"They're just having fun'

Jul 21, 2023, 09:20 AM
Left to right, Devin Tillmon watches as Lukasz Hardy draws a basketball using the artificial intelligence-powered Quick, Draw! Program at CITL’s Innovation Studio. The students, participants in the Leonhard Summer Youth Program—a Champaign Park District youth program—visited the studio and got to experience emerging tech courtesy of the University of Illinois Office of Public Engagement’s iExplore Illinois Summer Program.

Recently, the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning’s Innovation Studio was brimming with students, which isn’t unusual. What was: most of the students were barely 4 ½-feet tall.

One of them, Oliver Miner, waited as patiently as any 9-year-old could for the brief overview to be over. As soon as it was, he sprinted to one of the gaming computers lining the walls.

“Someone play Among Us with me!” Oliver shouted repeatedly, as he launched the space-themed online video game.

A few minutes into playing it, he asked, “Can I come here tomorrow?”

The students, ages 8 to 12, were participants in the Leonhard Summer Youth Program (SYP), a Champaign Park District youth program. Their visit to the Innovation Studio—one of CITL’s Innovation Spaces—was organized through the University of Illinois Office of Public Engagement’s iExplore Illinois Summer Program.

iExplore Illinois partners with various campus units to provide unique, interactive experiences for K-12 students from the Champaign and Urbana communities. The students—and sometimes their families and K-12 staff—get to visit places like CITL, the Illinois Library,
Jamie Nelson, CITL’s Associate Director of Educational Innovation, gives 8- to 12-year-olds in the Leonhard Summer Youth Program an overiew of laser cutting, VR, AI, robots, and other emerging tech that they could try out during their visit to the Innovation Studio.

College of Veterinary Medicine, Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, Beckman Institute, and the Abbott Power Plant for an up-close look at the research, education, and activities that are taking place.

The university program fits perfectly with the park district’s goals of adding more STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) activities—and providing more experiences on campus for the students.

Left to right, Oliver Miner, 9, and Braden Sebens, 8, hold lithophanes up to the light, so they can see the images that were made using a 3D printer.

“The kids are excited to be here,” said Ally Bagwell, Assistant Director with the Leonhard SYP. “Many of the kids say, ‘My mom works here’ or ‘My dad’s a student here.’

“But this lets them see more of what goes on. We want to spark their interest in education … and going to college, and it is. Many of them are like, ‘I want to go to school here.’”

On their visit to the Innovation Studio, the students were welcomed by Jamie Nelson, CITL’s Associate Director of Educational Innovation. Nelson introduced them to and demonstrated some of the emerging technologies that instructors, students, Registered Student Organizations, and community members can try out – mostly for free. They include VR, laser cutting, 3D printing, drones, robots, and much more.

iExplorePicture3 iExplorePicture4
Left, Adayah Washington, 9, watches the laser cutter etch a frog design onto a disc, which will be made into a keychain. Right, Nasir Hughes, 8, plays Beat Saber, an online VR game.


“How many of you know what AI stands for?” Nelson quizzed the group.

A few students raised their hands.

He then demonstrated Google’s artificial intelligence-powered Quick, Draw! Game, which challenges players to draw an object or idea. Then the game “guesses” what the doodle is.

“Then there’s Adobe Firefly,” Nelson continued, showing students how users type in words and phrases to generate stunning images.

When he typed in “frog” and “eating ice cream,” students oohed and aahed when a series frog caricatures indulging in vibrant-colored cones, sundaes, and other frozen concoctions appeared on the screen.

Kendall Curry, 9, uses voice commands to move a robot around the Innovation Studio.

Then Nelson let students do what they’d been eager to do all along – try the technology for themselves. Like Oliver, many headed to a PC to play an online video game or try VR. Across the room, Robert Baird—Senior Associate Director at CITL, known as “the laser master” that day—helped students use the laser cutter to make a keychain.

“Bomb!” 9-year-old Kendall Curry said of his keychain, featuring Iggy from Super Mario Bros.

Curry also enjoyed testing his rhythmic skills playing the Beat Saber VR game and using voice commands to move a robot around the room.

Nelson said it’s great to expose students to emerging technology at a young age, and the students, who have grown up with technology, aren’t afraid of it. Instead, they’re curious and excited to try it out.

Nelson said using the various high-tech tools teaches the students to be innovative and creative, problem solve, and find solutions on their own or as a team.

But to them, "they’re just having fun,” he said.

Want to learn more about emerging technologies and how you can use them in your teaching and learning? Learn more about the Innovation Studio or contact us to schedule a visit.