Fest mixes science with fun


Melissa Burlingame (second from right), Environmental Studies Program coordinator, and senior anthropology major Alex Labee (far right) explain the mechanics of soil and the atmosphere Saturday at the Convocation Center.

By Allison Krecek

Laser mazes, organ pipes and singing frogs were just a few of the activities kids could participate at Saturday’s STEMfest.

STEMfest, which was held in the Convocation Center, is an annual event that has been a part of NIU for four years. Before then, it was called the Haunted Physics Lab.

This year some of the activities included a laser maze for students to run through; organ pipes with pipes cut in different lengths to make a different noise; the tech playground, where the kids could make their own music; and a liquid nitrogen show performed by Pettee Guerrero, an associate for STEM Outreach.

“STEMfest is a huge science fair; it’s like Christmas for all of the geeks,” Guerrero said. “It’s a huge event where there’s over 200 hands-on activities for kids so they can get involved with science at an early age.”

This year more than 5,100 people attended STEMfest and were able to try out more than 200 hands-on activities. While Guerrero was making sure STEMfest was running smoothly, Sam Watt, senior physics education major, was running the Haunted Physics Lab.

The lab allowed students to run through the laser maze and go in a dark room where they learned what glows under UV lights.

“For one there’s some glow-in-the-dark toys and some common materials that … give off light under UV rays. Also some things you wouldn’t expect, obviously the highlighter fluid lights up, but … tonic water lights up,” Watt said.

A new activity allowed users to plug in an MP3 player to change the intensity of a laser that shined onto a solar cell. The cell picked up the energy and transferred it to a speaker which then played the MP3’s music.

Guerrero was happy with the turnout and the new experiments as she did not want any repeats. The idea is to have something new for children to learn from each time they come.

“Everything is hands-on, all exhibitors have to have hands-on for something for kids to do,” Guerrero said.

Guerrero had help from Jeremy Benson, STEM Outreach and Engagement associate. Benson has been working on STEMfest as a full-time employee for three years and worked even longer before that as a volunteer when he was a student at NIU.

“STEMfest is an explosion of awesome learning. There are so many different and amazing things to see that there is guaranteed to be something there to interest everyone,” Benson said. “From robots to lizards to lasers to lightning bolts, the … hardest part is fitting it all into just seven hours.”

Guerrero and Benson hope student participants have now taken an interest in the science and math fields they learned about.

“One of my favorite quotes is from Carl Sagan, who said, ‘We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology,’” Benson said. “It is our hope that through events like STEMfest, and through our other outreach activities … that we can help to change that.”