A young participant smashes geodes at IU’s 2016 Science Fest. Courtesy photo


Who knew you could make your own comet? But, according to Indiana University astronomy professor Caty Pilachowski, “Comets are made of ordinary stuff.” At IU’s Science Fest, visitors can create their own baseball-size comets using water, dry ice, dirt, and syrup. That’s just one of the many activities planned at the free event taking place October 21 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in several buildings across the IU campus.

Close to 600 faculty, staff, and students orchestrate the annual event. “We’ve got one volunteer per six visitors, all experts
in their fields,” says Tina Gilliland, outreach liaison for IU’s Office of Science Outreach.

As for those comets, Pilachowski says the process is noisy and fun, but also realistic. “[Comets] formed fairly far out, where the distance from the new sun was far enough that the water was frozen,” she says. “And then there was dust and small pebbles and a little bit of ammonia. It’s easy to collect those materials and form them into a comet.”

Science Fest gives the university an occasion to share its work with the general public. “It’s more than activity mania,” says Teddie Phillipson-Mower, associate director of the science outreach office. “We want people to know how what we do here affects their everyday lives.”

While busloads of school-age groups attend the event, organizers say Science Fest, like science, crosses all boundaries. Gilliland says volunteers are adept at adjusting activities to connect with participants of all ages and abilities.

Activities include 3-D printing, an electric fish demonstration, tours of the university’s greenhouse, fossil digging, geode cracking, a chance to view the sun through a solar telescope, freezing flowers with liquid nitrogen, and an opportunity to examine the skulls of more than 40 mammalian species.

Phillipson-Mower says the tradition of an IU science event open to the community reaches back more than 60 years, when the physics department began holding an open house. Later, the chemistry department followed suit. As other departments asked to get involved, the idea for Science Fest was born, and the first event under that banner was held four years ago.

Some activities run throughout the day, others at specific times. For a schedule, maps, and parking information, visit

A volcano eruption demonstration. Courtesy photo