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All ages share the excitement of hands-on learning at STEMfest

October 31, 2018

If you attended Northern Illinois University’s STEMfest this past weekend, you may have heard some of the following:
“I am so proud of my alma mater.”
“Where else could my kid ever have held a human brain?”
“We’ve been here for seven hours and still haven’t seen it all!”
“Now I’m going to be an engineer.”

These responses from visitors are music to the ears of the NIU STEAM staff members who organized the festival, as well as the faculty, staff and students from 58 NIU departments and organizations who volunteered their time and talent to make STEMfest possible. In fact, 660 NIU student volunteers helped to introduce nearly 7,000 visitors of all ages to the wonders of science, technology, engineering and math.

“STEMfest would not be possible without the hundreds of NIU student volunteers who help to make the event a success year after year,” says volunteer organizer Sara Finnigan. “They help with our hands-on exploration labs, greet attendees, and even pass out water to exhibitors. They dedicate huge amounts of their Saturday to making the event outstanding for visitors.”

These visitors had an overwhelmingly positive experience: 94 percent say they’re likely to attend STEMfest again next year, 98 percent are likely to encourage a student to explore the STEM fields, and 85 percent are likely to encourage a student to attend NIU.

“My kids had a great time at STEMfest” says Shane Sharp, a DeKalb resident and associate professor of sociology at NIU. “My six-year-old daughter loved playing with the do-it-yourself robots at the Maker Faire, and she also enjoyed the demonstrations using liquid nitrogen. My three-year-old son had a lot of fun doing many of the art projects, and he was pretty excited to have the opportunity to touch a human brain!”

The chance to touch a human brain, heart or lung was a highlight for many visitors. More than 1,000 people participated in this activity, offered by the NIU Department of Biological Sciences.

Other highlights included tortilla making with DeKalb County 4-H to support the local homeless shelter and food pantries, a weather balloon launched by the NIU Department of Geographic and Atmospheric Sciences that provided real-time weather data, and the popular crime scene simulation provided by STEMfest’s premier sponsor, Thermo Fisher Scientific, an international company with a branch in Rockford.

“This was Thermo Fisher Scientific’s second year of sponsoring STEMfest, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the results,” says Erum Raja, a staff scientist with Thermo Fisher Scientific. “It was nice to see kids of all ages and backgrounds walking around and exploring what STEM is all about.”

She continues, “We had a huge turnout at our booth, with numerous hands-on activities for different age groups. My five-year-old son had a chance to check out a few booths himself, and he was mesmerized to see the dry ice/water demo as well as a dead mosquito under the microscope.”

This year also marked the first Northern Illinois Mini Maker Faire, which took place in conjunction with STEMfest and gave woodworkers, crafters, robot builders and other inventive people of all stripes the chance to share their creative processes.

“I was really pleased with the makers and the Maker Faire,” says Maker Faire organizer Pati Sievert. “I stopped and spoke with the makers at every booth, and they were all excited and happy about the turnout. Our whole team is excited to do it again.”

One of the makers present was Alisa Toninato, owner and artist at FeLion Studios, a design / build sculpture studio specializing in cast iron art.

“We were all honored to be a small part of NIU’s first Maker Faire,” Toninato says. “My favorite part was getting to meet young kids (8-12 years old), who may have never seen anything like this before, but jumped into the experience nonetheless and came out of the event with a physical timestamp of both their artistic ideas and abilities, and a token from the moment they learned how to make their first metal casting. Knowing that their creation will potentially live with them for the rest of their lives, (and beyond!), we hope that this opportunity to cast something they designed will open up their minds to the possibilities of what else they could make next.”

For those who missed STEMfest or just want more hands-on science fun, NIU STEAM offers science demo shows, summer camps, field trips and more. Visit or email [email protected] for more information.  More images of STEMfest are available by visiting Northern Illinois University’s official Facebook Page.