kids at computer at one of the 4-H clubs

How have 4-H Clubs changed over the decades? In many ways, not the least of which is the teaching of STEM topics. / All photos courtesy of UF/IFAS Extension, West Palm Beach

What follows is a question-and-answer session with Noelle Guay. She is a 4-H agent and the Palm Beach County program leader for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension in suburban West Palm Beach.

How much do you know about 4-H Clubs?

Question: What were the main goals during your recent 4-H Maker Camp?
Answer: Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at camp is part of a national effort by HughesNet and the National 4-H Council to spark youth interest in STEM topics, and our Maker Camp was Palm Beach County’s STEM at Camp Experience. The purpose camp was to educate and inspire our campers to learn about the engineering design process and how to use technology and engineering to solve real-world issues such as energy, water and conservation. Palm Beach County 4-H is dedicated to nurturing youth interest in STEM topics through hands-on, community-based learning. Teaming up with HughesNet gave us the opportunity to immerse our kids in four days of exciting and practical STEM projects.

Although what 4-H Clubs teach today’s students has changed over the decades, some things remain constant.

Q: The first “official” 4-H Clubs were, according to 4-h.org/about/history, formed in 1912 — 115 years ago. Obviously, 4-H has undergone many changes. In what ways, though, are the 4-H Clubs of today similar to the 4-H Clubs in the early 20th century?
A: In the late 1800s, researchers discovered that adults in the farming community did not readily accept new agricultural developments, but found that young people were open to new thinking and would experiment with new ideas and share their experiences with adults. In this way, rural youth programs introduced new agriculture technology to communities. Our clubs today, especially in Florida, have similar roots; and while the number of club topics has increased, the principles are the same. Whether it is through agriculture, animal science, robotics or marine science, our goal is to prepare young people to take on the challenges of the future and to empower them to become productive and successful adults. The 4-H Clubs of yesterday and today provide youth a positive community of their peers, where caring adult mentors teach them critical life skills in a safe, inclusive environment.


Q: During the recent Maker Camp, attendees studied topics such as robotics, rocketry, coding and drones. Drones are, these days, commonly used in agriculture. But how do, say, robotics and coding fit into “ag”?
A: Our 2017 Maker Camp included drones, coding and robotics, which have practical applications across a number of job fields, including agriculture. Computers and technology have become integrated into our everyday lives, and agriculture can only benefit from these emerging technologies. Youth who understand and can create technological tools and services are able to help our agriculture community to grow and thrive. New STEM technology may enable the agriculture industry to monitor irrigation and fertilizer to be most efficient, reduce environmental and ecological impacts, increase crop productivity, and monitor and reduce pests. The principles and curriculum of 4-H are geared toward preparing youth to overcome future challenges in agriculture and to allow us to continue to produce food for a growing population.

Q: What do you think the major thing or things are that the “Makers” took away from the four-day camp?
A: We heard many times from our participants of the Maker Camp throughout the week that they were surprised at how differently each group approached and solved the problems they were tasked with and that there were no right or wrong answers. They also were not aware at the wide variety of jobs available in the science fields. When kids think about science, they picture someone in a lab coat with goggles. When we explain that astronauts, video-game designers, marine biologists and animators are considered scientists, it gets their attention.

Student in one of the Palm Beach County 4-H Clubs attend 4-H Maker Camp

Students in the 4-H Maker Camp work on a project.

Q: What items did the attendees create that might benefit farming or ranching? What item or items did the attendees create that might benefit some other industry?
A: The kids created tetra kites, rockets and drone gliders which can be used like drones to conduct aerial monitoring. They also created computer interfaces, coded programs, built bridges to hold a determined about of weight, and made electric circuits which can be utilized for farm-machinery invention and improvements, overcoming natural obstacles to agriculture like drought and disease, and finding solutions to problems that may arise in the future.

Q: How long have you been associated with 4-H, and in what capacities? Why did you enter this field?
A: I have been with 4-H just over two years. I started off as one of the 4-H program assistants in Palm Beach County in June 2015 and transitioned to the 4-H agent and county program leader in March 2017. As a program assistant, I was responsible for the marine science projects including the Sea Perch ROV build and challenge, volunteer screening, embryology school enrichment, nature club, and much more. After our previous agent accepted a new position, I applied, interviewed and was hired as the new agent. I taught an Anatomy and Physiology lab at Florida Atlantic University as a graduate student, and that experience really sparked my passion for education. So I thought I could make more of a difference by sharing my knowledge and love of science with 4-H than I could in a lab. I was not a 4-H’er as a kid but was drawn to the idea of positive youth development and hands-on learning similar to the lab class I had been teaching. 4-H gave me the opportunity to work with youth of many ages, backgrounds and interests — across a wide variety of projects — and to serve as a mentor and positive role model.

Q: What is your background? What colleges did you attend, and what was your major?
A: I grew up in Miami-Dade County and moved to northern Virginia during my freshman year of high school. I attended Florida Atlantic University, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in biological sciences. Following graduation, I moved to Arlington, Va., where I was a contractor for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Homeland Security for five years. I moved back to Florida in 2011 to start my master’s degree in biological sciences, which I completed at FAU as well. I have been married to my kind and supportive husband, Michael, for a year and half, and we live in West Palm Beach.

Q: Agriculture, especially in Florida, is being threatened by a variety of challenges, such as citrus greening; agricultural land being sold to developers of residential and commercial properties; and the public’s perception that, too often, farmers and ranchers are responsible for many problems (note: I said “the public’s perception) that they didn’t necessarily create. Does 4-H play any role in educating the public at large about such issues, or does it focus strictly on educating young people?
A: 4-H’s educational reach is focused on kids ages 5 to 18, but we find that kids are often the forces of change in their families and communities. So while we may not directly teach these concepts to adults, the information filters through. 4-H is part of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences Extension Service, which, through our agriculture, horticulture, and food- and consumer-sciences agents conduct outreach to adults in the community across a number of topics, including farm safety, the environment, nutrition and gardening best practices.

Q: Is the number of young people who belong to 4-H  Clubs in Florida growing or declining? How about nationwide? Why is this happening?
A: As a new 4-H extension agent, I do not know the exact numbers both currently and historically. But I do know that here in Palm Beach County, we reached over 14,000 youth in the 2015-2016 year. We do face some reoccurring limitations here in Palm Beach County, across Florida, and across the United States. Specifically, because we are a volunteer-based organization, we often have more kids interested in joining 4-H than we have clubs for them to be a part of. The majority of our clubs are at capacity, and the vast majorities are run by volunteers. Without volunteers, we cannot accommodate the number of youth who are interested and would benefit from 4-H. In addition, 4-H has been working diligently to make more kids, and their families, across the country aware that 4-H is still very active and in their communities. Many adults remember 4-H from their youth or think 4-H is only agriculture and livestock, but do not know 4-H is in urban areas as well as rural areas. There is also a lack of awareness of the different projects available to youth with all interests, including robotics, nutrition, financial literacy, sewing, leadership, healthy living and citizenship.

Q: Farming and ranching are demanding, unpredictable industries. Why have 4-H members you’ve known expressed an interest in entering the field? Has the fact that 4-H is expanding its offerings created more interest among the younger set?
A: 4-H’ers are not afraid of hard work. The young people I have had the pleasure of working with have a strong work ethic, are motivated and are growing into adults ready to take on the world’s challenges. We are also seeing a shift where 4-H youth are more interested in where their food comes from, health and nutrition, and supporting local food production. With 4-H introducing youth to STEM, healthy living and citizenship/leadership, kids are able to find productive ways to contribute to agriculture outside of ways they thought possible. We also show them ways to be innovative, with projects like hydroponics and aquaponics. Through positive mentorship, diverse experiences, life-skills development and education, we are empowering our youth to be resilient, inventive and proactive in agriculture and in many other industries.

 

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