ITEEA The Elementary STEM Journal, Vol. 25, Issue 3
PublisherInternational Technology and Engineering Educators Association, Reston, VA
ReleasedMarch 1, 2021
The Elementary STEM Journal, Volume 25, Issue 3 - March, 2021

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Table of Contents

Growing STEM in the Community: Planning a STEM Festival


Figure 2- Student Exploring STEM Booth-300-lg.jpgGrowing STEM in the Community: Planning a STEM Festival 
Sarah Derry and Jesse Wilcox

what is a STEM Festival and why start one?

If you ask people who work in STEM fields about when they became interested in pursuing a STEM career, over half of them knew before middle school (Maltese & Tai, 2010). Therefore, it is important to work to provide STEM experiences for children that will grow their interest and help them see how STEM concepts are used in the real world (NRC, 2012).

One way to cultivate children’s interest in STEM outside of the school day is through a STEM Festival. These festivals are typically one-night community events hosted at a community gathering spot (e.g., elementary school, community building). Festival organizers bring together different community stakeholders (Figure 1, page 10) to engage children in STEM activities and discussions. Each stakeholder has an important role to play during a STEM Festival. Teachers often help organize the event and prepare their students to get the most out of the experience. Parents get a chance to take their children to a fun, educational event and engage in the activities as a family. The booths are hosted by STEM professionals in the children's own backyards, which showcases local flavor and provides a sense of pride in the community. All of these partners work together to provide an exciting experience for children in the community.

Figure 1_ STEM Stakeholder Venn Diagram-300-med.jpgwhat do effective STEM Festivals look like?

While there is more than one way to run a STEM Festival, the authors have compiled some best practices from experiences facilitating dozens of these events as K-12 teachers and in our current positions in higher education. We have found effective Festivals are free, family-friendly, hands-on, and community-based. Importantly, the Festival should create an environment where children feel free to explore, ask questions, and discuss STEM ideas and fields that interest them. These best practices are explored in more detail below.

ensure the booths are activity-based

Just as effective science teaching includes an engaging activity or phenomenon to spark the interest of children, so too does an effective STEM booth. We often work with STEM professionals to brainstorm activity ideas that will capture the interest of elementary children and their families while making a natural connection to the STEM careers (Figures 2-4). Developing these activities is a real partnership between the STEM professionals and the teachers: the teachers provide expertise on how to engage children while the STEM professionals bring the content expertise.

go beyond the activity

While the activity at the STEM booth is often the hook that captures the attention of children and their families, it’s good to make connections between the activity and the real world. To help STEM professionals facilitate this, they are asked to develop open-ended follow-up questions that could be directed at children and their families. These sorts of questions include:

  • If we did _______, what do you think would happen?
  • How do you think this relates to _______?
  • Where have you seen this before? 
  • How do you think this applies to _______?

Figure 3- Student Exploring a STEM Booth-300-med.jpg Figure 4- Student Exploring a STEM Activity-300.jpg Figure 5- Family Engagement at a STEM Booth-250.jpg

taking the experience home

One way we work to continue the interest and learning that happens at the STEM Festival is to send something home with the families. We often provide parents and children a link to our regional STEM collaborative group (Iowa South-Central STEM Hub) that provides activities and events families can engage in after the STEM Festival. Often, STEM professionals bring an extension activity—along with information about their company and/or profession—that children can engage with at home. For example, an agronomist might send home some materials (bean seeds, plastic containers, paper towels) along with questions to have students observe seed germination at home. Importantly, the exhibitors are asked to ensure they include safety guidelines along with any take-home activity (e.g., instructions on proper disposal, ensuring parents are involved).

family participation

A STEM Festival that invites participation from the entire family is crucial, so those STEM professionals running the booths are encouraged to plan activities in which many people can engage at once, including children of different ages. As noted above, it is suggested that they start with a concrete experience where families can explore a phenomenon together. For example, a medical group brought surgical materials and a mannequin and did a surgery simulation where the whole family got to wear surgical gowns. An energy company brought a model of a wind turbine where the blades could be changed and the output of energy could be measured. Each of these examples engaged the entire family. 

encouraging families to visit multiple STEM booths

Often, a few STEM booths attract lots of attention because the activity draws people in. While we strive to help STEM professionals all develop engaging activities, we also work to encourage families to visit multiple booths during their time at the Festival. We’ve had success in developing a scavenger hunt where families visit multiple booths to get clues to find a final location. Another strategy that works well is to hand out a passport when children walk in the door. They can earn badges (often a stamp) for engaging at various booths. Students often earn the stamp by completing a task or asking a question. When children complete the passport, they can receive a bag of STEM materials and activities to use at home. STEM-in-a-bag activities contain instructions and all the materials for a simple at-home activity in a sandwich-sized bag (e.g., chromatography butterflies, paper-towel tube kaleidoscope, spoon catapult). With two or three activities to choose from, children can select the activity that most interests them.

not competitive

While many STEM activities pose a challenge to the family, it is recommended to make the activities noncompetitive. Instead, encourage families to engage in learning for the sake of learning and enjoy working together. In this sense, we hope to promote curiosity and exploration rather than having the goal be to win. For example, in one activity families worked together to build a house out of rolled-up newspaper and masking tape (Figure 5). Families often put these together to make a little city for children to play in. Engineers then connected this to how they collaborate with others and the engineering principles they use in their work. 

accessible to all

One of the advantages of a STEM Festival is that it brings multiple stakeholders together in one place in order to have a lasting impact on children (Figure 1). To that end, try to ensure the STEM Festival is inclusive for all of the stakeholders, including, for example, children with diverse needs and at various socioeconomic levels. The Festival should be free and held at a community gathering space (e.g., local schools, libraries, community colleges) to ease transportation issues. We have found attendance tends to be higher when the Festival is located in a community space where people feel comfortable. Additionally, food is provided when possible. The planning committee often requests donations from local businesses and civic groups (e.g., Rotary, Optimists, Kiwanis) for food items and volunteers to help serve. We acknowledge their contributions with signage around the serving area. Importantly, the food is in a separate location, and food safety precautions are followed. 

Table1 - 300-med.jpghow can you plan a STEM Festival?

Recruiting the STEM Festival Planning Committee

Allow at least six months to plan a STEM Festival (see Table 1 for a timeline and list of tasks). Among first tasks is assembling a committee to help plan and facilitate the STEM Festival.  

STEM Festival organizers often recruit teachers, school administrators, members of the local chamber of commerce, business leaders, people in charge of the venue, and civic groups to join the planning committee. This committee is a group of volunteers that helps identify potential STEM professionals to invite to the STEM Festival. Importantly, we often try to recruit a community catalyst—someone passionate about STEM education and well-connected in the community—to help us contact STEM professionals and business partners.

Once the committee is established, tasks are distributed based on expertise and interest. One or two individuals from the committee take on subcommittee tasks, including: inviting STEM professionals and business partners as exhibitors, coaching exhibitors regarding STEM activities appropriate for children, promotion and marketing to participants, volunteer coordination, and event planning, which includes reserving a venue, layout of exhibits, logistics during the event, and communicating those details to exhibitors and participants. 

planning the STEM Festival

A ratio of one booth or activity for every ten expected participants is attempted. Try to recruit a broad spectrum of careers that relate in interesting ways to STEM (Table 2). Also try to recruit exhibitors that represent each STEM discipline. While many people in the community are interested in participating, many express concerns about developing an activity. The teachers on the planning committee or area preservice teachers often team up with the STEM professionals to design an engaging activity related to the professional’s field. Teachers often help the STEM professionals consider questions they could ask to engage children and their families in the activity and learn about the profession. Partnering with teacher education programs to have preservice teachers serve as exhibitors can also be a very fruitful approach (see Feille & Shaffery, 2020). The STEM professionals then complete a registration form to collect standard information, including: contact information, a short summary of the activity that can be used in promotional materials and the event program, the materials used for the activity, and environment and safety considerations. Once proposals are submitted, the STEM Festival committee meets to review the proposals, with specific attention to the materials and environment/safety considerations.

Figure 6- Set-up of a STEM Festival.jpegThe materials used for the activities are often donated by STEM professionals. If Festivals occur in communities for multiple years, many STEM professionals have nonconsumable materials that they can reuse. Additionally, the Festival committee often works to collect donations based on the needs of the exhibitors and for the take-home activity. For example, during one Festival, the Parent Teacher Organization distributed a sign-up to donate money and consumables (e.g., duct tape, cardboard) for a Festival. 

Table 2 - 300-med.jpgFor the environment and safety considerations of the STEM Festival, accessibility needs are considered for participants of different abilities, as well as access to electricity and electrical capacity of the room/building, floor surface for wet/messy activity, noise and traffic for live animals, and additional space to build and test a design (Figure 6). It is important to consider safety, including physical, biohazard, chemical, building code, etc. when planning the event. The person(s) responsible for risk management at the site of the STEM Festival should be a part of the planning committee and familiar with STEM activities' safety protocols. The principal and a science teacher are often the risk managers at a school, whereas other locations (e.g., colleges, community buildings), often have an employee in charge of risk management. While planning one Festival, we found it insightful that the risk manager thought a well-planned elephant toothpaste demonstration was taking the proper safety precautions (e.g., plexiglass, distance from participants), but had concerns about children petting a turtle (which can carry salmonella). We followed the recommendations of the risk manager and required handwashing before and after contact with the turtle. Importantly, the full committee reviews each proposed activity. If any concerns are expressed that an activity could even potentially put anyone at risk, the exhibitors are asked to resolve and resubmit. Inviting a local Emergency Medical Services crew to be exhibitors can serve as an extra safety measure, and their exhibit is highly visited by participants.

preparing students

An important aspect of a successful STEM Festival is preparing students beforehand. K-12 students can be shown pictures of the Festival from years past, and those who previously attended can be asked to relate their experience. Students should show their parents and siblings around and lead them through the Festival, which empowers them while helping the Festival run smoothly.

Figure 7 - 300-med.jpgTo help students engage with the STEM professionals, provide a preview of the types of booths that will be at the Festival. Teach throughout the year about what STEM means (Kruse & Wilcox [2013], Wilcox & Lake [2018], and Wilcox, et al. [2019]) and what types of jobs people might have that engage with STEM. We worked with our students to generate a list of questions that they could ask the STEM professionals, provided students the list that they generated in class to take to the Festival, and encouraged them to ask at least one question of each exhibitor. Some of the questions our students asked included: 

  • What made you interested to do this job?
  • Have you always liked science and technology?
  • What do you like most about your job?
  • How did you decide to do this job?
  • How do you use science and technology in your job?
  • What is something about your job that will surprise me?

Students also generated specific questions that related to what they were learning in class.

  • How does electricity get to our home? (Electricians)
  • Where does water go when it leaves our house? (Water treatment plant person)
  • What do you do when something doesn’t work right? (Technology professionals)
  • What do plants need to grow? (Agriculture professionals)
  • How can we make plants grow better? (Agriculture professionals)
  • How can I be healthier? (Health professional)
  • What do scientists do?
  • What do technologists do?
  • What do engineers do?

informing and preparing parents

Send a flyer or newsletter to parents to explain the purpose of the STEM Festival a month prior to the event. Promote the event to families through social media, websites, and through local contacts. Upon arrival, we provide parents a handout with a map of the STEM Booths and a short list of suggestions to help their children get the most out of the experience (Figures 7 and 8). The handout also has online resources parents can access after the STEM Festival to further support their children’s interest.

assessing the impact of the STEM Festival


To help assess the impact of the STEM Festival, we often provide teachers with a “Draw-a-STEM-Professional Test” pre/post assessment and some instructions to implement it. This assessment is similar to Draw-A-Scientist or Engineer Tests (Finson, 2002; Knight & Cunningham, 2004). Teachers are asked to chat with students about what STEM means and then write “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” on the board. Kindergarteners might just draw a picture of people who would use STEM in their jobs, whereas older elementary students draw a picture and write an explanation. In our experience, students often begin with limited drawings beforehand (e.g., drawings of men in lab coats). After students have attended the STEM Festival, the drawings tend to include people with much more diversity and doing work in a variety of locations.

At the Festival, families are asked to complete a short survey before leaving. Older children respond on their own, whereas younger children frequently get help from their parents. They are asked about their perceptions regarding: overall experience, if their interest in STEM has been improved, whether they learned something new about a STEM job, and if they had a way (a website, a take-home challenge, etc.) to follow up on something that piqued their interest. The last two Festivals we conducted (n=138 responses) yielded a 94% favorable experience, 91% improved in their interest in STEM, 84% learned something new about a STEM job, and 100% indicated they had a new way to follow up on something that piqued their interest.

Online Resources:

South Central Iowa STEM Hub Festivals:

Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council:

Figure 8- Map of STEM Booths-275.pngconclusion

While STEM Festivals are only one night, we have seen lasting impacts. Teachers often gain numerous examples to draw from when they are teaching science and math. STEM professionals often become ambassadors for their career path and report that they enjoy discussing what they do with families in their communities. Parents often have new opportunities to discuss STEM at home. Children often carry the excitement from the Festival into their school learning. When children engage with real STEM professionals, they tend to see STEM as much more creative, diverse, and interesting than they initially thought. 


Finson, K. D. (2002). Drawing a scientist: What we do and do not know after fifty years of drawings. School Science and Mathematics, 102(7), 335-345.

Feille, K. & Shaffery, H. (2020). Apprehension to application: How a family science night can support preservice elementary teacher preparation. Innovations. Science Teacher Education, 5(3). Retrieved from

Knight, M. & Cunningham, C. (2004, June). Draw an engineer test (DAET): Development of a tool to investigate students’ ideas about engineers and engineering. In ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition (Vol. 2004).

Kruse, J. W. & Wilcox, J. (2013). Engaging students with the nature of science and nature of technology by modeling the work of scientists. The Clearing House. 86(3), 109-115.

Maltese, A. V. & Tai, R. H. (2010). Eyeballs in the fridge: Sources of early interest in science. International Journal of Science Education, 32(5), 669-685.

National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. National Academies Press.

Wilcox, J., Klapprodt, M., Holub, J., & Van Buskirk, K. (2019). Balancing engineering and science instruction: Teaching third-graders about balanced and unbalanced forces using an engineering task. Science & Children. 56(7), 58-63.

Wilcox, J. & Lake, A. (2018). Teaching the nature of science in elementary: Strategies and resources. Science & Children. 55(5), 78-85.


Sarah Derry, Ph.D., is the South Central Regional STEM Manager for the Governor's STEM Advisory Council and is located at Drake University. She can be reached at

Jesse Wilcox, Ph.D., M.A.T., is an assistant professor in STEM Education at Simpson College in Indianola, IA. He can be reached at


This is a refereed article.