STEM offers kids hands-on learning


By James Casey

If you didn’t have a chance to make it to STEMfest Saturday, the STEM Outreach program works all year to satisfy and spark scientific curiosities.

I sat in on an Outreach meeting as STEMfest was approaching. While the fest is able to draw hoards of people and grab headlines, one of the things I learned at this meeting is how STEM Outreach is much more than a once-a-year effort. This team is working constantly to capture and enlighten young minds.

“It’s just awesome,” said Pettee Guerrero, senior industrial and management technology major and STEM Outreach associate. “We get to reach out to kids at an early age and get them excited about science.”

Two years ago, Guerrero ran a waterbotics booth at STEMfest as a visiting student from Triton College. Guerrero told me STEMfest 2011 acted as a recruiting tool for her as she soon came back to DeKalb for a visit and enrolled at NIU the following year. The event also helped Guerrero realize her passion for teaching STEM subjects to curious young minds.

“Most kids make choices in middle school that either make it easier or harder to get into these types of fields,” said STEM Outreach Director Pati Sievert.

Sievert said STEM Outreach is hitting the road and visiting schools to ensure students at this critical age are set up for success in STEM fields. Along with STEMfest, which based upon its fourth year of success seems like a permanent fixture, STEM Outreach is also responsible for STEM nights at schools, professional development for elementary and middle school teachers, summer camps, community events and Saturday classes in DeKalb and Naperville for students in grades four and higher.

Jeremy Benson, STEM Outreach and Engagement associate, said Saturday classes teach STEM subject matter through LEGO Mindstorms, a series of kits for creating LEGO robots; model rocketry; stop motion animation; SolidWorks design software and CSI NIU: Jr. Sleuths.

Benson said kids can experience some parts of being a crime scene investigator if they attend the Jr. Sleuths class in December.

I think this is a great concept. In order for young students to choose their appropriate career path they must know the ins and outs of that profession. Speaking from personal experience, if I had known at an earlier age just how disagreeable would be the drab details of software programs like SolidWorks and AutoCAD, then I most likely would not have finished high school with the intent of becoming an engineer.

Although a STEM Outreach event would have dissuaded me from becoming an engineer when I was younger, it may have persuaded me to pursue a different STEM field. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to experience a more hands-on approach to STEM studies than what was offered in school. Although kids asking how things work all the time can be annoying, it’s important for us to nurture that curiosity.

STEM Outreach is providing kids with the opportunity for development, but those kids still need someone to open the door for them. Upcoming STEM Outreach events include Chemistry Demo Night and STEM Teen Read. For more information, visit