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Planning a Community STEAM Event

How can we get more kids excited about STEAM? I ask myself, and many others, this very question pretty much every day. One answer that we have come up with is to provide a variety of STEAM experiences for kids, especially at the elementary and middle school levels. Part of the mission of the Coder Kids Club is to provide such experiences via community STEAM events.

I just spent the past several months planning (with lots of help!) a “STEAM Festival” for my daughter’s school, and wanted to share some of my experiences, advice, and resources with anybody who might be thinking about planning a community STEAM event. Overall, the experience was a very good one, and I strongly encourage you to organize something in your community. In addition to the events I have organized, or helped organize, I have also attended several as an exhibitor, and this post is an attempt to capture all of those experiences, to help others plan their own events.

Let’s get started!

First Steps

Do you know you want to plan an event, but have no idea where to begin? I’ve been there! Here is what I suggest, to get the ball rolling:

  1. Determine the event type.
  2. Set a budget.
  3. Find a venue.
  4. Secure exhibitors.
  5. Figure out registration.
  6. Publicize the event.
  7. Hold the event.
  8. Rest, recover, and do it again!

Some of the steps might end up a bit out of that order as you actually complete them, but I think breaking it up into chunks like that will help make the whole event a lot more manageable.

I’m going to cover the first half of the list in this post, and will continue with the rest in another post.

Determine the Event Type

While many of the steps in my planning list can be done out of order, I think it’s pretty important to do this one near the beginning, because it will drive many of the other steps.

So what type of event are you thinking of planning? You have a lot of options for STEAM! A few to consider:

  • Class, Workshop, or Club: I have organized hundreds of these over the years, and might even be approaching thousands! I’m including this type of event because a workshop or club might be a great way to get started with planning community STEAM events in your area. They can start very small, with just a few like-minded people getting together to talk STEAM.
  • Parents Night Out with a STEAM Twist: Coder Kids Club does “Parents Night Out” type events quite often, usually at our office, but we were recently asked by a local school to do one on a larger scale. Parents dropped their kids off at the school for 3 hours, and the kids rotated through several STEAM activities over the course of that time.
  • STEAM Night: I attended several “STEAM Night” events at schools in the area over the past few years, and co-organized one for my daughter’s school last spring. Those usually coincided with the school’s science fair. They were, in part, a way for kids to show off their science fair projects to friends and family who might not be able to attend the science fair itself, but they were also a way to get the kids more excited about STEAM. Most of these events had a display of science fair projects and some sort of science “show” for attendees. At most of the events, STEAM exhibitors also had displays that ranged from info about their offerings to demonstrations and hands-on activities for the kids.
  • STEAM Festival: The event that I just organized for my daughter’s school was a “STEAM Festival,” and it was basically a super-sized STEAM Night. We had 25 STEAM exhibitors, each of which had a hands-on activity for the kids. We held it on a weekend because more exhibitors, and more families could attend on a Saturday. Plus it allowed us to have a longer event, so kids had more time to complete more activities. Because it was held around lunchtime, we also had a couple of food vendors.
  • Mini Maker Faire or School Maker Faire: According to their web site a Maker Faire is “part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new.” For the purposes of this article, it’s something to consider if you want to really “go big,” and involve the community in the event. Maker Faire has a ton of resources for planning the events, but also requires you to apply for a license to hold the event. I have attended a few of the Mini Maker Faires, but haven’t been to a School Maker Faire. The Mini Maker Faires that I have attended have been fantastic.

This is not an exhaustive list! I’m just sharing events I’ve experienced. What types of events would you add to this list?

Set a Budget

Once you know what type of event you’re planning, you should be able to create a budget. You’ll need a rough estimate of your expenses for this, so plan to price out a few of the things listed below, if you think you will use them:

  • Venue
  • Printing
  • Advertising
  • Registration/ticketing fees
  • Equipment such as tables, chairs, projectors, sound systems, and canopies
  • Materials such as raffle tickets, stamps, stickers, pens, markers, and bags
  • Licenses and insurance (if needed)

Besides expenses, you might actually have some income to include in your budget. Remember to include the following, if applicable:

  • Vendor fees
  • Sponsorships
  • Admission fees from attendees

The budget for the STEAM Festival I planned was only $500, and we ended up spending most of that on the costs associated with our venue. Our budget was determined by the money we had available in the overall PTO budget for my committee, as we chose not to charge any exhibitors or vendors to attend the event, and we didn’t charge admission to attendees.

Find a Venue

Where would you like to hold the event? If you’re organizing the event for your child’s school, then the school itself might be the ideal venue, but there might be other venues that you can use. A few things to consider when considering a venue:

  • Location: Obviously you’ll want the venue to be close to the community for which you’re organizing the event. Is there an appropriate venue in the community? If not, you might have to expand your search.
  • Layout: For the robotics club I run at my daughter’s school, we used the school’s gymnasium, because that was what was available to us at a cost we could afford (FREE!). The large, echoey room really wasn’t ideal for what we were doing, so we ended up moving teams into the hallways as the club progressed, and next year we’ll probably ask if we can use a different space. The gymnasium was, however, perfect for the STEAM Festival! You’ll have to figure out what kind of event you’re going to plan to help determine the layout you will need.
  • Capacity: All venues will have a limit on the number of people that can safely fit in the space. For the STEAM Festival, the room capacity for our main space (gymnasium plus cafeteria) was 538. We had access to the hallways, music room, and band room, so we could add another 60-90 people to that maximum. A couple of exhibitors, and our food vendors, were outside, but we didn’t include that space in our capacity because it was too cold!  That put our effective maximum capacity at over 600, but we set our maximum to 500, because we wanted to account for the space that exhibitors would take up with their tables. We ended up with just over 300 people attending the event. It wasn’t too crowded, and we could have probably fit another 100 people in the space we had.
  • Cost: This can be a pretty big deal. When we did STEAM Night, there was no additional cost because the PTO could use the room for free, and the custodial staff was already going to be there. However using the school on a weekend required the custodians to come in on a day they would otherwise be off, so we had to pay for their time. You will also need to consider whether or not you will charge a fee for people to attend the event, as some venues won’t allow you to do that, or might cost more to rent if you charge for admission.
  • Indoors vs. Outdoors: Depending on where and when you hold your event, an outdoor venue might be great, and in  my experience, those tend to be less expensive. If you’re hosting a February event in the mid-Atlantic, you will probably want to have it indoors, but if it’s May, an outdoor event might be better. Keep in mind that for an outdoor event, you might either need to provide, or vendors might need to bring, canopies/tents to provide shade. You’ll also need to have a plan in place in the event of bad weather.
  • Availability: Is the perfect venue available for your ideal event date? If you’re planning an evening or weekend event, keep in mind that schools are often used by community groups for meetings, sports, and other events, so you might have to work around that. The first date we picked for the STEAM Festival didn’t work, because there was a basketball tournament happening in the gymnasium at the same time, so we picked another date.

Keeping all of the things above in mind, here are a few places you can check in your area, to host the event:

  • Schools
  • Community centers
  • Athletic fields or parks (for outdoor events)
  • Libraries
  • Fire houses (with a hall)
  • Churches
  • Country clubs
  • Theaters
  • Hotels with conference centers, or even standalone conference centers
  • Elk, Moose, VFW, American Legion and similar groups often have a hall in the community that can be rented out for events
  • Check with the local shopping center; they might be willing to partner with you for an event

Secure Exhibitors

There are two big things to consider when it comes to exhibitors: what and who?

Let’s start with the “what.” This will be tied to the type of event you’re planning, so you probably already have some idea of “what” your exhibitors might be doing. Here are some ideas:

  • Hands-on activities: The bulk of exhibits at most events I’ve organized and/or attended have been hands-on activities. The kids really enjoy these, and in some cases, get to take something home with them! Exhibits of this type could include games, crafts, make-and-take (slime, airplanes, gak), touchable artifacts (animal fur/antlers), drivable/programmable robots, flight simulators, drawing, planting seeds, solving math problems, origami, and more.
  • Demonstrations: Some events I have attended had a live demonstration, and we had one for the STEAM Night we did last spring. This could be someone who you might otherwise get for an assembly. We chose not to have one for the STEAM Festival because while the kids did enjoy the live demo at STEAM Night, many ignored it because they were so busy doing the hands-on activities, so it ended up being a bit of a waste of money for us.
  • Talks: These might work at some events, especially for older kids (middle school and up) but unless you get a particularly compelling speaker, the kids might not stay in one place long enough to listen.
  • Goods & Services: You might want to include some exhibitors that sell to your participants. If you do, I suggest charging them a fee, or a percentage of their sales, to do this. If you’re holding the event around mealtime, I suggest finding a food vendor,

Who do you want to exhibit at the event? For the STEAM Festival, we had quite a variety, because I wanted kids to see that not only are there some very cool STEAM careers out there, but that they are also using STEAM every day. Here are some examples of companies, organizations, groups, and individuals that I encourage you to contact for your event:

  • Animal shelter or local SPCA: We were lucky to have a group of volunteers from the local SPCA bring the mobile adoption unit (RV) to our STEAM Festival.
  • Camps: Are there any STEAM camps in your area? Invite them! They will undoubtedly have some fun activities for the kids to do at the event, and will certainly be happy to share their camp offerings.
  • Direct sales vendors: We invited an Ubsorne Books & More consultant to the STEAM Festival. She brought a fun activity, and had a nice display of her STEAM books. While we didn’t have any other direct sales consultants, I bet Pampered Chef and some others could come up with some great STEAM activities that use their products! You’ll have to decide if you wish to allow these vendors to sell products during the event, but I strongly suggest limiting that, if you do allow it.
  • Educational Services: Local businesses that offer tutoring, classes, and the like make great exhibitors for events like this.
  • Fire department: Our local volunteer fire department sent an engine and a firefighter/EMT, plus some high-tech gear they use to save lives. I suggest trying the local volunteer department, first, if you have that in your area. Otherwise try city or county departments. If your local department has a fire investigations unit, ask them to send a fire investigator, who can talk about the science behind how they determine the cause of a fire.
  • Food vendors: Is your event going to be around mealtime? You might want to invite a food vendor! We had two at the STEAM Festival. If you do invite food vendors, they will likely sell their food, so you might want to consider charging a modest fee or asking for a percentage of their sales for the event. Most of them do expect to pay a fee to set up at an event.
  • Kids: We had groups from the local elementary, middle, and high school do activities at our STEAM Festival. The robotics club from the elementary school taught the other kids how to program their robots. We had a great origami activity from the middle school kids. The high school had two groups at the event. One group did a fun “gak” activity, and the other group made airplanes, and let the kids use their flight simulators. The activities from fellow students were among the most popular at this event, and I very strongly encourage you to reach out to local schools to see if there are groups that can join you for your event.
  • Local businesses: Get creative. You can probably figure out a way to include almost any local business in a STEAM event. We had a local consignment store run one of our craft tables.
  • Local colleges and universities: Contact the school’s public relations department. They might be able to find a few professors, or students, to show off their work.
  • Makers: Is there a “maker” group in your community, or nearby? Invite them!
  • Military: Is there a military base nearby? Check with their public relations to see if someone can join you for the event, to demonstrate the technology they use.
  • Nonprofits: We invited several arts nonprofits to the event, and had one group do a particularly awesome drawing demo.
  • Parents: Survey your community, to see if any parents have a STEAM career or hobby.
  • Police department: Check with the community relations or PIO for your local police department. Ask if they can send a mobile crime lab, or have a detective talk about how they use science to solve crimes. Another suggestion would be to ask for a K9 unit (explosive or drug detection), to talk about how a dog is able to detect traces of chemicals in the air, and “sniff out” the source.
  • Pro and College Sports Teams: Our local minor league baseball team came to the STEAM Festival. I helped them with a simple, fun activity to demonstrate reaction time for a fast pitch, and the kids learned that it’s much harder than it looks to hit one. They also brought their mascot for an hour. Check with your local professional and college sports teams, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
  • STEAM Associations: I’m lucky to live near Washington, DC, which is home to many STEAM associations. Check with them, to see if any members might be available to join your event.
  • Veterinarians, physicians, and other medical professionals: They use tons of STEAM every day! Check with these local businesses to see if someone might be available to share their knowledge with the kids.
  • Zoos: We were lucky to get two zookeepers from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park at the STEAM Festival. That pretty much made my year, as someone who wanted to be a zookeeper when she grew up J The kids loved having a chance to speak with them about their jobs. Check with your local zoo, and see if someone can attend the event.

Exhibitor Fees

When coming up with your list of exhibitors, you might want to really think about whether or not you might like to charge a fee to exhibitors. Many of your exhibitors will likely be already spending a decent amount of money for consumable materials to use in their activities, so do keep that in mind. However if you plan to have several exhibitors that are selling goods or services, you may want to consider charging a fee for them to participate.

Sponsors

In addition to exhibitors, reach out to local businesses, and see if any of them might be willing to sponsor the event. Even if they don’t wish to participate as an exhibitor, they might be interested in contributing goods, services, and even cash to help make the event a success, in exchange for being recognized as a sponsor of the event.

Coming Soon

We still have several steps to cover, and I’ll do that in my next post. Stay tuned!