Illinois professor brings science to life with popcorn

Illinois professor brings science to life with popcorn
Illinois professor brings science to life with popcorn

URBANA, Ill. – In Kirsten Wyatt’s agriculture science classroom in Paxton, an unusual piece of equipment helps high school students learn genomics. Not a microscope or a PCR machine, but a popcorn popper.

Wyatt’s students learn popomics – popcorn genomics – from Tony Studer, associate professor and popcorn breeder in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois. The lessons, which involve popping Studer’s specialty orange and blue kernels and observing attributes of the popped corn, make concepts of genomics and breeding much more memorable than standard lectures.

“From a teaching standpoint, anytime we can start making connections with objects that students see or use on a daily basis, or at least have some background knowledge of, it’s always good,” Wyatt says.

Studer sends packets of popcorn kernels from his breeding trials to the high school, then Zooms into the classroom to explain foundations of genomics before asking students to fire up the poppers.

“Because of COVID, I had to get better about hands-on activities because Zoom sessions aren't super captivating,” Studer says.

For example, Studer has students shuffle decks of cards to illustrate genetic recombination.

“Pulling cards from a deck at random shows how the slightest change can make a big difference,” says Kailyn, a sophomore at Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School and member of Wyatt’s class.

But the students aren’t the only ones learning. As soon as the popping begins, Studer starts analyzing the students’ data to guide his research. 

“The students collect data on the popcorn I send them, and I make breeding decisions on their observations. The students really enjoy that because it's not just doing a standard lab exercise a thousand other people have done before them. They're popping corn no one’s popped before. And I can make actual scientific decisions off their information,” Studer says.

Students take notes and measurements on everything from kernel type, color, volume of popped vs. unpopped kernels, popped shape, and more.

“I give them 200-kernel sets, and they score a bunch of different variables along with any notes they might feel are important,” Studer says. “If they're really into it, I watch them fly through the notes column. They're telling me everything. When I start to see that, it's super helpful, and makes the quality of the data better.”

The collaboration with Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School is an outgrowth of Studer’s Illinois Popcorn Outreach Program (I-POP). When he started at U of I in 2015, Studer knew he wanted to connect audiences with agriculture in a way almost everyone could relate to. Popcorn was the obvious answer.

He developed his curriculum initially for two summer programs in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES): Discovering STEM in ACES and ACES Family Academies. When a student from Family Academies enrolled at U of I and started working in his lab, Studer knew he was onto something. 

I-POP made the leap into schools after another one of Studer’s students graduated and became a teacher at Paxton High School. Now, Studer wants to expand the curriculum throughout the state and beyond.  

“I have been in contact with some Extension STEM Educators to formalize some of the curriculum around the Next Generation Science Standards to see if we can really make a module that can go out widely,” he says. “We’ll tie it to those key curriculum points to reinforce what the students are learning in a fun way.”

Ultimately, the goal is to connect the next generation with agriculture and potential careers in the field.

“I think having outside scientists like Dr. Studer coming in helps students realize they might be interested in science careers in the future. Making those networking connections has been really beneficial. If we can continue the trend in agriculture, I think is going to be really awesome to see,” Wyatt says.

High school students interested in related programs can visit the Crop Sciences future students page or the ACES future students page.