Making science fun

DeKALB – Jeremy Benson, the outreach and engagement associate for Northern Illinois University’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics outreach program, readily admits that he has always been a geek.

“I was the one getting picked on in school because I was always reading a book,” Benson recalled.

On Saturday, Benson was part of a team that hosted NIU’s third annual STEMFest at the Convocation Center in a largely hands-on effort to raise awareness about the importance of STEM education and careers, and to make those subjects fun, engaging – even cool.

“What I have noticed in popular culture is that science is getting more popular in shows like ‘Big Bang Theory’ and ‘Mythbusters,’” Benson said. “You can be a geek and be cool, too.”

Throughout the day, he provided demonstrations on the STEMFest stage about the fun and useful properties of liquid nitrogen.

The free event attracted 3,000 people in its first year and 4,000 last year. This year’s STEMFest attracted 5,200 people to see interactive displays put on by more than 400 volunteers from 40 NIU departments and five colleges. More than a dozen regional exhibitors such as Argonne National Laboratory, Kishwaukee Community Hospital and the DeKalb County Farm Bureau also had displays.

“We had 200 cow eyeballs this year, the same as last year,” said Pati Sievert, outreach coordinator of the STEM program.

The cow eyeballs were available for inspection and dissection, while biological sciences students provided guidance and answered questions. Attendees could also check out a room full of lasers and a haunted physics lab; watch robots play basketball; use telescopes and microscopes; and visit a creepy petting zoo hosted by the Midwest Museum of Natural History.

“This is our third year at STEMFest,” said Molly Holman Trickey, executive director of the museum. “They were aware of our animal programming and they asked us to bring some animals and pelts, skulls and other biofacts (biological artifacts). ...This is a branch of science that really interests a lot of kids and adults.”

Each exhibitor at STEMFest was required to have some kind of hands-on activity. While the exhibits were designed to be fun and engaging, Benson hopes that the various programs will inspire some attendees to pursue careers in STEM fields.

“The U.S. is ranked 27th out of 29 developed countries for the rate of STEM bachelor’s degrees,” he said.

According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM workers “drive our nation’s innovation and competitiveness by generating new ideas, new companies and new industries.” Over the past 10 years, STEM-related industries generated new jobs at three times the rate of non-STEM fields, the report said.

“We want to get children and adolescents excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics so they will pursue careers in those fields,” Sievert said. “We cannot rest on yesterday’s innovations. We need to encourage and invest in tomorrow’s innovators.”

Andy Anderson, 17, of Burlington is one of those future innovators. The junior at Burlington Central High School helps build robots in his spare time with the Pwnage Robotics Team, based in St. Charles.

“This is the only time when I can get this kind of hands-on experience before I go to college,” Andy said.

He plans to study industrial engineering, and was eager to share his enthusiasm for robots with younger STEMFest attendees. He would not have known about robotics teams unless a friend had recently told him about a demonstration.

“Are you interested in robots? Have you used the (LEGO) Mindstorm set?” he asked Talen Tate, 6, of DeKalb as Talen looked at a display of robots constructed and programmed to play basketball.

Talen’s mother, Camyle Tate, said her children weren’t really interested in science before attending the first STEMFest.

“This is something we have come to the last couple of years,” she said. “They said it is better than the circus.”

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