In 4-H programs across the country, kids and teenagers are building underwater robots, programming self-watering gardens, and engineering climate-controlled storage bags to keep animal vaccines safe.
4-H, the national network of youth clubs and camps known for farming and agriculture, has long taught about environmental science and engineering. But recently, the organization expanded their offerings in a different STEM field—computer science. 4-H and Google announced a partnership earlier this month to expand computer science offerings in local programs, with a special focus on areas where youth have limited access to computers and the internet.
“We are in an effort today to break out of that limited view that people have of 4-H—to show that we still have our roots in agriculture, but we are so much more,” said Jennifer Sirangelo, President and CEO of National 4‑H Council, in an interview.
From Cows to Coding
The partnership, funded by a $1.5 million grant from Google, will bring computer science curriculum, training, hardware devices, and dedicated funding to local 4-H programs across 22 states. It also establishes a 4-H Computer Science Career Pathway, designed to prepare youth with the technical and analytical skills they will need to enter the workforce—whether in agriculture, or any other field.
The partnership is part of a continued effort on Google’s part to bring computer science to communities traditionally underserved when it comes to technology education, including students in rural areas, students of color, and girls, said Jacquelline Fuller, president of Google.org, in an interview.
4-H can be a strong partner in this work, said Fuller, because the organization has an “amazing network” of trusted local organizations, with broad reach.
In Illinois, for example, 4-H has hired bilingual, bicultural staff for programs in the rural areas, which are seeing the fastest growth in Latino populations in the state, said Lisa Bouillion Diaz, director of the Illinois 4-H and leader of state programming, in an interview.
In these areas, 4-H’s existing infrastructure allows Google to deliver new opportunities for technology access, curriculum resources, and mentorship, said Diaz.
Creators, Not Consumers
Out-of-school programming gives kids the opportunity to test out their skills in hands-on projects, said Sirangelo. “Rather than just learning about the theory of computer science, they’re able to apply it through 4-H to real world problems.”
“There’s a tremendous need today for young people to know how to create technology, not just how to consume it,” she said.
In the Illinois programs, the Google partnership will provide more opportunities for students to be “authors” of technology experiences, said Diaz.
Google Cardboard, virtual reality technology that some 4-H programs will receive through the partnership, could enhance the Illinois 4-H’s drone program, said Diaz. Kids work with licensed drone pilots to capture aerial and ground footage—with VR, she said, they could use that film to create experiences that teach others about a part of the state’s geography or economy.
Diaz also expects Google-provided coding curricula and training could expand the state’s popular robotics program.
In addition to technical and critical thinking skills, the partnership will emphasize peer mentorship, led by 4-H teenagers.
“We’ve found that teen leaders really connect to younger kids in a way that really inspires deeper learning, because they really look up to teenagers,” said Sirangelo. Teens can also be “resources” for adults when it comes to tech adoption and use, she said.
4-H leaders won’t have to rely on teens alone. As part of the partnership, Google is creating a computer science playbook as an online resource. Teaching subjects like coding and computational thinking can seem daunting, said Fuller, but essentially just require problem solving skills.
“In order to integrate those kinds of concepts and those kinds of practical, hands-on experiences, you don’t have to be an expert.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.