In 1909, a Virginia demonstration agent organized the commonwealth’s first corn clubs with 75 boys from Dinwiddie County and 25 from Chesterfield County. By 1910, each of the 100 youth in Virginia’s first 4-H clubs (for head, heart, hands, and health) had grown an acre of corn and produced an average of 65 bushels per acre – more than three times the county average for corn production.
Much has changed since 1910, but Virginia Cooperative Extension continues to form a community of young people who learn about leadership, citizenship, and life skills through hands-on experiences in the 4-H youth development program. Although they are more likely to learn about entrepreneurship than grow corn today, 4-H’ers excel in a number of areas through the "learning by doing" philosophy of youth development.
In recent years, Virginia 4-H has focused much of its attention on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education because of recent studies showing an achievement gap for many students. Thanks to a partnership between the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and 4-H, children within a four-hour drive of Blacksburg have an opportunity to participate in Kids’ Tech University (KTU), a program that brings educators to Virginia Tech’s campus to educate youth about STEM topics.
Since the program’s first semester in 2009, KTU students have learned the answers to a number of provocative questions about the world of science: Why are plastic bottles bad for alligators? How is mathematics like magic? Why can’t humans walk on water or climb walls with their fingertips like spiders?
In addition, Kathleen Jamison, 4-H youth development specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension, is leading an effort to expand the program to help teachers bring STEM topics to the classroom while providing them with professional development.
“4-H is in every county and city in Virginia and can provide opportunities for deepened out-of-school learning through science content topics, using strategies to reinforce scientific investigation, engineering design, and invention,” Jamison said. “Teachers and county 4-H agents can partner for effective, seamless programming to deepen learning, anchor science concepts, and provide time for exploration of current and relevant issues.”
After Hermon Maclin, 4-H youth development agent in Prince George County, Va., noticed an interest in music among many of the youth in his area, he decided to introduce local youth to the career and personal development possibilities in the music industry.
“In 2003, we put together a three-day workshop on music for local youth,” Maclin said. “Since then, the Music Biz Program has provided opportunities for several hundred Prince George teens through a 4-H club, talent shows, and music workshops.”
In addition to teaching youth about opportunities in the music industry, the program allows 4-H’ers to compose, arrange, record, and perform their own music. The group has learned about audio engineering from a professor at Virginia State University and performed as closing act at 4-H State Congress for the past four years.
When Wendy Herdman, 4-H youth development agent in Westmoreland County, Va., learned that area middle schools scored below average in history for the Virginia Standards of Learning, she partnered with the National Park Service to develop a program that would not only engage students in the Northern Neck’s rich history but also improve their public speaking skills.
“The 4-H Heritage Club is a program under our communications and expressive arts curriculum,” Herdman said. “It is a different way for youth to learn public speaking skills than the typical steps of researching a topic and preparing a formal presentation. Here, youth first learn a hands-on skill, like blacksmithing, and then they must become proficient enough at that skill to interpret what they are doing for the public. I thought we might get some interest in a teen club and was overwhelmed with the response.”
Today, the club boasts 40 members who have contributed more than 2,500 hours of service to their community. While their home base is the George Washington Monument location, they also share their talents at other Virginia historic sites, such as the Burroughs farm at the Booker T. Washington National Monument site.
“We had to learn what was different about life on the Burroughs farm than at George Washington’s plantation so we could answer people’s questions,” said Maddie Johnson, an 11-year-old member of the group. “It was a different time in history.”
For more than 80 years, Virginia 4-H camping has been a proven and effective method of teaching youth about life skills. Each year, more than 16,000 youth participate in 4-H camping programs at Virginia's six 4-H educational centers.
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