‘STEM’ Through 4-H?

By Sean Cavanagh — October 07, 2009 2 min read
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Many readers are no doubt familiar with the work of 4-H, a 6 million-member-strong youth organization that promotes citizenship and life skills, often with an emphasis on agricultural training. Now that organization is throwing its weight behind a venture of major interest to educators and policymakers: getting more students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called “STEM” education fields.

The nonprofit is organizing a a nationwide science experiment today called “Biofuel Blast,” which seeks to show middle school students how cellulose and sugars in plants (like switchgrass and algae) can be made into fuel. The event is part of 4-H National Youth Science Day, an effort the organization began last year to bring more American young people into science careers. The youths taking part around the country will create biofuel, and following the experiment, the 4-H will host discussions about alternative energy in different locations around the country. The development of biofuels is a major economic and political issue in many of the communities where 4-H is popular.

STEM-ed advocates would seem to have reason to be enthusiastic about 4-H’s promotion of those subjects. The 4-H organizes a lot of year-round out-of-school programming, which is developed by the nation’s 106 land-grant colleges and universities and implemented through 3,100 local cooperative extension offices, according to background provided by the organization. 4-H officials estimate that more than 5 million youths currently take part in the organization’s science, engineering, and technology programming in topics such as robotics, rocketry, wind power, GPS mapping, agricultural science, film making, and water quality and conservation. The organization has also set a goal of luring another million youths into science, engineering, and technology programming by 2013, through its “One Million New Scientists, One Million New Ideas” campaign.

As they roll out the new program, 4-H officials are also touting research that they say shows their program’s positive impact on students’ in- and out-of-school development. A longitudinal study found that young people who take part in 4-H are two times more likely to get better grades than youths who do not; two times more likely to go to college; 40 percent less likely to engage in risky behavior; and more likely to contribute to their families and communities. The study was conducted by researchers at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University.

What impact do you think an organization with the grassroots reach of 4-H—which says it can be found in every county in every state—is likely to have on STEM?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.