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News Release

Illinois Soil Sleuths ‘Dig In’ to Learn About Soil Health

MANTENO, Ill. – More than 1,300 Illinois youth put their critical thinking skills to the test this summer. Their ideas may just help solve a real-world agriculture challenge through the 2017 4-H Ag Innovators Experience Healthy Soils Carbon Soil Investigation Challenge. 

Through the hands-on program, youth learned about soil health and about how agriculture is reducing its carbon footprint with no-till farming. In groups, they made miniature no-till planters using a robotic ‘bug’ and miscellaneous items like pins, straws, paperclips, beads and more.

“The 2017 4-H Ag Innovators Experience, Healthy Soils CSI, challenges youth to understand the composition of soil and the impact tilling soil has on the entire soil ecosystem,” said Donna Nuger, 4-H Youth Development Educator. “In addition, they are exposed to robotics and engineering as they try to find a working solution.”

Students from around the state participated in more than 15 opportunities, stretching from Elgin to Aurora to Champaign. The Illinois experience kicked off in March and April at two 4-H Robotics Showcases and continued at various workshops, events and camps through the end of July.

They will work in teams to investigate what healthy soil looks like and conduct tests to determine overall soil health. They will also use tiny robots to find a solution on how to keep good soils from going bad. Teams will design, build and test a 1:64 scale no-till planter that disrupts the least amount of soil when planting, minimizes equipment drag and reduces soil compacting. By the end of the activity, youth will understand how properly maintained soil can help reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.

Healthy Soils CSI also promotes teamwork, problem solving and creativity – all are important skills for life now and in the future, said 4-H Teen Science Ambassador Ethan Heidrich, of Oswego, who helped lead the program at multiple locations this summer.

“The program does more than just inform youth about healthy soils, it provides an opportunity for youth to learn about collaboration and how to share and connect ideas. The Ag Innovators Experience was a phenomenal experience to teach…. I was most impressed by the enthusiasm shown and the skills and concepts learned by the attending youth.”

Fellow 4-H Teen Science Ambassadors Xen Briggs of Downers Grove, Julian Heidrich of Oswego, and Olivia Antoine of Barrington traveled to Washington, D.C. this spring to learn the Healthy Soils CSI project, serving as an Illinois Ag Innovators youth leadership team.

Briggs and Antoine have a passion for science and math, and as a 4-H Teen Science Ambassadors, they get to share that with younger youth. Julian Heidrich, who lists engineering and leadership among his main interests, said he “enjoyed learning from and teaching with people from other states during the leadership team event in Washington, D.C. This project is a chance to collaborate, learn and teach with others. All are important experiences.”

The trio came back to teach 11 more 4-H Teen Science Ambassadors. Together, Nuger and this dynamic group of teens helped bring the program to the more than 1,300 youth over the past five months.

Students, both leaders and participants, documented what they learned from the program. Most were surprised to learn about the negative effects of tilling soil, or many others that agriculture and the environment are closely connected.

“I don’t have a lot of opportunities in school to learn about agriculture, so it is interesting to learn about this branch of science,” said Phoebe Harmon of Naperville. “It also is important because young people need to learn our actions have real effects on the environment.”

Nathan Schwatal of West Chicago also felt there was a message for youth. “It is important for young people to learn about growing food and feeding the world because related issues will be large problems when they are adults.”

The Ag Innovators Experience also successfully worked with four Japanese students and their American hosts with the 4-H Exchange Program. They participated through “camptivities” at Camp Shaw-waw-nas-see in Manteno this July.

“The Japanese guests attended camp with the host child from their home stay experience,” said Nuger. “All learned through the experience. Two participants enjoyed the program so much they signed up to do it again the second day it was offered. Both the American and Japanese youth showed growth and shared knowledge with their teams. Even though the Japanese guest Haruki struggled with language, he was able to share design ideas. It was fantastic to see.”

The success of Ag Innovators Experience goes beyond the expected youth participant audience, said Nuger.

“It is the leadership skills that I’ve seen in the 4-H Teen Science Ambassadors. These dynamic teens expanded their skills in teaching, organization and planning with vision. They learned how to adapt to time constraints by pre-packaging kits and developed reusable elements for the project. The leadership team made adaptations to accommodate a wide variety of ages, from the train-the-trainer workshops to summer camps that included youth as young as age 7.”

The 4-H Ag Innovators Experience program is presented by National 4-H Council and Monsanto to help develop critical workforce skills in young people and show that agriculture can be relevant and fun. Students in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio will have the opportunity to participate in the Healthy Soils Challenge throughout the spring and summer.

For more information about 4-H Youth Development programs in Illinois, visit




University of Illinois Extension provides equal opportunities in programs and employment.

Source: Donna Nuger, Extension Educator, 4-H Youth Development (Metro Communities),