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h3>4-Hers come out on top at FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship

Two 4-H teams placed first and second in the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship recently. (Photo courtesy of National 4-H.)

Every year, 400 of the best youth teams in robotics come together to compete in a weekend filled with robotics sporting events for the FIRST Championships. The competition brings together talented teams from around the world to compete for the national championship title. This year’s competition welcomed 17 4-H robotics teams, with two of these 4-H teams taking home top honors.

Organized and hosted by For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, or FIRST, the competition engages competitors in the application of science and technology through games and sports. This year, teams were introduced to Ariel Assist. The game consisted of two alliances (three teams each), using three robots, to work to score balls into goals during two and a half minute matches.

This is the fifth year that National 4-H Council has partnered with FIRST Robotics, and since the beginning, we have always had a reason to celebrate 4-H teams in the championship.

“Since our first year 69 teams have advanced to the championship competition with the support of our dedicated volunteers, coaches, and mentors, and our sponsors Lockheed Martin and JCPenney,” said Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO, National 4-H Council.

We have even more to celebrate as two 4-H teams placed first and second in the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship. 4-H Techno Clovers (Team 4240) of Accident, Maryland, received the title of FTC World Champions as a part of the Winning Alliance, which also included two teams from Florida and Oregon. Green Machine Team (Team 4318) of Ellicott City, Maryland, took home second place as a part of the Finalist Alliance, which also included two teams from Ohio and Montana. The teams, both of University of Maryland Extension 4-H, worked their way to the top with their respective alliances to bring home the gold and silver in the category.

It is important to note that as custom in FIRST competitions, individual teams work together as alliances to secure a spot in the next round of challenges. This method encourages teamwork among competing groups, while still providing a healthy dose of competitive interactions. Because of this, there is never one winner, allowing multiple teams to experience a victory in their categories.

4-H continues to grow scientists and engineers, and these successes are testament to the powerful STEM learning and Robotics curriculum provided by 4-H.

“Research has shown that 4-Hers are two times more likely to participate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs,” says Sirangelo. “These talented youth who participate in the 4-H Robotics program deserve to be commended for their hard work, creativity and dedication to STEM.”

Fly high with the captain!

The National Corn Growers Association launched KernelQuest, a game for smartphones featuring Captain Cornelius. (Courtesy photo.)

The National Corn Growers Association launched KernelQuest, a game for smartphones featuring beloved character Captain Cornelius. KernelQuest is a game of skill, maneuverability and all-around corniness. Join Captain Cornelius, an “a-maize-ing” superhero in green spandex, as he defies gravity and weaves his way across the Midwest. Just don’t get creamed! Beware the mob of cobs! Set a new high score, challenge friends and learn corny facts along the way.

KernelQuest was developed in response to the overwhelming popularity of the 2014 World of Corn comic book Captain Cornelius: Corn Day Celebration. This piece, which was released earlier this spring in Farm Futures, reintroduces the Captain and takes readers on an exciting and educational journey to explore a variety of topics including biotechnology, ethanol, livestock feed and sustainability. The new video game component will introduce a larger audience to Captain Cornelius and, in spreading his popularity, inspire new audiences to find out more about the world of corn.

KernelQuest is now available for free through Google Play and the iTunes store.



Wild sunflowers carry new traits

This wild sunflower has a wild name--Helianthus annuus. (Photo by Thomas Gulya.)

Wild sunflowers grow in the strangest places—just ask Tom Gulya and Gerald Seiler. They’re Agricultural Research Service scientists who collect the plants’ seeds during trips across the United States and even overseas. Their collections help keep farm-grown sunflowers healthy.

For example, while traveling in Colorado in 2005, they noticed wild sunflowers growing beside a McDonald’s restaurant parking lot. On another trip, in southern California, they found a different species—a vine-like sunflower clinging to the backs of shifting sand dunes.

Gulya and Seiler collect wild sunflowers once or twice a year. They usually end up driving 2,500 to 3,000 miles per trip—much of that on country or back roads.

They prefer to travel in August and September. That’s when the plants’ seeds are fully developed and still attached, rather than having fallen to the ground.

The scientists map the location of each new spot where they collect wild sunflowers, and describe the growing conditions. That way, future collectors will know where to look. However, “you can’t assume the plant will be in the same location in 10 years,” Gulya says.

For example, whorled sunflowers, which grow up to 15 feet high, were first described in Chester County, Tennessee, in 1898. Then the species disappeared until 1994, when scientists found it in Floyd County, Georgia.

So why bother collecting wild sunflowers at all, especially if they may or may not be around for long?

Wild sunflowers are like hidden treasure chests. Instead of gold, though, they carry new traits that can improve commercially grown sunflowers. Sometimes, commercial varieties fall short in fighting off new diseases or insect pests, like the red sunflower seed weevil.

But somewhere, there’s a wild relative that gets attacked all the time and still survives. Scientists can breed that wild sunflower’s defenses into commercial sunflowers so they, too, will survive.

Traits from wild sunflowers can also improve a commercial variety’s survival in poor growing conditions. So, “if we’re looking for drought tolerance, it would make sense to look for sunflower species growing in the desert,” says Gulya.

Most crops grown in North America, including wheat and oranges, were introduced from other countries. But sunflowers are U.S. natives.

Collecting wild sunflowers doesn’t just help improve commercial varieties; it also helps preserve wild species whose habitats are threatened by human activity or even by natural disasters, like forest fires.

Not surprisingly, “there are enough areas here off the beaten path to find wild sunflower germplasm,” says Gulya. Germplasm includes seeds, cuttings, and buds.

ARS scientists have been collecting wild sunflowers since around 1976. Today, over 2,100 seed specimens are in storage for safekeeping and future use.

The dollar value of passing traits from wild specimens into commercial sunflowers is as much as $384 million a year. So you could almost say wild sunflowers are worth their weight in gold.

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