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Knowledge is magic

Tuesday, July 3, 2018
Photo of Illini Summer Academies group

“How many have seen magic?”

It seemed an unusual question, especially from someone whose daily life revolves around the very real world of engineering, but to Arijit Banerjee, “engineering is magic.”

“Every day when I come to work, it’s like Disneyland.”

The electrical and computer engineering (ECE) assistant professor spoke to 25 of the 300 Illinois teens visiting the University of Illinois campus as part of 4-H Illini Summer Academies.

Illinois 4-H provides the five-day college experience to help high school teens build relationships with U of I staff as the teens explore college majors and potential careers. This year, 16 campus departments collaborated with U of I Extension 4-H to offer hands-on learning activities. In addition to coursework, the participants stay in dorms, explore campus, and experience many outside activities common to a college student’s life.

Professor Lynford Goddard coordinates the ECE activities in order to show youth the breadth of the department, from basic circuits and optical elements to control theory and power grids. The instructors speak passionately about their teaching and research roles at U of I.

“Our sincere hope is that you come here and replace us,” said Subhonmesh Bose, ECE assistant professor. “All the knowledge we have today will be obsolete when you’re our age.”

Cooperating campus departments have 17 hours with the teens throughout the week. In addition to teaching about their area of study, staff help the teens understand what it is like to be a college student, including helping them find places to eat lunch, showing them how to ride the bus, and spending time on the quad. It is also a time for the departments to recruit students one-on-one.

Illini Summer Academies is a path to the university, said Alvarez Dixon, U of I Extension 4-H youth development specialist. “We know students who got their first introduction to the university during this conference and later enroll as college students.”

“I’ve had students in my college introductory microbiology courses who had been my participants at previous 4-H Illini Summer Academies,” said Melissa Reedy, course instructor in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

Across campus, a similar story is playing out at the veterinary medicine academy, with the help of Brooke.  At 13, Brooke is saving lives every day.

Brooke came to the College of Veterinary Medicine from Brookfield Zoo where her temperament didn’t fit the expectations of the petting zoo. Brookfield’s loss is the college’s gain.

Brooke’s rumen fluids are used by veterinarians to treat ill ruminants, said vet med technician Rachel Scott. As part of their academy experience, the gloved-teens reach through the protected opening to the cow’s four-chambered stomach, feeling each section as they go until they get to the chamber of digested fluids.

Several past Academies participants have returned as vet med students, including 2017 graduate Nicole Thomas who now practices veterinary medicine in southern Illinois and current graduate student Justin Hohlen.

Dennis French, department head at vet med, didn’t miss the opportunity to engage the teens as he demonstrated the finer points of trimming hooves. “It may not look glamorous,” French said, “but there is a sense of accomplishment to our work when we see animals who have struggled be able to walk correctly again.”

Other areas of study included applied health sciences and wellness, human development and family studies, aerospace engineering, dance and theater fashion, agricultural communications, animal sciences, anthropology, animal nutrition and pet food manufacturing, game design and digital art, beekeeping, and plant biology.

Caleb Williamson of Peoria attended the computer science academy last year and returned this year in the electrical and computer engineering academy as he determines his college goals.

Maria Lagoy says the companion animal sessions helps her be more knowledgeable about taking care of her own pets.

Jake Warren of McLean County doesn’t currently own beehives, but that didn’t stop him from enrolling in the beekeeping academy offered by the entomology department and held at U of I’s pollinatarium. “If you don’t try anything new, you never know if you like it,” Jake said.

In contrast, fellow academy student Max Johnson of Fulton County, has about 60 hives. “Bees are smart,” Max said. “We don’t teach them how to build a hive; it’s all instinctive.”

The Academies participants ranged from eighth to 12th grade. The Illinois 4-H Foundation provides financial support in the forms of scholarship and activity support.