(Eds Note: This is one of a series of stories highlighting the programs of the WVU Extension Service in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act creating the Cooperative Extension Service. WVU, which is leading the way in creating a modern Extension Service, is sponsoring a two-day symposium Sept. 24-25 entitled Century Beyond the Campus: Past, Present, and Future of Extension.)
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in the Coopers Rock State Forest, and 21 excited teen leaders from the Ohio and Brooke County 4-H clubs are gathered in the shadows of mighty oak trees, donning helmets and harnesses, filled with anticipation of the science adventure they are about to experience.
Outdoor adventure … science lesson … in a 4-H club? Yes.
These teens are on a field trip to experience the WVU Canopy Tour, in which participants ride four zip lines, scale an aerial bridge and rappel down giant oak trees before exiting the Adventure WV course. The experience blends sport, science and high spirits with discussions of Newton’s laws of motion, gravitational acceleration, friction, and velocity.
The zip line canopy tour is just one of many experiential education opportunities that have become a foundation of the West Virginia University Extension Service statewide 4-H program. And while an outdoor canopy tour may not be associated with the traditional view of 4-H and Extension, emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math disciplines has become more the norm in the 4-H world than the exception. The variety of programs now available statewide to 4-H youths reflect the changing times and a concerted effort to help kids discover and pursue their passion.
The 4-H STEM programs are one example of a 21st Century Extension Service that fulfills the vision of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 which established the U.S. Cooperative Extension System, a partnership of the Department of Agriculture, land-grant colleges, and state and local governments.
WVU is celebrating the Act’s centennial, and with a two-day symposium Sept. 24-25, entitled Century Beyond the Campus: Past, Present, and Future of Extension. The symposium highlights not only how WVU has structured modern Extension service, but how Extension extends educational, social and economic benefits of higher education beyond the campus and into communities across the state.
"Science has always been a part of 4-H, and we are working to create new opportunities for learning and discovery," said WVU Extension's STEM Specialist Jen Robertson-Honecker.
“Science has always been a part of 4-H, and we are working to create new opportunities for learning and discovery,” said WVU Extension’s STEM Specialist Jen Robertson-Honecker, one of several faculty members leading the charge to transform that traditional view.
“Our hope is to spark a young person’s interest in science or math at camp or in a club, which will then continue into college and lead to science and math majors and career paths,” she said.
More than 80,000 West Virginia youths are involved in some aspect of the statewide WVU Extension 4-H youth development program. In the summer of 2014, more than 25,000 of those kids participated in a STEM activity while at 4-H camp – where “our 4-H faculty agents are experts in making learning fun,” Robertston-Honecker said.
Some of the opportunities for fun while learning now include underwater robotics competitions; chemistry-related activities, such as measuring pH and dissolved oxygen content in local streams; solar-powered cars; and even flying quadcopter drones.
“Our activities are relevant to many popular, emerging technology areas like ‘green’ technologies and innovative engineering design. At the same time, we continue to work with youths who have a strong focus on farming, animal and veterinary science, plant science and gardening,” she said.
"For many people, 4-H is a program associated with farming interests," said Debbie McDonald, WVU Extension associate professor and state leader of 4-H. "While we are fans of the farm, we also provide programs that meet the needs and interests of urban and suburban kids, too."
With some advance instruction from Robertson-Honecker and instructors from Adventure WV and WVU’s Science Behind the Sport program, the 4-H participants in the canopy tour used a few basic equations to predict their top speed on the zip line before riding it.
Zip lines and STEM experiments are part of the reason West Virginia is nationally known for delivering a progressive 4-H program.
“For many people, 4-H is a program associated with farming interests,” said Debbie McDonald, WVU Extension associate professor and state leader of 4-H. “While we are fans of the farm, we also provide programs that meet the needs and interests of urban and suburban kids, too.”
McDonald leads a group of more than 50 WVU Extension faculty and staff who deliver 4-H programs in every county in the state. The results of the program are proven.
“A recent Tuft’s University research study found that 4-H’ers achieve higher grades in school, are more likely to attend college, and are more likely than their peers to positively contribute to communities,” said McDonald. “I’ve seen firsthand how 4-H transforms lives. On a daily basis, I speak with a college student or an adult who can immediately attribute his or her personal success to involvement in 4-H.”
In West Virginia, young people have many opportunities to participate in 4-H. Clubs and programs are designed around interests and unique needs of young people. All programs emphasize wise decision-making and responsible leadership. Special initiatives are also popular, including programs for children of military families and those with a special focus on finances, literacy, heritage, health and safety.
“We’re an organization known and trusted for our traditional values as well as our progressive approaches to problem-solving,” said WVU Extension’s Interim Director, Steve Bonanno. “Our programs are as unique as the people and communities we serve. While we maintain a strong, traditional 4-H club program in the state, our 4-H program also includes Energy Express, a literacy and nutrition program; a statewide after-school program; and international exchange and citizenship programs for youth.
“We’ve been in the business of positive youth development for 100 years,” Bonanno said. “Clearly, this is a formula that works – caring adult mentors who help youths make positive decisions, build self-confidence, learn leadership and life skills, and improve their communities.”
As the excited screams and exclamations filter down from treetop zip line, it’s easy to see how science can be fun.
“Finding new and exciting ways to engage kids is one of the things we do best,” said Robertson-Honecker. “We are the experts in making learning fun.”
Story by Ann Bailey Berry
WVU Extension Service
CONTACT: Ann Bailey Berry; WVU Extension Service
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