4-H Helps Youth Add Inquiry to STEM

AMES, Iowa — When it comes to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Iowa’s inquiring young minds need to know — so they’re ready for future education and careers. But the first step is getting them to want to know about STEM. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is helping young Iowans take that first step.

NERDz teamFrom building robots to experimenting with electricity and extracting DNA from bananas, kids and teens explore hands-on, scientific inquiry through 4-H clubs and out-of-school experiences from ISU Extension and Outreach.

“Inquiry is about young people developing their own understanding through interaction. But the process also feeds key elements of youth’s needs,” said Jay Staker, director of Extension Science, Engineering and Technology (E-SET) youth initiative, part of ISU Extension and Outreach 4-H Youth Development.

Inquiry really meets the needs of young learners, because youth learn best when they can “do,” Staker said. It’s experiential education. In 4-H, youth work in teams, with mentoring from caring adults, to build mutual understanding. They test ideas and build their explanations of what is going on in the science experience. They have control of their own learning in a safe environment, where they can grow in confidence as they realize the power of their own mind and voice, Staker added.

Connecting Youth to STEM

ISU Extension and Outreach connects youth to STEM activities in several ways, including

Because ISU Extension and Outreach 4-H Youth Development takes an inquiry approach to STEM, the youth often choose the questions they wish to explore, Staker explained. Extension educators and adult 4-H volunteers provide a safe environment, encouragement, support and background information to help young people design more effective investigations, but “the youth’s curiosity is driving the activity, and the youth’s wonder about the world is being honored and encouraged.”

Educating Adults to Help Youth

In February, 28 ISU Extension and Outreach staff members participated in the North Central Region 4-H Science Academy both to improve their ability to engage youth in STEM activities and train the adult volunteers who work with youth in the Iowa 4-H program.

Joni Bruvold, Winneshiek County 4-H youth coordinator, participated in the academy because she needs adult volunteers to help establish some county 4-H clubs based on science outdoor adventures and STEM.

“A lot of people hear the word science and run away,” Bruvold said, but she’s helping her adult volunteers understand that it’s not just beakers and test tubes. Science is in everyday life.

“We are getting youth prepared for the future. We’re getting them excited about careers, connecting them to campus,” Bruvold said. “We really need to ignite that spark in science.”

“By engaging youth in 4-H STEM activities, we can expand our programming reach to include not only an urban/suburban audience, but also the untapped youth interests in rural communities,” said Cindy Watson Pottebaum, an ISU Extension STEM educator in Dallas County. “Besides, 4-H STEM programs are just fun for everyone! It’s a great way to grab youth attention to then nurture leadership, citizenship and healthy living with 4-H programming.”

She continued, “Really, if you think about it, everything has to do with some aspect of science, technology, engineering or math. As we help youth become engaged community leaders, 4-H STEM activities provide hands-on opportunities for youth to explore their world and gain confidence and independence. In the future, our students will need to be comfortable with math and science to come up with solutions to tomorrow’s problems to help make the world a better place.”


Joni Bruvold, ISU Extension and Outreach – Winneshiek County, 563-382-2949, jbruvold@iastate.edu
Cindy Watson Pottebaum, ISU Extension and Outreach – Dallas County, 515-993-4281, cindywp@iastate.edu

Photo caption: NERDz (Navigators of Extreme Robot Devices), a 4-H robotics club from LeMars in Plymouth County, competed in the state FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competition. NERDz also has been named a semi-finalist in the FLL Global Innovation competition for the team’s idea for developing an aqueous ozone sprayer for hog holding pens.