A Publication of WTVP
Above: The U of I Extension and 4-H Youth Development Program are among the community partners for the 4G STEM Camp, which introduces youth to careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Photo by Anita Wilkinson

4-H empowers youth with the skills needed for home, career and global citizenship.

Each year, the 4-H Youth Development Program reaches more than six million young people around the world. In Illinois, 4-H is empowering and preparing them for success by providing opportunities where all are welcome to learn, practice and demonstrate skills needed for home, career and global citizenship. This is done in ways as diverse as the youth themselves—through clubs, camps, community partnerships and more.

STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) has always been part of the 4-H program, as reflected in the variety of projects in which young people in 4-H can choose to participate, such as rocketry, GPS mapping, art, computer science, drones, public speaking, photography, animal science, nutrition, gardening and community service. The fundamental 4-H principle of “learn by doing” encourages youth to experiment, innovate and think independently. They are encouraged to be problem solvers in the world around them.

4-H Clubs
The DaVinci Coders 4-H Club is one example of youth engaging as problem solvers. Club leader Doug Bergeron explains that it started with the goal of collaborating with a “customer” in the community with a need for a new or improved process, tool, system or product. Club members then learned the engineering process through a real-life situation, while also making a positive impact in the community. The DaVinci Coders created proposals for audio/visual upgrades at Dickson Mounds Museum, as well as energy-efficient lighting at the Havana Fire Department.

In addition to 4-H club opportunities, the University of Illinois Extension offers several 4-H STEAM-focused events and camps, in collaboration with many other organizations and partners.

4G STEM Camp
For the past five summers, local middle-school girls have had the opportunity to participate in the 4G STEM Camp (Girls + Games + Gadgets = Genius). Held at Bradley University each year, one of the camp’s main goals is to introduce girls to careers in the STEM fields. Participants spend four days doing site visits at local businesses such as the Jump Simulation Center, Advanced Medical Transport, CSE Software, Caterpillar, ONEFIRE, Farnsworth Group, UnityPoint Health – Methodist, National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, AutonomouStuff, Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab, University of Illinois Springfield’s Therkildsen Field Station at Emiquon, and The Nature Conservancy in Illinois. Of the girls surveyed last year, 88 percent stated 4G STEM camp had introduced them to new career possibilities.

An additional goal of the 4G STEM camp is to inspire girls to stay engaged in STEM activities. In 2017, a follow-up survey was conducted with the previous three years of participants. We learned that many of the girls did continue to participate in STEM activities, including programs at the Riverfront Museum, school science fairs, FIRST Robotics, Code Girls and STEM events at their schools.

STEM Academy
Since 2016, Pearl Technology, Richwoods Township, Caterpillar and the University of Illinois Extension have teamed up to offer a weeklong STEM Academy for middle-school youth. It has two main goals: to increase youth’s knowledge and skills in a specific STEM area, and to expose youth to careers in the STEM field. In all three years, participants were involved in an intensive technology project and heard from local industry leaders, Bradley University faculty and other community partners about careers related to the field being addressed.

Evaluations from the students showed an increased awareness of STEM careers, as well as increased learning related to STEM skills. In 2018, 96 percent of participants reported learning more about science, technology, engineering and math, while 92 percent reported being able to solve problems using STEM tools and ideas.  

4-H also strives to support the STEAM work being done by other organizations in the community. The U of I Extension, for instance, has been instrumental in convening dozens of local entities to participate in strategic planning to better unify STEAM efforts in the region.

GEMS Workshops
In another recent example of this effort, 4-H staff led a session of Girls Excelling in Math and Science (GEMS), focusing on computer science. GEMS is an extracurricular group offered by the American Association of University Women and Morton Public Library that engages middle-school girls in science. During this session, participants received hands-on practice using block-based computer coding and explored new worlds through virtual reality goggles.

After the session, 25 percent of participants indicated a greater interest in pursuing a computer science career. Moreover, 50 percent revealed an increased confidence in their ability to learn more on their own, while 83 percent showed a more comprehensive understanding of computer science and virtual reality. With the help of 4-H, these young women will blaze trails through the technological world. iBi