College of ACES
College News

Holiday wreaths

Published November 16, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Decorative wreaths are a popular favorite during the holiday season. A holiday wreath adds color, interest, and a festive focal point inside or outside your home.

“A wreath can be made from a variety of fresh greenery,” says Andrew Holsinger, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. “Some of the plant material used for your wreath may even be found in your own landscape.”

When creating a holiday wreath with fresh plant material, remember that gathering the live material is actually pruning the plant, and proper cutting techniques are necessary. Be sure to distribute the cuts evenly around the plant to preserve its natural form and beauty.

“Pines, firs, and cedars hold up well for indoor uses,” Holsinger says. “Just like Christmas trees, these evergreen materials will dry out slowly over time.” A wreath placed outdoors may last for several weeks and those with many broadleaf evergreens actually will last longer if used outdoors. A few nice, needled choices for outdoor wreaths are spruces or hemlock.

Don’t be disappointed if you don’t have the selection of plant material in your landscape, Holsinger says. Typically, many florists and garden centers have adequate supplies, but contact them as early as possible to find the best choices.  A difficult growing season sometimes results in some shortages.

“Caution should be used when decorating with plant materials inside the home,” says Holsinger. “Poisonous berries can be found on yews, mistletoe, holly plants, and many others.”

The leaves of yew are particularly toxic. Keep all these plants out of the reach of children and pets. Never place fresh greenery near heat sources such as heat vents, space heaters, sunny windows, or open flames such as candles and fireplaces.

Proper care of plant material will keep your wreath looking great from the start. Holly branches will need protection from freezing temperatures after cutting, otherwise the leaves and berries may blacken. Use outer tips of branches since they are often the most visually appealing and offer the best uniformity in appearance.

Holsinger also provides some recommendations for the preservation and use of greenery.

“When selecting greenery from your landscape be sure to use sharp cutters and immediately put the cut ends into water until ready to use,” he says.

When preparing the cuttings, keep the greenery out of sunlight. Prepare the cuttings to be consistent lengths to arrange around the frame of the wreath. 

Maintain balance in your wreath by using uniform bundles of plant material as you secure them to the wreath frame. In addition to green materials, use other plant materials to decorate your wreath. These add color and texture. Some popular choices are dried hydrangea blooms, pinecones, or reindeer moss. 

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

New degree in Computer Science plus Crop Sciences melds the worlds of agriculture and data technology

Published November 16, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Technology and data are increasingly integral to agriculture, and the University of Illinois’ Department of Computer Science and College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences have introduced a first-of-its-kind major built on that relationship.

Starting in the fall of 2018, students will be able to enroll in the new CS + Crop Sciences undergraduate program at the university, one of a growing number of CS + X degrees at U of I.

According to German Bollero, professor of biometry and head of the Department of Crop Sciences in the College of ACES, agriculture’s growing reliance on technology is producing vast amounts of data – from molecular genetics, the study of weather and the climate, GIS-based data gathering, and the many applications of drones.

“The generation of huge data sets has expanded the demand for people with the skills to integrate computer science and agriculture,” Bollero said.

The new degree is expected to be in high demand among students, and has the potential for high impact, said Lenny Pitt, the associate head of the Department of Computer Science and its director of Undergraduate Programs.

“When we talk about this partnership, it has an opportunity to really impact the world, in terms of food production, high-tech farming techniques, the environment, and costs and efficiency,” Pitt said.

Agricultural technology companies are taking notice of the new program. “Syngenta located its first Digital Innovation Lab at the Research Park to gain better access to a wealth of student talent and a world-ranked research university. This decision is continually solidified through news of programs such as CS + Crop Science. I'm excited to interact with a new batch of students who seek to bring engineering skills to the burgeoning field of agriculture,” said Brandon Dohman, innovation lead for the Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab at the University of Illinois Research Park.   

CS + Crop Sciences plans to begin with 5 to 10 students in the fall of 2018 before eventually enrolling 60 to 80 students. The deadline to apply for the fall is Dec. 1. Students can apply at

News Writer:

ACES Staff

New method analyzes corn kernel characteristics

Published November 16, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – An ear of corn averages about 800 kernels. A traditional field method to estimate the number of kernels on the ear is to manually count the number of rows and multiply by the number of kernels in one length of the ear. With the help of a new imaging machine developed at the University of Illinois breeders can learn the number of kernels per ear, plus a lot more information than can be manually observed.

“If you take that same ear of corn into a lab, you can take the same approach but use an imaging system to get a more accurate measure of the total number of kernels,” says Tony Grift, lead scientist on the project. “But you can go a lot further than that. By pinning the ear on a spike and turning it automatically, we can present each row individually to a camera. This allows us to determine up to 16 morphological characteristics of each kernel, including kernel area, circumference, and circularity, a measure for how close the kernel shape is to a circle. We can also calculate the center of gravity and the location of the kernel on the ear, in fact we use these to make sure we don’t count kernels more than once.”

The imaging machine itself isn’t fancy. It’s more like a tabletop photography studio. A single halogen light is hung outside, above the box. The box itself is made from high-density polyethylene or HDPE, which is typically used to make cutting boards. This plastic adheres to virtually nothing (which is ideal for cutting boards) including glue, so it was assembled with bolts and fasteners.

Grift says the key is in the lighting. “Having a good camera is one thing, but light is very important. Light has to come from everywhere, so we channel light from the halogen bulb through a thin layer of the same HDPE material, which reflects off the side walls in which the cameras were mounted as well. Using the box is simple: You open the door, put the ear of corn on the spike, close the door, and a motor automatically rotates the ear as many times as needed to capture all rows. The motor and two cameras inside are controlled by a computer program that records the information.”

Grift says he’s been working with U of I maize breeder Martin Bohn since 2002 on perfecting imaging boxes. “We began working with roots, we called the box the Corn Root Imaging Box or CRIB,” Grift says. “Corn roots have an awkward shape which is difficult to capture. But we can calculate the stalk diameter, the root angle, and the fractal dimension, which is a way to describe a root’s complexity.”

He says that at some point, he and his colleague Abdul Momin realized that they could put anything inside the box and decided to experiment with an ear of corn.

Because an ear of corn is a natural object, the variations can make it difficult to image accurately. “It’s easier with ears that have very ‘well-behaved’ rows of kernels,” Grift says. “The rows on some ears of corn begin to spiral a bit, making it difficult to get an accurate reading without duplicating some kernels. Former students Wei Zhao and Yu Zhang made adjustments to allow for missing kernels, dead kernels, or some that were squeezed together or twisted, but overall, the imaging system works well.”

“This is where it gets really interesting,” Grift says. “All of the measurements mean very little to us. I like to joke that we agricultural engineers are just glorified technicians on the project. We just provide the numbers in spread sheets. The spread sheet then goes to Martin Bohn who creates a QTL map—quantitative trait loci map—that associates the particular characteristics of the kernel with the genes that control them.”

Martin Bohn, corn breeder and geneticist in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I and co-author, notes that improved phenotyping methods, like the one this paper focuses on, are critical if we want to leverage genomic information in breeding and genetic research.

“Most plant characteristics that determine the agronomic potential of plants are highly complex,” says Bohn. “For example, a large number of genes, mostly with small effects, contribute to traits farmers are interested in, such as yield, efficient uptake and use of nutrients, tolerance to drought, heat, cold, etc. We can only hope to find these important but small effect genes if we can measure plant traits efficiently and accurately for a large number of plants, hence the term high-throughput phenotyping. The method we report here does not only provide the technology to do exactly this, but it might also be possible to go beyond this. Imagine, being able to determine the nutritional content of each kernel on the cob using our approach. We would love to expand this idea and work with companies to move on from manual, tedious field measurements to smart imaging techniques.”

The study, “Semi-automated, machine vision based maize kernel counting on the ear,” is published in Biosystems Engineering. The research was conducted by Tony Grift, Wei Zhao, Abdul Momin, Yu Zhang and Martin Bohn.

This work has been partially supported by a grant from the College of ACES.

Tony Grift is an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. Wei Zhao is a former MS student, Abdul Momin is a postdoctoral research associate in the Institute for Genomic Biology at U of I, Yu Zhang is a former visiting scholar and Martin Bohn is an associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences.


A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

Published November 16, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can help family members get along even better.

The research is based on the attention restoration theory which describes how interaction with natural environments can reduce mental fatigue and restore attentional functioning. Many studies have supported the theory, but most, if not all, previous studies have only looked at the benefits of spending time in nature on an individual’s attention.

U of I family studies researchers Dina Izenstark and Aaron Ebata believed that if this theory worked for individuals it might also work for families and help to facilitate more positive family interactions and family cohesion. So last year they developed a new theoretical approach to studying the benefits of family-based nature activities.

“Past research shows that in nature individuals’ attention is restored but we wanted to know, what does that mean for family relationships? In our theoretical model we made the case that when an individual’s attention is restored, they are less irritable, have more self-control, and are able to pick up on social cues more easily. Because of all of those dynamics, we believe they should get along better with other family members,” Izenstark explains.

In a new study, Izenstark, now an assistant professor at San José State University, and Ebata, an associate professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at U of I, test their theory by looking at sets of moms and daughters (ages 10-12 years) who were asked to take a walk together in nature and a walk in a mall. The researchers then tested both the mothers’ and daughters’ attention and observed their family interactions after each walk.

The results were clear; a walk in nature increased positive interactions, helping the mothers and daughters get along better. It also restored attention, a significant effect for mothers in the study.

“We know that both moms and daughters experience mental or attentional fatigue. It’s common especially after a full day of concentrating at work or at school,” Izenstark says. “If you think about our everyday environments, not only are you at work, but maybe your cell phone is constantly buzzing, and you’re getting emails. With all the stimuli in our everyday environments, our attention is taxed more than we realize.”

Izenstark adds that in order to relieve some of that mental fatigue, people need to restore their directed attention. “In nature, you can relax and restore your attention which is needed to help you concentrate better. It helps your working memory.”

To test the mothers’ and daughters’ cohesiveness and whether attention was restored, 27 mom/daughter dyads met at a homelike research lab on campus before each walk. For 10 minutes they engaged in attention-fatiguing activities (i.e. solving math problems, word searches) while a recording of loud construction music played in the background. The researchers gave them a “pre-attention” test, and then set them out on a walk—one day to a nature arboretum, and then on another day to a local indoor mall. Each walk was 20 minutes long.

After returning from each walk, the moms and daughters were interviewed separately. They were given a “post-attention” test, and were surveyed about which location they found the most fun, boring, or interesting. They were then videotaped playing a game that required them to work together.

For moms, attention was restored significantly after the nature walk. Interestingly, for daughters, attention was restored after both walks, which Izenstark says may be a result of spending family leisure time with their mother.  

“It was unique that for the daughters walking with moms improved their attention. But for the moms, they benefitted from being in a nature setting. It was interesting to find that difference between the family members.  But when we looked at their subjective reports of what they felt about the two settings, there was no question, moms and daughters both said the nature setting was more fun, relaxing, and interesting.”

The last aspect of the findings was in regards to improved cohesion or togetherness in the mom/daughter pairs. After analyzing the videotaped interactions during the game, the researchers only found an effect for nature; after the nature walk, moms and daughters displayed greater dyadic cohesion, a sense of unity, closeness, and the ability to get along, compared to the indoor walk.

Although the study only focused on mothers and daughters, Izenstark says that the overall aim of the research is to examine different ways in which nature affects family relationships in general.

“First and foremost I hope it encourages families to find ways to get outside together, and to not feel intimidated, thinking, ‘oh, I have to go outside for an hour or make it a big trip.’ Just a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood before or after eating dinner or finding pockets of time to set aside, to reconnect, not only can benefit families in the moment but a little bit after the activity as well.”

The paper, “The effects of the natural environment on attention and family cohesion: An experimental study,” is published in the journal Children, Youth and Environments. Co-authors are Dina Izenstark and Aaron Ebata.

This work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Hatch project # 1007220.

Selecting the perfect Christmas tree

Published November 15, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Many people recall nostalgic memories of selecting a Christmas tree with their families. “When I was growing up in Peoria, Illinois,” says Ron Wolford, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, “our family would cut down a Christmas tree growing on my grandparent’s farm.”

Today, you can purchase trees from garden centers, pop-up lots, big box stores, and Christmas tree farms. Wolford shares the following tips to help you select a fresh tree for your home and keep it looking its best throughout the holiday season.

Before you even head out to buy the tree, pick a spot in your home to place it. Ask yourself a couple of questions: Will the tree be seen from all sides or will some of it be against a wall?

Choose a tree that fits where it will be displayed. For example, if the tree is in front of a large window, then all four sides need to look as good as possible. If the tree is against a wall, a tree with three good sides should be fine. A tree with two good sides would work well in a corner.

“Purchasing a tree from a Christmas tree farm ensures that you will have a fresh tree and the more perfect a tree, the more expensive it will be,” Wolford says.

Pick a spot away from heat sources, such as heaters, fireplaces, TVs, radiators, and air vents. “A dried-out tree is a safety hazard,” he says.

Measure the height and width of the space you have available in the room where the tree will be placed.

“There is nothing worse than bringing a tree indoors only to find it's too tall. Take a tape measure with you to the farm,” Wolford says.

If buying from a retail lot, Wolford recommends going during the day. “Choosing a tree in daylight is a much easier experience than trying to pick out a tree in a dimly lit lot,” he says.

When looking for the freshest tree among the dozens lining the lot, Wolford recommends these telltale signs of a healthy tree:

  • A recently cut tree will have a healthy green appearance with few browning needles.
  • Needles should be flexible and not fall off if you run a branch through your hand.
  • Raise the tree a few inches off the ground and drop it on the butt end. Very few green needles should drop off the tree. It is normal for a few inner brown needles to fall.
  • Make sure the handle or base of the tree is straight and long enough so that it will fit easily into your stand.

“Store your tree in an unheated garage or some other area out of the wind, if you are not putting it up right away,” Wolford recommends. “Make a fresh, one-inch cut on the butt end and place the tree in a bucket of warm water. When you bring the tree indoors, make another fresh one-inch cut and place the tree in a sturdy stand. The water reservoir of the stand should contain one quart of water for every inch of diameter of the trunk.”

Keep the water level above the base of the tree. If the base dries out, resin will form over the cut end and the tree will not be able to absorb water and will dry out quickly.

Commercially prepared mixes, sugar, aspirin, or other additives to the water are not necessary. Research has shown that plain water will keep a tree fresh, Wolford says.

For more information, visit the University of Illinois Extension website “Christmas Trees & More” at

News Source:

Ron Wolford, 773-233-2900

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program (WGGP) Coffee Hour

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Learn more about the research and work of WGGP featured speakers and visit with faculty and graduate students.  Light refreshments will be served.

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