DeKALB – October is Pati Sievert’s favorite time of year, not because of pumpkins or Halloween, but because of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.
Sievert is the director of Northern Illinois University’s STEM Outreach and the founder of NIU STEM Fest.
The 10th annual NIU STEM Fest will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, at the NIU Convocation Center. The event and parking are free and open to the public.
There will be more than 120 exhibitors at this year’s event, including NIU STEM departments, student groups, regional corporations, museums, educators and national labs.
For information about STEM Fest, visit go.niu.edu/stemfest.
Sievert met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss STEM Fest’s history and what to expect at this year’s event.
Milton: How did NIU STEM Fest begin?
Sievert: When I first started working at NIU, I was the outreach coordinator for the department of physics. We were going into schools, doing physics demonstration programs. In 2003, my department asked me to plan an event that would bring people to campus. I wasn’t sure how many people would come to an open house, and I saw an example of a haunted physics lab at a conference I went to. So, in fall 2003, we held our first-ever haunted physics lab.
Milton: What was the first haunted physics lab like?
Sievert: We had a small budget, so we had black lights, foam board, duct tape and I bought my first-ever laser pointer. In Faraday Hall, we had two labs open, one dark and one light. The goal was to teach everyone that it was science behind the haunted house, not magic. We had about 250 people attend our first year. Our second year, 750 people showed up.
Milton: How did the haunted physics lab evolve to STEM Fest?
Sievert: The haunted physics lab grew, we added chemistry, and soon we had six labs open in Faraday and La Tourette Halls. In 2008, NIU created STEM Outreach to encompass all the STEM fields and departments. We wanted to expand the haunted lab to an open-house style event for all the STEM departments, but felt it would be difficult to do across so many buildings, some three quarters of a mile from others. We needed a bigger venue, so we moved to the NIU Convocation Center and STEM Fest began.
Milton: Tell me about the first NIU STEM Fest.
Sievert: We had our first-ever STEM Fest October 2010. We had 80 to 90 exhibitors, with most of the booths and tables down on the bottom court floor. About 2,500 people attended that year. For the last four or five years, we’ve had about 100 exhibitors and more than 7,000 people each year. The event can get fairly crowded in the morning, but people spend five to five-and-a-half hours at the event on average. There’s a lot to see and do.
Milton: How is NIU STEM Fest different from the haunted physics lab?
Sievert: We still have the haunted physics lab, it’s one of our most popular attractions. I think the old haunted lab event was focused more on younger students, upper elementary school and middle school students. STEM Fest is for the whole family, including younger children and high school students. BLOCK Fest is for ages 8 months through 8 years old. The children can get on the floor and interact with blocks. It helps build their spatial development and teaches them how things work in three dimensions.
Milton: Is there a program for youth groups?
Sievert: There is a program for youth groups that was started in 2010 as a patch for Girl Scouts called Passport to My Future. The girls would attend STEM-related activities and interview a woman involved in each of the fields. Moms of boys were interested in the program, too. Now we offer similar tasks for all youth, where they have to complete tasks to earn patches. This year, there is a patch celebrating the 10th anniversary of STEM Fest. We have a limited quantity of those patches, they’re available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Milton: What are some of the booths and activities at this year’s STEM Fest?
Sievert: The biochemistry department will dissect 200 cow eyeballs. Families can put on gloves and examine the different parts of the eye. Thermo Fisher Scientific will have a crime scene, there will be engineering vehicles, microscopes, nursing and medical lab science will bring at least one simulated patient, nutrition will give out samples of healthy food, hands-on STEM exploration labs, the haunted physics lab and there will be an all-new Tot Spot for younger children this year. Author Kate Hannigan will attend the event this year and there will be three space-themed talks. One will be on women in astronomy and space, another on moon landings and a third asking if we are alone in the universe.
Milton: What would you say to someone who’s never been to STEM Fest before?
Sievert: There is so much to see and do at STEM Fest. It’s such a gratifying experience to see all of the kids and parents engaged and learning new things, seeing the possibilities of STEM fields now and in the future. Every year, I walk around and I learn something new. DeKalb residents who have never been to STEM Fest should come out. They can learn more about the university and what students and staff are doing. #ProudlyDeKalb will be at the event this year. Although STEM Fest is a showcase of STEM fields, it involves all of NIU. It’s a true blending of the community and the university.