While many school districts have placed heavier emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curricula in classrooms in recent years, it’s not every day that students get to meet local technological innovators and leaders to discover how a STEM education can lead to real world careers.

Providing students the chance to meet STEM professionals and experience unique hands-on learning opportunities was the goal of LaGrange District 102’s second annual STEM Night for 100 fifth- and sixth-graders, Jan. 24, at Brookfield’s Congress Park School, 9311 Shields Ave.

At the start of the program, keynote speaker Jerry Zimmerman, a scientist from Fermilab, aka “Mr. Freeze,” performed a cryogenics show, teaching students how engineers use liquid nitrogen to supercool magnets for least resistance.

Following the show, students chose from three 20-minute breakout sessions, with presentations including robots, renewable energy, 3-D demonstrations and aquarium preservation. STEM Night had a strong local focus, with presenters being either friends of district families, parents or area residents. Presenters came from Morton Arboretum, Shedd Aquarium, Loyola University, Morton East High School, Illinois Math and Science Academy, and Navigant Consulting.

Virginia Hohl, lead teacher at the district’s science center, said this year’s STEM Night tried to extend the popularity and positive reception of last year’s inaugural event. Hohl first brought the program to D102 after being impressed by a similar program at a friend’s school district.

“I just loved the excitement of the kids being able to choose what they wanted to do [and] roam around to see what was exciting to them,” she said.

While this was only the second year for the event, Hohl said the district has wanted to bring STEM-type activities to its students for years.

The Allen P. Zak Science Discovery Center, located at 930 Barnsdale Road in LaGrange Park, was started in 1990 thanks to funding from D102 resources and the state of Illinois’ Scientific Literacy Program. The center serves as an activity-based science facility, which Hohl said serves as an “in-district field trip.”

“[The] grades come to do science and engineering projects to help supplement what they do in the classroom,” Hohl said.

In 2011, the center’s curriculum was updated to better reflect the district’s goals of a STEM education, and Hohl said STEM Night has helped enhance introduction on the concept to children.

While the science center is open for all D102 kids, Hohl said STEM Night focuses more for older students who are able to ask more in-depth questions and may have a deeper interest in higher level science, math and technology.

“We wanted to gear it toward the older kids so they could learn more advanced things,” she said. “We have a wide variety of different programs and different presenters so the kids could make their choices for what interests them.”

Zoe Knott, a fifth-grader from Brookfield, attended STEM Night because of her strong interest in science in the classroom.

“I like doing all the science and I like doing the different activities,” Knott said. “[Science is important] because it’s a life skill you need to have.”

Fellow Brookfield resident and fifth-grader Isabella Greco agreed with Knott, saying science can be both educational and entertaining. 

“I’m really interested in science and technology, and I think it’s a really fun thing to do because you don’t just learn stuff but you also get to have fun with it,” she said.

Overall, Hohl said such events are important for children because it allows them to see that STEM subjects occur beyond the classroom and allow their educational interests to mature.

“It just gives them a night to learn about things they love,” she explained. “They all have success [and] they’re all interested. I love that we invite the parents to stay home. [The kids] are all old enough to make their own choices and spend the night to learn without mom and dad on their side. And to learn from professionals is really valuable.”