Computing crops

11.12.09 -

A collaboration between University of Illinois Extension and NCSA is putting tools for scientific inquiry and learning at 4-H'ers fingertips.

NCSA and University of Illinois Extension worked together to produce an online learning environment that incorporates scientific modeling. The site will be used by Illinois youth participating in 4-H, a land-grant university outreach program that serves more than 6 million youths across the United States.

4-H has made science, engineering, and technology one of its core focus areas, so Extension specialist Lisa Bouillion-Diaz was interested in ways to update long-standing programs, such as the 4-H curriculum on crop and soil science, with opportunities for young people to get hands-on experience with the latest research and tools used by scientists.

A mathematical model developed by Stephen Long and other researchers at Illinois' Institute for Genomic Biology was a natural fit. The Windows Intuitive Model of Vegetation response to Atmospheric and Climate Change (WIMOVAC) is a tool to model plant growth and investigate the impact of changes in atmospheric carbon content on vegetation.

NCSA provided the final necessary ingredient—cutting-edge tools for the analysis and visualization of data. NCSA staff developed a Digital Synthesis Framework that integrates data from multiple sources, enables on-demand execution of scientific workflows, and provides multiple visualization and analysis widgets through dynamically generated Web pages. To enable multiple users to run models simultaneously, NCSA also provides a scalable virtual machine environment that distributes modeling runs over a cluster of computers.

The final result is iGrow, an interactive website where 4-H participants (and eventually a wider public audience) can learn, ask questions, and carry out scientific experiments, receiving real-time results. So far, the site includes three modules, enabling users to:

  • Select locations on a map and compare corn and soybean yields in those regions.
  • Input CO2 concentrations and see how the WIMOVAC model predicts this will impact corn and soybean yields.
  • Alter seed spacing and see how this affects crop yields.

"This isn't like any other website where you get canned answers to questions. This is actual real-time data analysis being conducted with the same technological tools that scientists and practitioners have available to them," says Bouillion-Diaz. "To know as a young person that you have access to the same tools as scientists do, and to appreciate the role of those tools in addressing today's problems, is part of the career awareness and science excitement we hope to build."

Sixth- and seventh-graders at a Chicago-area middle school tested the iGrow website in the spring, providing valuable feedback. After some final adjustments and testing, Bouillion-Diaz expects to roll out the site to several Illinois 4-H clubs this fall. As 4-H'ers work on the crop and soil curriculum, the iGrow website will be an additional resource and tool for them to extend and apply their learning.

Both Bouillion-Diaz and Jim Myers, leader of NCSA's Cyberenvironments and Technologies Directorate, see potential for the site to be expanded with modules to address other topics, such as fertilization and crop rotation, and for the same concept and underlying technologies to be applied to other areas of inquiry.

"I see this collaboration as having created a prototype of a learning space that we could apply to many other topic areas," says Bouillion-Diaz.

This project was funded by the Office of Naval Research.

Team Members
Raouf Berrabah
Lisa Bouillion-Diaz
Dennis Bowman
Dairui Chen
Rob Kooper
Stephen P. Long
Luigi Marini
Terry McLaren
Bill Million
Jim Myers
Michal Ondrejcek
Anand Padmanabhan
Andrew Wadsworth
Wen Wu Tang
Xinguang Zhu