Celebrating 10 years of educating and entertaining all ages with hands-on STEM activities.
It was a leap of faith when NIU STEM Outreach, part of the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development, decided to move STEM Fest to the Convocation Center 10 years ago. The annual October event, formerly known as “The Haunted Physics Lab” and then “Spooky Science,” attracted about 1,000 visitors in 2009 and had clearly outgrown its space in La Tourette Hall.
However, as NIU STEM Outreach Director Pati Sievert remembers, “It was a bit scary to try to get all the NIU STEM departments and student groups to participate in this new event in 2010. It was also a huge logistical undertaking for someone without any formal training in event planning.”
That first STEM Fest – a free celebration of science, technology, engineering and math for all ages – was a resounding success.
“Moving the fall science festival to the Convocation Center was an immediate success, thanks to the space itself, the hands-on exhibits and the volunteers,” says NIU Vice President for Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development Anne Kaplan. “The sheer volume of hands-on activities added to the excitement, and the faculty and student volunteers were really impressive. NIU students and faculty clearly enjoyed explaining science, technology, engineering and math concepts to kids and adults of all ages.”
“The crowd was great fun to watch,” remembers Marilyn Bellert, former director of the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement, which houses NIU STEM Outreach. “Children were thrilled as they showed their parents what they had learned. Some participants raced gleefully from one activity to another, while others settled in for a long time with activities of special interest to them.”
That first year, STEM Fest drew about 2,500 visitors. It has grown steadily over the past decade, welcoming about 7,000 visitors annually in recent years. The event is a success thanks to the contributions of more than 700 NIU student, faculty and alumni volunteers, and it features exhibits from nearly 70 NIU departments and student groups. About 40% of the student volunteers signed up for 2019 said that they attended STEM Fest before enrolling in NIU.
The number and variety of activities has also expanded. This year, visitors will get a chance to fly and program drones, test out virtual reality technology, witness a weather balloon launch with real-time data displays and use forensic science to solve a simulated crime – to name just a few of the more than 200 hands-on activities. They’ll also be able to explore their artistic sides with activities that include interactive art installations and the chance to meet the NIU Steelband and see how they make their unique steel pan instruments.
This family-friendly event is free and open to all, on Saturday, Oct. 19, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the NIU Convocation Center. Parking is free, and the Route 16 and 2L Huskie Buses will add a STEM Fest stop for the day (normal bus rates apply; free with current NIU One Card).
Academic departments and student groups from at least five different NIU colleges will participate, as well as companies including sponsors ComEd, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Traditional Medicinals, First National Bank, Ideal Industries and Nicor, among others.
Sievert says STEM Fest now includes a variety of activities for preschool, elementary, middle school and high school students, as well as adults. Building blocks and art activities help to usher the youngest visitors into the exciting world of STEM, while older students and adults enjoy engaging with faculty members about their research and experiencing activities such as the ever-popular liquid nitrogen demonstration.
“I can’t wait to see the new exhibits this year,” says NIU STEM Educator Jeremy Benson. “I’m especially excited to see the ‘drone zone,’ where visitors can program and fly drones, as well as our expanded robotics area.”
The organizers are also looking forward to the return of many old favorites. “We try each year to add new, interesting STEM activities,” Sievert says, “but some activities are so popular that people would be disappointed if they were not there, such as the huge soldering booth with room for 45 people to each be soldering a project at one time, or the Haunted Physics Lab.”
Sievert expresses gratitude for all the NIU staff, faculty and volunteers who make the event possible, especially Sam Watt, Jeremy Benson and Sara Finnigan, who have provided effective leadership and a constant source of creative ideas, and Vice President Anne Kaplan and P-20 Center Directors Marilyn Bellert and Amy Jo Clemens, who have provided enthusiastic support and trouble-shooting throughout the past 10 years.
Benson, who first began volunteering with NIU STEM Outreach in 2009, before becoming a full-time employee in 2011, says he is still in awe of the amount of work that goes into STEM Fest every year. “But after 10 years, it’s still worth all of it,” he says.
Looking to the future, Benson notes, “I hope STEM Fest continues to grow, and that we continue being able to add new and exciting things every year. Who knows what new technology will be developed tomorrow and featured at an upcoming STEM Fest?”
For more information visit Go.NIU.edu/STEMFest.