NIU STEMfest becomes more inclusive with low-sensory hour

Northern Illinois University’s STEMfest is an annual celebration of science, technology, engineering and math that strives to introduce all people to the wonders of science. However, for some adults and children, a loud, bright and crowded environment makes it hard for them to feel welcome. That’s why this year, the STEMfest organizers are introducing a new low-sensory hour.

STEMfest will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the low-sensory hour will run from 4 – 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27, in the NIU Convocation Center. During the low-sensory hour, the lights will be dimmed, the stage speakers will be turned off, and exhibitors will be encouraged to replace loud or flashy activities with something quieter.

NIU STEM Educator Sam Watt, one of the STEMfest organizers, says the low-sensory hour is designed to help families and individuals with sensory disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum, feel more comfortable at STEMfest.

“We have a lot to do and a lot to see,” Watt says, “and we want our guests to feel comfortable and welcome. We want them to be able to focus on what we have to offer them instead of on some of the overwhelming sights and sounds inherent to large events.”

Watt emphasizes that during the entire day of STEMfest a quiet room will be available, as well. “This quiet room is a place where individuals or families can step away from the festivities to recharge before heading back to the fun.” He also encourages visitors to take advantage of the detailed exhibition map that will be posted on the STEMfest website one week before the event (Go.NIU.edu/STEMfest ). This will allow families to plan their activities so that they can minimize time in the potentially crowded environment.

The STEMfest team will also be offering a low-sensory science demo show on the South Lobby stage at 4 p.m. “Normally our demo show involves some really big stuff with light and sound, such as popping a giant clown balloon with liquid nitrogen,” Watt says. “During the low sensory hour, we are going to modify the show so it doesn’t involve speakers or loud sounds, and we’ll also move it to a smaller stage.”

Izzy Johnson practicing an experiement.

Izzy Johnson, an NIU student majoring in rehabilitation and disability services and minoring in psychology and deafness, suggested the new low-sensory hour, and the STEMfest team was eager to implement her idea.

Johnson says, “I think it is so important to make STEMfest accessible for all. Last year at STEMfest, I met a mother who was not able to bring her son who has autism. She explained to me that her son was interested in all things STEM-related and that he would really enjoy a lot of the content that was at STEMfest, but the environment would be too overwhelming for him.”

This knowledge motivated Johnson, who has worked as a counselor at NIU STEM summer camps, to apply some of the accommodations that she and other counselors were already using in summer camps to make STEMfest more accessible to people with a variety of disabilities.

“With just a few simple changes, like turning off a few lights and limiting the use of the speakers, I knew that we could create an environment that would be less overwhelming for many people so that they can experience STEMfest,” Johnson says. “This low-sensory hour can be beneficial for anyone who might get overwhelmed in a loud and fast-paced environment, including those with disabilities and small children.”

Beth Schewe, a DeKalb resident and employee in the NIU Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development, is pleased that STEMfest is offering this accommodation. “My five-year-old daughter uses hearing aids. She loves STEMfest, but with so much background noise, it can be hard for her to understand conversations, and the sheer amount of noise can be overwhelming. We’re looking forward to coming at a quieter time so she can focus on the STEM activities.”

The low-sensory hour is part of a broader push to make STEMfest even more inclusive this year. The STEMfest organizers are also excited to welcome Zot Artz Studios, led by Dwayne Szot, who will be helping STEMfest visitors make a large interactive art piece throughout the day. Zot Artz makes adaptive art tools so that children with disabilities can create huge, amazing art pieces.

STEMfest will take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, at the NIU Convocation Center. NIU departments, student groups, regional corporations, museums, educators and national labs will team up to offer more than 200 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related activities.

This year will also mark the first Northern Illinois Mini Maker Faire, which will be held in conjunction with STEMfest. The low-sensory hour will apply to both events.

These family-friendly events are free and open to the public. No registration is required, and parking is free. While most of the exhibits are completely free, books, T-shirts, electronic kits and other STEM-related items will be offered for sale.

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