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Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

Where Science Meets Society

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For many people, the word “pollen” evokes only the idea of a springtime allergenic nuisance.  For one group of middle school girls, though, pollen is now a symbol of summertime fun and learning.  Twenty-six girls from around East Central Illinois came to participate in Pollen Power!, a week-long science day camp hosted July 7-11 by the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.

Campers from the second year of Pollen Power! gather in front of the Institute for Genomic Biology.
Campers from the second year of Pollen Power! gather in front of the Institute for Genomic Biology.

Campers investigated the up-close structure and function of pollen, and discovered connections between the biology of pollen and larger ideas:  how plants grow and reproduce, the environmental impacts of climate change, and the importance of pollinating insects and vertebrates.

Thirteen-year old camper Anisha Gubba of Champaign was impressed with the range of the camp’s content.  “We don't only learn about pollen,” she said.  “We learned about other things too, and with a lot of hands-on activities.”

The camp was designed to give girls a kaleidoscopic picture of what it means to be a plant biologist: activities included using the IGB Core Facilities’ high-powered microscopes, designing and printing 3D pollen grains at the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab, learning to identify different types of pollen and to pollinate corn, planning and recording a climate newscast with green screen technology, and hearing guest talks from IGB researchers on the science of pollen and the crucial role that women play in STEM fields.

“We hope the campers will come away from the week excited by the science and technology that they used, as well as with an appreciation for the importance of pollen and pollination in our world,” said plant biologist Lisa Ainsworth, a member of the Genomic Ecology of Global Change (GEGC) research theme at IGB and co-organizer of the camp.  “That's the aim—to keep girls interested in science and to show them that it's accessible and exciting.”

Campers also explored pollination biology through tours of campus highlights, visiting SoyFACE, a state-of-the-art field research facility; the Pollinitarium, a museum devoted to pollinating insects, birds, and other animals; and Blue Waters, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.

Field trips for the camp included an excursion to SoyFACE, the Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment facility located on the South Farms.
Field trips for the camp included an excursion to SoyFACE, the Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment facility located on the South Farms.

The girls also completed a campus photo scavenger hunt that led them to other important science-related landmarks.  “I liked going to the Pollinitarium and all that fun stuff, because everybody really enjoyed that part,” said Taylor Buesing, who commuted from Villa Grove each day for her second year of participation in the camp.

A major theme of the camp was the impact of climate change on both crop plants and natural flora.  Camper Ana Rosu of Champaign was pleasantly surprised by the breadth of science represented in the camp.  “I wasn't expecting to learn about climate and weather,” she said.  Plant biologist and camp co-organizer Andrew Leakey, also a member of the GEGC theme, emphasized the success of this aspect of the camp; “it was inspiring to see how engaged and able the girls were to discuss and tackle the challenge of global climate change for food security,” he said.

This was the second year that Pollen Power! has been offered; it is funded in part by the National Science Foundation.  The camp was also co-organized by IGB Core Facilities Director Glenn Fried, with assistance from other IGB members.  “We want to thank all the people involved in running the camp including IGB Core Facilities; Outreach, IT, and Facilities groups; and graduate student counselors,” said Leakey.  Planning is already underway for next year’s camp, which will take place July 13-17, 2015.  Registration for next year’s camp will open in spring 2015.

For more information about the camp, or to be added to a mailing list for related announcements, please contact IGB at pollenpower@igb.illinois.edu.

Associated Themes
Genomic Ecology of Global Change
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Written By
Claudia Lutz.
Date Published
Photos By
Kathryn Faith and Kathryn Metcalf.