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NCSA and I-Sci Explorers Inspiring Kids in STEAM

Photo of kids with a small drone

Kids get excited about science as part of the Illinois Science Explorers at the Marten Center in Champaign

Corralling a group of eight-year-olds into sitting still to learn about digital agriculture is no easy feat. Unless that is, you have robots and drones to capture their imagination. This was the challenge that Paige Duncan, Christina Tucker and Isabella Condotta faced recently at the Champaign Park District’s Martens Center as part of the Illinois Science Explorers, or I-Sci Explorers for short. The program is coordinated by Duncan in her role as Community Engagement Specialist with the Center for Social & Behavioral Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and includes collaboration from four other units on campus, including NCSA.

“The mission of the Illinois Science Explorers is to bring the exciting research and work being done on campus to the community,” Duncan said. “Most of these kids haven’t set foot on campus, so I-Sci Explorers is bringing the science to them. It is sparking their imaginations about what their future careers could look like. Our mission is to be a bridge to the community and get kids excited about science.”

Photo of Isabella Condotta and two children from the I-Sci Explorers program
Isabella Condotta checks the battery of a drone before I-Sci Explorers program its flight pattern.

Excitement was in no short supply at the Martens Center when about a dozen third-graders from the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club, an after-school program housed in the building, arrived one recent afternoon.

“It was a lot of energy,” said Tucker, laughing. She’s the Assistant Director of Education for the Center for Digital Agriculture (CDA) and co-PI along with Condotta on the Digital Ag in a Box curriculum, which consists of hands-on learning modules and activities for middle school students with an agriculture and technology focus. “Paige and I met a few times to talk through our session and consider what has worked in other sessions she has done. These aren’t agriculture students, so it was good for me to think about how I was presenting it and really think about what it was important for them to learn.”

“Most of these kids haven’t set foot on campus, so I-Sci Explorers is bringing the science to them. It is sparking their imaginations about what their future careers could look like. Our mission is to be a bridge to the community and get kids excited about science.

-Paige Duncan, community engagement specialist, Center for Social and Behavioral Science”

These sessions took some planning as there would be two different classes of students of different ages. Duncan and Tucker met several times over Zoom, and it was in these conversations that Tucker described Digital Ag in a Box, which includes modules with a small programmable robot and a sensor kit to measure environmental factors.

Photo of kids navigating a rover through the classroom using a tablet.
Kids navigated a rover through the classroom using a tablet.

“We need to bring this to the kids,” Duncan said once she heard Tucker’s ideas. “I knew this would inspire kids to recognize the significance of these technological advancements, envision themselves pursuing a career in this field, and show them how much fun science can be!”

They met a few more times to consider the content youngsters could absorb and answer questions like: What can this age group do in the time they have? What’s the best way they could go about delivering the content to this age group, and how can they structure the lesson so that it’s fun and educational?

Drones and robots. That’s how. Tucker began her presentation with a few slides and videos defining agriculture and how these technologies are involved in maintaining fields, seeding cover crops and keeping tabs on livestock. Then, the class broke into groups, with some learning how to program a drone to fly prescribed flight patterns while others navigated a small robotic vehicle throughout the room. There was also a miniature field display with “livestock” and a soil moisture demonstration.

“It sounds like a million mosquitos!” one of the kids said of the drones flying, and sometimes crashing, around the room.

Photo of a child and miniature demonstration cows.
I-Sci explorers learned how robots can help manage livestock.

NCSA is one of five groups involved in the I-Sci Explorers program. I-Sci Explorers is a collaboration between a number of units on campus, including NCSA, Beckman Institute, Cancer Center at Illinois, Center for Social and Behavioral Science (CSBS), and Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE), and works with researchers to translate their research into educational materials, activities and curricula for students of all ages.

In addition to the digital agriculture class, there were two other NCSA-inspired sessions this year for I-Sci Explorers: the Advanced Visualization Laboratory presented on coordinate planes and how computers use numbers to create pictures, and senior research scientist T. Andrew Manning led an interactive supercomputing activity that introduced computing concepts using physical activities and arts and crafts.

Tucker stressed that sessions like these offer younger students an opportunity to explore future careers and interests. “We’re inspiring these young students to start thinking about it. In digital agriculture, there are a lot of career opportunities out there.”


The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing, expertise and advanced digital resources for the nation’s science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students and collaborators from around the globe use innovative resources to address research challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been assisting many of the world’s industry giants for over 35 years by bringing industry, researchers and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.

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