Outreach to Future Scientists and Engineers

by Dr. Kervin Evans, USDA National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research
Photos courtesy of Al Probyn, Mardell Schaer and Rick Haig

Outreach activities at NCAUR touch kids at every stage of their educational careers.

Above: Student researchers with mentor Dr. Martha Vaughan, at right, during a rotation in her lab

The researchers at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR, or Peoria’s Ag Lab) focus on solving problems and creating opportunities for agricultural producers. We work every day to develop technologies that ensure a safe and secure food supply, advance the rural economy, and protect the environment. In addition to our research, there is another important side of our work: outreach to future scientists and engineers in communities across Illinois by promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) among students.

From K Through 12
Our STEM outreach covers students from kindergarten through graduate school—as well as more mature learners through a partnership with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. For younger children (K-5), our scientists typically visit the school to perform science demonstrations with general themes related to our R&D projects. For sixth, seventh and eighth graders, we typically host tours in our labs, including our historical library, as well as STEM camps. Schools like Blessed Sacrament Catholic School and Quest Charter Academy Middle School, as well as groups like the Greater Peoria Family YMCA’s Teen REACH program and Manual Academy’s robotics team, have sent students to tour our facilities and speak with our scientific staff about careers.

High school students experience the greatest variety of our outreach efforts, spending time with Ag Lab scientists by job shadowing or volunteering in the research lab. In addition, we provide tours of our facilities, opportunities to participate in a daylong STEM camp, school visits with our scientists, and online webinars. Students from Illini Bluffs High School have toured our facility and interacted with scientist about STEM careers; Washington Community High School and Galesburg High School students have had our scientists visit their classes to discuss scientific research and a typical workday at NCAUR. They also participated in an online forum/webinar hosted by Dee-Mack High School to answer student questions about research and scientific careers.

STEM Camps, Collaborations and More
The Ag Lab’s two largest STEM outreach efforts are STEM camps and the Student Researcher Day program. STEM camps are either half-day (mini) or full-day sessions, where students from local middle schools have the opportunity to learn basic laboratory procedures like measuring and pipetting, observations, and scientific record keeping. The Student Researcher Day program gives high school juniors or seniors the opportunity to spend the day rotating among three different labs, working directly alongside scientists to gain a better understanding of how researchers solve problems in agriculture.


Through the Student Researcher Day program, high school students gain experience with some of the same research techniques used daily by career researchers at the lab.

Additional STEM outreach activities include collaborations with a wide range of groups. In conjunction with Heartland Community College, our scientists spoke to approximately 60 fifth graders about science and related careers. In partnership with the Peoria Riverfront Museum, we helped conduct a bi-annual Educator’s Open House, an opportunity to learn about resources and opportunities available to area students and teachers, and “Science Rocks,” an annual activity where kids and parents learn about science through hands-on demonstrations. Discussions are underway with teachers from Quest Charter Academy to determine pathways to future partnerships. Our scientific staff has also assisted in judging a variety of local competitions, such as the Central Illinois Regional FIRST Robotics Competition and various scientific poster competitions.

As you can see, the outreach activities at NCAUR touch kids at every stage of their educational career. We work hard to inspire young scientists at any stage of life. It is our greatest hope to spark the next generation of scientists—especially for agricultural R&D—through the promotion of STEM in every possible way. iBi

Dr. Kervin Evans chairs the Outreach Committee at NCAUR. For more information about outreach activities or to schedule a tour, email kervin.evans@ars.usda.gov.

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