AMES, Iowa – Gail Castillo’s son was one of the kids ready to quit 4-H. After four years, it had lost its appeal and no longer captured his interests. Then they attended a FIRST Lego League (FLL) competition, and he was once again hooked.
“He went with me to the state competition 13-14 months ago and was amazed. I also didn’t think my 10-year-old daughter would like it, but she loved it,” said Castillo, a 4-H youth development specialist with Iowa State University Extension. “FIRST Lego League truly appeals to all types of kids and all ages. The intent all along was to attract kids not in 4-H, but it has turned out to be more universal.”
Castillo’s experience with FLL is not an isolated one, as the robotics competition continues to gain rapid interest and support in 4-H clubs and counties across Iowa. David Seilstad, another ISU Extension 4-H youth development specialist, saw involvement in Harrison County alone jump from three teams last year to seven this year, and overall, at least 30 4-H clubs and teams in Iowa have either participated in FLL or are based on robotics, but have yet to participate in the actual event. The success of FLL is something Daleta Christensen sees as a sign of 4-H’s ability to adapt and meet current needs and interests in today’s youth.
Reaching New Kids through Robotics and 4-H
“This is an attempt for traditional 4-H to look at new and emerging clubs, and it’s a perfect example of how 4-H is progressive and moving forward with the times to reach a different audience,” said Christensen, another ISU Extension 4-H youth development specialist.
To get FLL teams and clubs started, some have joined with other community organizations. Christensen was approached by the West Liberty public library two years ago to partner with them and start an FLL team. Castillo, on the other hand, worked to recruit kids through county fair booths, robot workshops and informational meetings, and both leaders were able to receive funding through community foundations and Rockwell Collins to purchase the initial materials and robotics.
They agreed that meeting financial needs, however, was not as big of a challenge as learning how to use the programming software, becoming familiar with the competition, committing the time and recruiting adult support.
“Sometimes when you have a new thing you’re offering it’s hard to find volunteers to help out when you don’t know what you’re asking for exactly, but we all learned together,” said Castillo. “It’s really a partnership with the parents and kids. Because I was new, too, it really helped the kids and families feel ownership.”
Learning about Robots and Becoming a Team
The ownership kids often take on through FLL is also something Seilstad has observed. In addition to learning how to program a robot, each team completes a research project related to the overall theme, and the project gives them an opportunity to think of tangible ways they can make an impact and difference in their communities. That, coupled with the robotics, gives the kids a sense of ownership in what they’re doing and in regard to each other, as they learn how to find their personal role on the team and value other’s roles as well.
“They come in as a lot of individuals until they really learn to appreciate each other,” he said. “The excitement that we see in young people who may not excel in other areas like academics and seeing the balance of a team as they see skills in each other is just amazing. It is an opportunity for kids to find their spark, nurture it and be appreciated for it.”
Castillo also agreed that teamwork was at the center of everything she saw the kids doing and learning. She had one team in particular that came from four different grade levels and four different schools to become a close-knit group of kids.
“Ironically, some of the best things they learned had nothing to do with robotics. They really weren’t a team at the beginning, but it was amazing to watch the transformation,” Castillo said. “They learned to communicate and listen to each other’s ideas, and they were having so much fun together that sometimes they even forgot what they were doing.”
The excitement and enthusiasm of the kids and parents who participate in FLL and robotics or help lead and coach has continued to spread throughout the counties of Iowa and is the reason so many new teams have sprouted up each year. Because of this, Christensen’s best advice for anyone hesitant on whether FLL would be a positive experience for youth in their area is to talk to the kids.
“Have the youth do the talking and share their story,” she said. “The fun and excitement they have and the things they learned would sell anybody.”
Christensen, Seilstad and Castillo also highly encourage 4-H’ers and adults to go to their ISU Extension county office or the state 4-H office, ask questions and jump in feet first to learn by experience. For Seilstad, FLL is an ideal example of how the 4-H goals and mission are easily reinforced through new and emerging experiences.
“The goals in 4-H are to help young people develop citizenship, leadership and communication skills, and kids learn citizenship through the research project, communication as they share it and leadership as they find their place in the team” he said. “The essence FLL has at its core is pretty much the same values that we stress as being the output products in 4-H.”
For more information about FIRST Lego League, visit www.isek.iastate.edu.
About the Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program
4-H is the nation’s largest youth development organization, serving more than 6 million young people across America with programs in leadership, citizenship, communication and life skills. One in five Iowa school-age youth are involved in 4-H. In Iowa, 4-H Youth Development is headquartered at the Iowa State University campus in Ames. 4-H is supported by federal, state and county funding, private grants and donations, and fees. For more information about joining 4-H, contact your Iowa State University Extension county office at www.extension.iastate.edu/content/county-offices/ or visit www.extension.iastate.edu/4H.
Hannah McCulloh, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-9915, firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Sternweis, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-0775, email@example.com