STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Northern Illinois University’s STEM Cafés bring experts in those fields together with the public in a setting that’s just about as far from a classroom or lecture hall as you can get.
On a cool Wednesday night, several dozen people filled the large room at the Two Brothers Roundhouse Restaurant & Brewery in Aurora. Perched on tall barstools at small tables scattered across the room, many munched on or imbibed in house specialties while watching a small stage where NIU Physics Professor Larry Lurio gave his presentation on the physics of golf. With help from NIU Men’s Golf Team coach Tom Porten, and a set of slides and videos, Lurio walked through a golf swing, using Newton’s Laws of Motion and other scientific concepts to explain just what happens when a golf ball is hit, and why. He then used those concepts to explain how small things, like the dimples on a golf ball, can make a big difference in where and how far the ball travels.
This was Wendy West’s first time at a STEM Café. West said she came because she’s participating in the NCAA Division I Golf Championships, which NIU is hosting May 19-24 at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.
“And I heard about this via that, and I want to know how to hit the golf ball better,” West says, laughing.
And even if that doesn’t happen, she says, it’s still been a worthwhile evening.
"Well, you know you got great company, good beer, food, it’s all -- you can’t lose,” she says.
Howard Fisher is director of corporate sales for NIU’s STEAM works. That’s STEM plus Art. He helps find sponsors for the Cafés. But he’s also a fan. Like West, a chance to pick up some pointers was a reason to attend.
“I’m a golfer. So I figured if I [could see] how this all works I could improve my game by one stroke,” he says.
So what did he learn?
“I’m perfect at doing [the opposite of] everything they say to do," he laughs.
But golf’s not the only reason Fisher came. He’s been to a number of previous Cafés, on all sorts of topics. He says he’s learned something every time –and enjoyed himself while doing it.
Lurio says the evening was an opportunity for him, too.
“I enjoy golf," he says, "I enjoy physics. It’s fun when I put the two of them together. But to be honest the real reason I’m out here is because I want to share my love of physics with people, and make them realize this is not just some abstract bit of math. It’s something you can see in everyday life, in a golf game, and really, it makes sense.”
Judith Dymond organizes the NIU STEM Café presentations. She says the evening’s casual give and take allows people to make that connection between science and themselves that Lurio is talking about. She remembers a Café last year on the physics of baseball.
“And one of the people who attended came up to me and said, ‘you know, if my instructor in high school had used something like this to teach us about physics, I would right now be in the physics field, because it puts a real twist to it.’ When you leave our STEM Cafés, if you can’t apply it tomorrow or think how it applies to you, then we haven’t done a good job,” she says.
Lurio’s presentation was followed by a session where the questions were surprisingly detailed, even arcane. Or maybe not, given that most questioners began by saying their name – and their handicap.
After the Q & A, people were invited to the room next door, where a practice tee and measuring instruments gave them a chance to take another swing at what they’d just learned.