December 11, 2017
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From potatoes to robotics, 4-H aims to meet children where their needs are

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff
Laura Wilson | BDN
Laura Wilson | BDN
Students at Alton Elementary School work with a UMaine STEM Ambassador on an engineering project.

With the start of school comes the dwindling of Maine’s plethora of agricultural fairs, which have kept the members of 4-H’s traditional livestock clubs busy all summer long as they proudly displayed the animals they spent the previous year raising.

These clubs, which are organized regionally by 4-H’s county-based offices and cover a variety of separate topics from raising dairy animals to successful garden planning, have been a pillar of 4-H nationally and locally since the organization was formed over a century ago. In Maine alone, there are about 300 of these clubs.

The children in these clubs will be soon starting their animal and agricultural projects anew, either continuing to raise the same type of animal or taking up a new project in a different club offered by 4-H.

But around this time of year, the state’s 4-H program is also regrouping with community partners and planning for the school year to provide learning materials and support to schools and other community organizations to help bring science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to Maine youth.

“Most people know of 4-H because of our 4-H clubs and maybe things they see at the fair,” Lisa Phelps, Maine’s 4-H Program Administrator said. “But you might not think of 4-H as doing some things with robotics or computer coding or things such as that.”

Maine’s first 4-H clubs were formed in 1913 in Scarborough, centered around the topic of Maine’s most well known crop ― the potato. 4-H is a national program that is facilitated through the United States Department of Agriculture program Cooperative Extension. In each state, Cooperative Extension is run through a public land grant university. In Maine, Cooperative Extension is a part of the University of Maine system.

Since its founding, 4-H has sought to enrich the lives of children through hands on learning experiences that not only inform them on a topic but give them the life skills they will need as adults, according to Phelps.

With the organization’s agricultural roots that involved animal and earth science education, Phelps said STEM has always been at the heart of 4-H programming. However, as technology advances and the need for students to be proficient in STEM studies continues to rise, 4-H is working to increase the reach its STEM education programs have.

“Our biggest focus right now is STEM and promoting STEM education,” Phelps said.

Expanding the STEM education offerings is how the organization is keeping “up with the times,” Phelps said. While the traditional 4-H clubs still play a critical role in the organization, and always will, 4-H staff views the expansion of STEM program as a way to continually meet children where their needs are.

“We’re looking to increase [the number] of people who have those STEM literacy skills and are looking to go into some sort of a STEM career in the future,” Laura Wilson, a 4-H STEM Ambassador program coordinator for UMaine, said. “It’s just another way of meeting the youth where they are.”

Last year 4-H programs reached 28,000 Maine children, according to Phelps, with only 3,000 of those being through involvement with traditional 4-H clubs such as dairy or steer. The remaining children participated in other programs offered by 4-H, including their learning centers and camps in the Midcoast and at Bryant Pond.

By being an extension of the University of Maine System, 4-H is also able to tap into the opportunities the research and STEM-heavy university offers, using them for educational youth programming.

Through a 4-H program offering called Follow A Researcher, a graduate student conducting research is paired up with local classrooms or after school programs and shares their research gathering process with the children. In this way, 4-H acts as a support role for community partners like schools, libraries or after-school programs, providing them with STEM programming and materials they might not otherwise be able to get. 4-H offers individual STEM toolkits, which are available to teachers, youth development program organizers or simply volunteers. The toolkits provide the lesson plans and materials necessary for hands on STEM-centric projects.

A growing program offered by 4-H is its STEM Ambassador program, which partners with University of Maine System students across the state who then go into regional school systems to conduct STEM lessons in classrooms or after-school programs. Wilson, who coordinates the STEM Ambassador program for the University of Maine and the University of Maine at Augusta, said she’s seen this program grow over the past four years.

“Every year I have more and more requests to send [college] students to different host site areas, and the kids just love having a college [student] work with them,” Wilson said. “It gives them a really fantastic role model.”

Last year there were 121 STEM ambassadors between the University of Maine System’s seven statewide campuses. The student ambassadors come from a range of different academic disciplines, from education to engineering. The college students are equipped with education instruction and a STEM toolkit before going into the classroom setting, where they primarily work with children in grades three through eighth for about an hour a week, for a minimum of six weeks.

In the greater Bangor area, the STEM Ambassador program has worked with about 15 to 20 host sites since the program began, including schools, libraries and recreation departments, according to Wilson.

At the Fairmount School in Bangor, STEM ambassadors have been working with fourth and fifth-grade students through the school’s after-school program for the past four years, providing weekly enrichment activities centered around STEM lessons. The STEM lessons taught by these ambassadors are meant to build upon the education that students are receiving in the classroom.

“STEM is a huge subject matter for us. We’re trying to make sure that our kids’ test numbers improve. So math, science and engineering, those are important programs for us to include,” said Tiffani Lindsay, program director for Fairmount’s after-school program.

But aside from being educationally beneficial, the kids really enjoy the opportunity to participate in this programming. The STEM lessons provided by the ambassadors are designed to be hands-on and range the STEM spectrum. This year, Lindsay said the STEM ambassador who is coming to Fairmount will be conducting a marine science lesson based around seaweed for one quarter, and an engineering lesson for another quarter. By making the lesson fun and engaging, Lindsay said the kids are more inclined to like the subject matter.

“We want them to be excited about STEM,” Lindsay said. “The fact that these are all hands-on, exciting enrichments, [the students are] not going to come to the program after being in school all day and sit at a desk being quiet. They’re going to be out of their seat touching things and building things.”

While engineering or marine biology might not have been among the original clubs 4-H envisioned having when the organization was founded over a century ago, the ethos is the same: giving kids the skills they need to succeed in the world in which they live.

“4-H has always been about teaching kids life skills,” Phelps said. “Now those skills are going to be valuable whether you’re learning how to take care of an animal, or whether you’re learning to build a robot.”

 


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