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At STEM Fest, NIU faculty, staff and students brought STEM concepts to life

October 27, 2021

I learned that mosquitos have beards. I learned that lava makes rocks sticky. I learned that lights could bounce off at a certain angle. I learned how photos can look realistic with glasses.

These are just a few of the many things STEM Fest visitors reported learning this past Saturday.

So how do you draw thousands of visitors to campus on a sunny Saturday to learn about engineering careers, physics concepts, drone technology or the human brain? By connecting faculty, staff and students with families to showcase fun, interactive activities that make STEM concepts accessible and engaging to people of all ages.

Take, for example, NIU Associate Professor Hamed Alhoori and Assistant Professor David Koop, in the Department of Computer Science. Alhoori and Koop’s research examines replication studies of existing research, using machine learning to identify how likely a study is to be reproducible.

“Research quality thrives under healthy skepticism where scientists retest hypotheses, creating higher levels of confidence in the original findings and a sturdy foundation for extending work,” says Alhoori. “Recent attempts to sample scientific research in psychology, economics and medicine, however, have shown that more scientific papers fail than pass manual replication tests.”

Reproducibility is central to the process of science – but how can this complex idea be communicated to people of all ages with varying degrees of background knowledge? With puzzles and blocks, of course!

Hamed Alhoori guided visitors through a LEGO activity to demonstrate the concept of reproducibility.

At STEM Fest, Alhoori and his colleagues demonstrated the difficulty of reproducing scientific findings using games that Alhoori and Koop created together. They provided visitors with a bag of LEGO blocks and a model to build. As participants worked to reproduce the original model, they encountered various situations analogous to those encountered by scientists attempting to reproduce a previous study.

“Sometimes participants are provided with instructions, but sometimes not. Perhaps certain components are missing, and there is no inventory or instruction manual. In that case, the model is unbuildable due to the absence of certain components,” Alhoori says. “In other cases, all components are present, and an inventory list is available for review. However, certain internal components are invisible in the completed model (known in science as a ‘black box’), which means that most people will come near but will have no idea what’s in the center.”

“In the ideal situation – representing a reproducible study – all components are included, along with an inventory list and detailed instructions. The model can be constructed precisely without too much difficulty,” says Koop.

Alhoori and Koop were among dozens of NIU faculty members, NIU departments and student groups, and community organizations who, along with more than 100 student volunteers, stepped up to the challenge of bringing science, technology, engineering and math concepts alive for the public.

Victor Gensini reviewed real-time weather data with visitors.

Visitors also had the chance to witness a weather balloon launch and view real-time data with NIU Associate Professor of Geographic and Atmospheric Sciences Victor Gensini, learn how exercise improves brain function with Associate Professor of Speech-Language Pathology Jamie Mayer and Gerontology Instructor David Benner, Jr., view models of the brain and ear with NIU Audiology and the Communicative Disorders Student Association, and play with physics-related toys with NIU Physics faculty and students, among hundreds of other activities.

“My six-year-old grandson spent a long time at the booths, and the students and faculty members were wonderful with him – so patient and great at explaining things clearly,” said DeKalb resident Kathy Schewe. “He played for a long time at the physics booth with these little vacuum demonstrations they had, and the students and faculty were like kids, too – playing and having so much fun together. My grandson also spent a long time pouring over the model of the ear, and he came home and told his grandfather all about the parts of the ear and how hearing works.”

STEM Fest is a program of NIU STEAM, in the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development.

STEM Fest 2021 was brought to you by Facebook. Thanks also to our other sponsors: Thermo Fisher Scientific, Bayer Fund, 3M, ComEd, IDEAL INDUSTRIES, INC., and Nicor Gas. And thanks to our additional supporters: Mortenson, Enel Green Power, FNBO, Shure Incorporated and all of our Huskies United supporters.

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