Science is more than theory and lecture. Science is fun. Science is hands-on. Science is…
Eleven children – five of them girls – sit at tables inside the NIU STEM Outreach headquarters, a space inside Swen Parson Hall that seems more like a rich kid’s toy room or possibly the coolest high school art studio ever.
Cool posters, including one of Albert Einstein, hang on the walls. Window sills and bookshelves are stacked with superhero and science fiction action figures.
Motivational messages printed in rainbow hues state, “I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.” Other signs list the Engineering Design Process: Ask. Imagine. Plan. Design. Improve.
One table is piled with cardboard boxes that were converted into – well, things of some sort. Robots, maybe? Animals? The boxes are covered in colored construction paper and fitted with drinking straws, buttons, pipe cleaners, wooden kabob spears and more.
Today the academic summer camp task for these budding scientists involves candy. They’re going to make lollipops and the ice cream concoction known commercially as Dippin’ Dots.
But behind this sweet fun lurks real learning and, it’s expected, a curriculum of discovery via science, technology, engineering and math that will educate and supply the workforce of tomorrow.
“STEM is critical because it allows us to bring all of the disciplines together. These lessons gain meaning. They’re part of their real world, and not just abstract subjects,” says Pati Sievert, director of NIU STEM Outreach.
“It’s important that we do this, because more and more of what will be good jobs for anybody in the future will employ STEM topics,” Sievert adds. “Even if these students don’t become scientists or engineers, they’re going to have to understand technology in a way that our generation didn’t realize we were going to.”
“We work with these younger students to build enthusiasm and to teach them skills that will build confidence in their ability to do well in science later on,” Benson says. “Traditionally, there is often a tendency for many students in this age level to develop the impression that people who are good at science are somehow different, or that not everyone can ‘get’ science. It is one of our goals to combat this idea, and to make STEM as inclusive as possible.”
Leaders and teachers in K-12 schools understand the STEM mission as well as its evolution into STEAM – the “A” representing “arts.” STEAM cultivates creativity, fosters enthusiasm for learning and relates curriculum to the lives of the students.
Nearly three dozen teachers attended a STEAM workshop held Aug. 3 inside NIU’s Gabel Hall.
Participants experienced interactive lessons, engaged in hands-on activities, learned about STEAM’s relationship to the New Illinois Learning Standards and attended networking and idea-sharing sessions.
“Creative problem-solving is an important endeavor,” Sievert says. “You do not learn the future from a book. You have to create the future. Bringing the arts into STEM helps us develop children’s creativity.”
Mike Jones, a workshop participant and speaker who teaches science and STEM in the public middle schools and high schools of Bloomington, Ill., says the movement offers “a literacy of understanding.”
“We can figure out what a phenomenon is. We can ask a question. We can be engineers and solve a problem. We can find out if our solution is the best solution, or if there’s a better one out there,” Jones says. “STEAM adds a design element.”
STEM and STEAM programs enrich a student’s understanding of how a tiny acorn turns into a towering, multi-ton tree, he says, or how a pill knows what to do after it’s swallowed. It also allows teachers to borrow from their colleagues, he says: Why not sing a song about the weather during a science class unit on meteorology?
As the concept grows at school districts, it gives Jones confidence in the future while he reflects on the past.
“When you look at where people are making stuff and inventing stuff, it’s still in America,” he says. “And with STEM being a bigger experience in a lot of school districts, this is what it must have felt like in the early ’60s with Sputnik and the space race.”
Tammy Metz, who teaches computers to kindergartners through fifth-graders in Kaneland Community Unit School District 302, came to the workshop for ideas and found plenty.
Metz was already a believer, though.
“Children have to be involved in what they’re being taught, and they have to be problem-solvers,” she says. “Sometimes those things are bypassed in favor of memorization and rote-learning.”
Her passionate advocacy for weaving computers throughout the K-5 curriculum now has additional support thanks to the STEAM workshop. She left fired up by break-out sessions on video gaming, digital storytelling and integrated projects.
“We need to involve kids in things that are important to them – the lack of recycling in the lunchroom, the need for updated playground equipment, neighborhood watch programs,” she says. “With STEAM, there are going to be kids who go further in their education and careers than they would have without it.”
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Pettee Guerrero, an NIU STEM Outreach associate, is talking candy.
“What do you think lollipops are made of?” she asks the campers headed for fifth-, sixth- or seventh-grade classrooms this fall.
“Sugar,” one says. “Corn syrup,” calls out another.
“What’s another name for sugar?” Guerrero asks.
“Sucrose.” (These kids are smart!)
Victor, a camp counselor, explains that he’s going to mix one cup of sugar, one-third cup corn syrup and a little water and then heat it 310 degrees Fahrenheit. “We could stop at 260 or 270, but it’s not going to be like hard candy,” he says, “and that’s no fun.”
The students watch Victor closely and verbalize their thoughts. “It looks like a cracked egg.” “It looks likes the egg white.” “A lot of egg white.”
He pours some red stuff into his beaker; a tantalizing aroma of strawberries fills the room. Each child now has a lollipop stick to bring forward and roll through the sugary sweetness once it’s ready.
Meanwhile, Guerrero is working with liquid nitrogen – frozen air, about negative 200 degrees Celsius – and pours some directly from a large vessel onto the floor. The cloud of steam-like vapor emits an audible “poof!” when it hits before spreading across the carpet.
“Whoa!” the campers coo in unison.
“What happens if you stuck your hand into frozen nitrogen?” Guerrero asks. “You will have no hand, pretty much. Your hand will fall off.”
She quickly pours some of the steamy-looking stuff directly on her hand as the wide-eyed students gasp. Yet her hand is still there. Why?
Oh! The warmth of the room evaporated the liquid nitrogen before it made contact.
This cold stuff is what will help make Dippin’ Dots when the cream is added. “You need to wait 30 minutes before eating it,” Guerrero warns. “Otherwise, your tongue will feel like it got burned, and the top will peel off.”
Her campers react with a chorus of “ewwww” sounds. One says it all: “That’s a gross image.”
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NIU STEM Outreach has four purposes.
- Build interest and excitement about STEM at NIU through standards-based presentations at schools.
- Provide opportunities for hands-on experiences with STEM subjects by conducting extracurricular activities including clubs, competitions and traveling hands-on museums.
- Raise educational aspirations, knowledge of STEM and interest in attending NIU by coordinating activities such as structured campus visits, special events and summer camps at NIU’s campuses.
- Improve teaching of STEM subjects by collaborating with teacher preparation and professional development activities in four NIU colleges.
For Jeremy Benson, though, it’s mostly about “the lightbulb moments – the moments where you can see on a student’s face that it has clicked; that they get it, and now they’re eager to use it.”
He’s proud of what he and his NIU STEM Outreach colleagues are doing: This summer’s camps welcomed more than 300 students from fifth-grade through high school. “I really feel like our work is helping to make the world a better place,” he says.
Since the STEM camps began six years ago, he says, the number of girls signing up has more than doubled. Guerrero’s STEM Divas group, which began just last fall, has caused confidence to soar among its girls.
Benson also has noticed a resurgence in the general public’s interest in understanding science. “I think that’s a very good thing, and I’m happy to think that we are helping to lead that charge,” Benson says.
“The most important transformations we see are the realizations that, ‘I’m good at this, and it’s fun!’ One of the greatest things we hear from our campers is, ‘I didn’t know I could do that!’ In particular, it’s always great to hear when a young girl realizes, ‘I can do this just as good as the boys!’ ” he adds.
“Whether it’s learning to solder an electrical circuit, or using power tools to assemble a project they designed, we love seeing the kids develop new skills that they’ll be able to take with them after camp. We often have campers who have never used a soldering iron before camp, and are already looking for the next electronics project they’ll start on as soon as they get home.”
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Grace Lin, 10 and soon to start fifth-grade in Highland Park, Ill., calls the STEM camp “absolutely amazing.”
“I just love doing science and doing all the experiments we get to do here. They really have fun activities,” Lin says. “You get to test out your ideas. You get to experiment.”
Blake Wirkus, also 10 and entering fifth-grade in Kimball Farms, Ill., enjoyed lessons in robotics, programming and, yes, making candy. “Science is fun, and I like doing it,” Wirkus says.
What’s fun today will someday turn into success, in life and in work.
“As technology becomes more and more central to our way of life, we must make sure that our students keep up with these developments,” Benson says. “Even outside of career options, I believe that having a solid understanding of science and the ability to think critically about problems helps our students to become more successful adults.”
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Pati Sievert became involved in delivering NIU’s STEM education to the public in 2002, long before the program’s official establishment in 2008.
Early events through the Department of Physics included the tremendously popular Haunted Physics Laboratory at Halloween and the Frontier Physics road shows. And who doesn't love the NIU Chem Club’s chemistry demonstrations?
Like Benson, she’s proud of what they’ve built.
“I was one of those girls who should’ve gone into science or engineering in the late ’70s, when I graduated from high school, but I didn’t have the role models growing up in rural Minnesota,” Sievert says. “I went into art and design. It made me imminently unemployable when I moved to rural Illinois.”
After working as a teaching assistant in Byron, she came to NIU in 1997 to earn her certification in physics education. She stuck around to complete a master’s degree and soon found her life’s calling.
“When I see the effect that we’re having on kids and their families, I feel really good about it,” she says.
“I want more kids to get involved in this. I love it, and I want to help them love it, too. I want them to get excited,” she adds. “When I can help – especially young women, or the Hispanic or African-American students who don’t have a role model in their family or neighborhood – to make connections here on campus or through our program, I get excited.”