Designing STEM Fest

By Kristin Brynteson, NIU STEAM Director

Fall traditions are my favorite. Watching a football game, taking a hike to see all the beautiful colors, a trip to the apple orchard for cider donuts and, of course, planning STEM Fest!

On October 23, NIU and the NIU STEAM team hosted our twelfth STEM Fest! STEM Fest is an annual celebration of science, technology, engineering and math. For attendees it’s a day filled with hands-on exhibits, interactive talks and engaging activities. It showcases all the innovation and exploration happening on and around campus and is a place where people of all ages can let their curiosity run wild as they explore everything the event has to offer. This year we were so excited to bring STEM Fest to the heart of campus so we could showcase not only the research and artistry happening at NIU but the NIU campus itself. It was amazing to see all our STEM Fest guests having a great time!

If you’ve been to STEM Fest, you might not have had time to think about everything that goes into planning an event of that size. I know, we make it seem easy. It only seems that way because of how we use the design cycle to help us plan. We say that continuous improvement is central to everything we do, and planning STEM Fest is no exception.

Here’s how our continuous improvement mindset and the design cycle (ask, plan, create, evaluate) helps us take STEM Fest from an idea to a reality.  

We start by asking questions. Questions such as: “What worked last year? What might be different this year? What new and exciting things are happing on campus that we need to highlight?” These questions start immediately after the event. (Ok, maybe not immediately because after STEM Fest, we are all tired.) Debriefing and starting to ask questions about what next year will look like is our first step in planning.   

Planning for STEM Fest takes months. We spend time brainstorming ideas and discussing our questions, looking for answers and new ideas. We create a project plan with all the key milestones to help keep the planning on track. We identify and document all the details, big and small, that are needed to make the event a success.

The plan is put into action as we create an event that will engage, excite and inspire all who attend. After months of planning and preparation, seeing it all come together is amazing! During the event, you see the STEAM Team members not only interacting with the thousands of attendees, volunteers and exhibitors, but also observing and paying attention to what’s working and what might not be going as planned. We also make sure to collect feedback data through surveys and discussions. We’re making sure that everyone is leaving with a smile. (Incidentally, if you haven’t taken our STEM Fest survey yet, we’d love your feedback! You can find it here.)

You would think that once the day is over, the work is done. The smiling faces have gone home, our exhibitors have cleaned up their spaces and our displays are packed away for next year. But this isn’t the end of the STEM Fest story.  Now it’s time to review and analyze all the data to evaluate the event. The feedback and data give us concrete evidence on the success of STEM Fest. Not to mention some great quotes from our guests. We use the data as we debrief and discuss what went well, what needs to be improved and what we should include next year.

This starts the cycle again.

Even after 12 years, we’re still learning and finding news ways to make the event awesome. Each year gets better because we have a continuous improvement mindset and use the design cycle to guide us. Be sure to join us next year to see what new and exciting things we have in store for STEM Fest 2022.