Robotics. Engineering. Forensics. Welcome to today’s 4-H. The 110-year-old youth organization, once focused exclusively on agricultural programming, is now cultivating future scientists as well. Rutgers Cooperative Extension runs 4-H in every New Jersey county, and its 4-H Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) initiative has young thinkers and tinkerers fired up.
Cultivating Future Scientists
On a late summer afternoon, seven youngsters, aged 10 to 13, gathered at the home of Gladys Rios, a volunteer who co-leads the Monmouth County 4-H Robotics Club. The children had just returned from a local senior center where they interviewed seniors about everyday obstacles they face, such as getting medicine from a cabinet.
The youngsters brainstormed solutions and built a miniature proving ground—a Lego-scale senior environment—to assess their ideas to aid the seniors. They were preparing to test their ingenuity, competing in a First Lego League solutions challenge. Cosponsored by Lego, FLL tournaments use robotics to get 9- to 14-year-old students thinking about careers in science and high-tech.
During FLL competitions, the students program autonomous NXT robots and score points on a playing field by addressing such “challenges” as making life easier for a disabled senior or helping people prepare for a natural disaster. In the photo above, students work on their skills at the home of 4-H volunteer Hope Raymond, who co-leads the Monmouth County 4-H Robotics Club with Rios.
We see the children trying to figure out problems and when they’re finally able to see that they can solve these problems—getting their robot to complete a set of tasks—they realize this can be done in the real world. It’s so fulfilling to see these minds that are so bright.
Something good must be going on. Why else would a group of tweens and teens give up free time to put their brains to work?
“It’s great because we get to do a lot of mind work, like programming the robots through a computer,” says Carla Rios, left, Gladys’s 11-year-old daughter, adding, “to learn these skills, it is very complicated work, but it is so much fun.” The robotics club has Carla thinking far ahead. “I just set a goal for myself. I actually want to be a robotics engineer when I finish college, so I could invent a lot of things that could make people’s lives easier.”
The Monmouth County club is one of 14 4-H robotics clubs in nine New Jersey counties. The clubs have more than 200 youth participants and 37 volunteer leaders.
National 4-H Mandate for STEM Education
The FLL challenge competitions take research, computing, design, mathematics, cooperation, and communications know-how, says Gladys Rios, all skills at the core of a national 4-H mandate to get youngsters excited about science, technology, engineering, and math—the “STEM” disciplines in which the nation is falling behind.
“We see the children trying to figure out problems and when they’re finally able to see that they can solve these problems—getting their robot to complete a set of tasks—they realize this can be done in the real world,” says Rios. “It’s so fulfilling to see these minds that are so bright.”
Each year, Rutgers 4-H SET—New Jersey’s response to the national 4-H mandate—enrolls more than 24,000 youngsters in programs focused on technology, engineering, and the biological, earth, environmental, physical, and plant sciences. An additional 7,500 participate in agricultural and animal programs with a science component.
4-H SET has a “learn-by-doing approach to encouraging scientific explanation of the world,” says Janice McDonnell, Rutgers 4-H SET agent. Community-based SET clubs run by local volunteers cover a wide range of topics, from amateur radio to oceanography to robotics. 4-H SET also offers Design It!, after-school engineering clubs for children aged 8 to 12.
4-H Science Summers, Saturdays, and Summits
In addition to community-based clubs and after-school programs, Rutgers 4-H SET draws youth participants from across New Jersey through 4-H Summer Science, 4-H Rutgerscience Saturdays, and 4-H Teen Summits. These programs give youngsters the opportunity to interact with the approximately 50 Rutgers scientists and student mentors who volunteer with SET every year. Learn more about these programs on this page.
4-H SET is just one of the many “learn-by-doing” offerings available to youngsters through Rutgers 4-H.