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Children ignored the calls of peacocks Saturday, instead entranced by rolling light-up robots. 

A science-based education event at ZooMontana gave kids a chance to see the roots of careers in scientific fields, from owl pellets shown off by Fish, Wildlife and Parks to sea glass on display from SCRaP, a recycling-driven makers space. 

Laura Ponce, who finished second grade this spring, was drawn to the robots — literally. She was able to use software on an iPad used to steer the spheres to program the rolling ball to spell out her name. 

For Ponce, the ball still was just "a robot thing." But City College computer systems technology instructor Bruce Brumley uses them as a foot in the door. 

The youngest kids simply use the program's directional feature, similar to a joystick, to control where the balls move. But high schoolers can actually code instructions for the robots to carry out, a significant step toward work they could do on the job some day. 

"You just kind of get them started and build off those interests," Brumley said. 

The event was organized by STEM Billings, a coalition of local businesses and non-profits. The group focuses on bringing industry professionals into play-based activities. 

"We build the relevance into those things," said ExxonMobil Billings refinery spokesman Dan Carter. 

Karen Baumgart, who runs Billings Works, a business-driven workforce advocacy group, said that it's important to plant seeds about careers early. 

"We have been looking at early exposure as a big thing," she said. 

Perhaps there's a seed planted with Ponce. But Saturday, she had a more simple explanation for why she enjoyed the round-ball robots. 

"It was really fun," she said.  

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.