Open house draws crowds to UI ag sites

URBANA - It didn't take area elementary school students long to get into the swing of things at the erosion demonstration Friday.
Doug Peterson handed out ?rain bottles,? and they generously squirted water on a miniature settlement made out of Jurassic Park figures and other toy models Peterson constructed for the University of Illinois' ACES Open House this weekend at the Plant Sciences Laboratory, the Stock Pavilion, the Agricultural Engineering Sciences Building and other locations.
Some youngsters ended up squirting each other, but no one minded because the water was doing what it was supposed to do: washing soil, pseudo pesticides and even cocoa standing in for dinosaur dung - dinosaurs are pets in that fictitious community - into a cloudy basin that represented a lake or stream.
?We want youngsters to realize that whatever they put on the ground will end up in storm sewers,? Peterson said. ?And they take it on to a lake or stream. It's all part of the Secret Agent Worms' City of Ooze.?
The worms - advertised as ?the few, the squirmy, the secret agent worms? - are part of information about environmental education prepared and distributed by the UI Extension to help teachers get the word out in their classrooms. Peterson's demonstration was a popular stop at the plant sciences laboratory, where the show continues today.
Nearby, new Champaign County Extension farm business management educator Steve Ayers, dressed like a giant mosquito, greeted students and told them about the West Nile virus.
?The 4-H kids are helping raise awareness of the problem,? Ayers said.
Kirsten Slaughter, a member of the Dreamcatcher's 4-H club based in Urbana, handed out literature.
?It's dangerous,? she said of the mosquito-borne virus that killed more people in Illinois last year than in any other state. ?We're trying to help. We want people to keep buckets upside down because water will attract mosquitos.?
Unity East Elementary School students checked out the erosion and mosquito attractions, and they found other subjects of interest.
?Worms are fun ... and maggots,? said first-grader Brandon Davis, clutching a tub containing an earthworm he had picked up at a nearby display.
?They race maggots over there!? said teachers' aide and parent Lori Craddock. ?The children are learning how things grow here. And how things work.?
?We stay around the plant sciences laboratory or the Stock Pavilion because they like the bugs and worms and milking the cows,? said teacher Nancy Fletcher, who took 21 first-grade students and five parents to the open house.
?Most of these kids come from rural homes, but they never see anything but corn and beans,? Fletcher said. ?They never see the animals. We used to hatch chickens in the classroom, but it's easier to come here. ?
Amy Chernowsky took 13 Heritage High School students in her agricultural sciences class to the event for very specific reasons.
?I want them to learn about opportunities in agriculture and how diverse they are,? Chernowsky said. ?And I'm picking up ideas for the classroom. Next year, I'm teaching an environmental sciences class, and I like the earthworm display.?
Laurel Sperry, a third-grade teacher in Gibson City Melvin Sibley schools, said the open house helps make classroom lessons concrete to the youngsters she teaches.
?We do a lot of work in natural resources, and this shows how to reuse, recycle, save and conserve,? Sperry said. ?It fits into our curriculum, and they'll remember these real explorations.?
In addition to the take-home worms, students, including Stephanie Halbig, showed visitors how to plant green beans, and each young farmer took home a styrofoam cup with two planted beans in it.
Sinee Kopsombut and Kevin Donnelly, members of the UI's new Hands On Herb Society, offered open house visitors other gardening options, for a small price. They sold geraniums that smell like orange or lemon or peppermint and other herbs.
They also sold soap made by members of the club.
?We buy the glycerine and melt it down and add essential oils,? Kopsombut said. ?We grow plants and we make soap and candles and we also make food with herbs.?
Donnelly, who is club president, said members include students and faculty members from several different disciplines.
?They're people who want to do experiments themselves,? he said.

You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at acook@news-gazette.com

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