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'STEM' Through 4-H?


Many readers are no doubt familiar with the work of 4-H, a 6 million-member-strong youth organization that promotes citizenship and life skills, often with an emphasis on agricultural training. Now that organization is throwing its weight behind a venture of major interest to educators and policymakers: getting more students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called "STEM" education fields.

The nonprofit is organizing a a nationwide science experiment today called "Biofuel Blast," which seeks to show middle school students how cellulose and sugars in plants (like switchgrass and algae) can be made into fuel. The event is part of 4-H National Youth Science Day, an effort the organization began last year to bring more American young people into science careers. The youths taking part around the country will create biofuel, and following the experiment, the 4-H will host discussions about alternative energy in different locations around the country. The development of biofuels is a major economic and political issue in many of the communities where 4-H is popular.

STEM-ed advocates would seem to have reason to be enthusiastic about 4-H's promotion of those subjects. The 4-H organizes a lot of year-round out-of-school programming, which is developed by the nation's 106 land-grant colleges and universities and implemented through 3,100 local cooperative extension offices, according to background provided by the organization. 4-H officials estimate that more than 5 million youths currently take part in the organization's science, engineering, and technology programming in topics such as robotics, rocketry, wind power, GPS mapping, agricultural science, film making, and water quality and conservation. The organization has also set a goal of luring another million youths into science, engineering, and technology programming by 2013, through its "One Million New Scientists, One Million New Ideas" campaign.

As they roll out the new program, 4-H officials are also touting research that they say shows their program's positive impact on students' in- and out-of-school development. A longitudinal study found that young people who take part in 4-H are two times more likely to get better grades than youths who do not; two times more likely to go to college; 40 percent less likely to engage in risky behavior; and more likely to contribute to their families and communities. The study was conducted by researchers at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University.

What impact do you think an organization with the grassroots reach of 4-H—which says it can be found in every county in every state—is likely to have on STEM?


I think if they promote the idea that there is a link between mastery/procedural fluency and understanding in mathematics, and take a stand against the NSF-funded math programs like Investigations in Number, Data, and Space, and Everyday Mathematics, that would go a long way.

The 4-H motto is "Learn by Doing" and that is exactly the way to get kids interested in STEM--get them researching, learning, experimenting and falling in love with science, technology and engineering. With mentoring by the project leader, the mathematics comes along with the hands-on work and inspires the kids to think and do more.

To say there is an emphasis on agricultural training does the program a disservice. Today's 4-H provides enrichment in an individual and group study model in all academic subject areas. I've been a project leader in music, drama and playwriting for three years, while my sons have done projects in vet science, archery, woodworking and attended a week-long STEM camp, free of charge, during the summer. Public speaking, leadership, and community service are built into the program. 4-H is not just for farmers anymore.

Thanks for this bringing this topic to light, Sean!
I had not been involved with 4H until this past year when I was invited to join their Minnesota planning team for the Power of Wind curriculum they are assembling (as you mentioned). What is very impressive about this group is that they have assembled a very knowledgeable team of folks to develop the STEM curriculum and they are actually doing something - as opposed to many other groups that pay lip-service to STEM, but don't really deliver opportunities for students.

The 4H curriculum will actually provide hundreds - probably thousands of students with STEM skills and experiences in engaging ways on topics of value. How many other groups can claim to deliver that?

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