who we are at NIU,” said Acting President Lisa Freeman. “It’s a big deal for little girls, children of color and kids from all different cultures to see that anyone can become a scientist.”

NIU STEM Outreach Director Pati Sievert has spent years experimenting with different ways to teach basic scientific concepts, and long ago settled on the idea of hands-on learning. “When we get all our senses involved and are allowed to touch and try things for ourselves, we experience much deeper and more productive learning than simply memorizing from a textbook,” she said.

STEMfest, now in its eighth year at NIU, has caught the attention of top science educators, commercial sponsors and even policymakers. Eleventh District U.S. Congressman Bill Foster, himself a Ph.D. scientist, dropped by to help with an experiment on the main stage and stayed around to see many of the most popular exhibits.

STEMfest’s role in recruiting the next generation of scientists couldn’t come at a better time: the U.S. is facing a shortfall of about one million experts in science, technology, engineering and math. That’s a challenge that NIU takes seriously, according to Acting President Lisa Freeman. Trained as a veterinarian, Freeman says encouragement in childhood made a big difference in helping her choose a science career.

When they’re not working on their annual mega-event, NIU P-20 staff can be found in classrooms, restaurants and other venues across the northern Illinois region, presenting programs for children and adults of all ages. For more information on bringing hands-on STEM to your school, visit the STEM Outreach website at