Call it a science fair before the science fairs.
About 350 students and parents from Indian Prairie Unit District 204 explored topics in science, technology, engineering and mathematics Saturday during the district's first Science Project Ideas and ITEM Open House.
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The event was not only for gifted students or science brainiacs, said Alka Tyle, a former school board member and chairwoman of the STEM-204 Group. It was meant to give students some inspiration for upcoming science fairs or to begin seeing the fun in science.
Kids who haven't been introduced to science through their parents' careers may have benefited the most from talking with experts like Northern Illinois University professors who shared possible experiments young students can conduct.
"If their parents do not have a background in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), they can come here, get ideas and learn about resources," Tyle said.
Crone Middle School students Shreya Sridhara and Swathi Karri walked the open house together seeking ideas for experiments in the fields of alternative energy or environmental protection. Shreya, 12, of Naperville, said she thought one scientist, who specialized in botany and biochemistry, offered especially helpful advice.
"She gave us a lot of cool ideas for environmental science experiments," Shreya said. "That's the field we want to go into."
In the competitive world of science fairs, projects that could lead to helpful advances are seen favorably, said Swathi, 12, of Naperville.
"The judges like real-world projects so we want to do something that will help the world," Swathi said.
Aside from professors, a group of Northern Illinois University students representing the Society of Women Engineers attended the open house.
"We're just here to provide mentoring to the students," said Tricia Fremouw, a graduate student at NIU. "(We) try to find things that they've got an interest in and show them that there are ways to experiment with it."
Parents attending the event could sign up for the ITEM Booster Club, which supports new ITEM clubs that formed this year at each of District 204's high schools. The boosters provide funding and scientific expertise to students who want to gain more research experience.
"It's specifically to support kids interested in scientific research from a very hands-on component," said Bill Perry, an ITEM Boosters Club member.
Parents and students alike gathered at Scullen Middle School to watch performances by the Science Theatre troupe from the SciTech Hands-on Museum in Aurora, and robotics demonstrations by students from Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora.
Sunil Kulkarni of Naperville said the open house caught the interest of his son, Hrishikesh, who's 12.
"(My son went) through asking questions to see what he can make," Kulkarni said. "It's quite exciting."