Iowa 4-H Youth Take on STEM Challenge at Ignite Summit in Washington, D.C.

May 30, 2024, 10:18 am | Sydney Peterson, Cayla Taylor

AMES, Iowa – Iowa 4-H members Taylor Ommen, Adair County; Emerson Waltz, Kossuth County; Addison Kress, Kylie Kress, Kasey McIlrath, Carly Knapp and Elizabeth Bihl, all from Dubuque County; and Abigail Schmidt, Jackson County, participated in the national Ignite by 4-H Conference – developing an action plan, sharing ideas and connecting with peers from other states.

They were among 37 4-H youth in grades 7-12 who were selected to represent Iowa at the teen summit, held March 13-17 in Washington, D.C. Over 1,200 youth from throughout the United States participated in the event, which aimed to help teens find their spark and learn the skills they need to create a positive impact.

On track for science, technology, engineering and math

The eight Iowa youth participating in the STEM track attended workshops on topics ranging from 3-D printing, app design and archeology to artificial intelligence, hydraulics and space weather.

Emerson Waltz and Taylor Ommen with their Lead to Change plan.Emerson Waltz and Taylor Ommen had the opportunity to co-present an engaging A.I. Art Challenge Workshop alongside Alexa Groff, Iowa 4-H STEM education specialist. The workshop, aimed at educating fellow youth about the intersection of artificial intelligence and art, left a lasting impact on attendees.

Reflecting on the experience, Ommen expressed excitement, stating, “It was so fun to be able to teach other youth our age about A.I. and art together. We were able to help them create digital stories, but also talk about how to use A.I. properly.”

One of the highlights of the STEM track was the keynote address delivered by Emily Calandrelli, known as the Space Gal. Her message resonated deeply with attendees, emphasizing the importance of resilience and dreaming big.

“She inspired us by showing us that when one door closes, it is meant for another one to open and that you must dream big,” said Waltz. The teens also worked with Calandrelli on a Mars Rover-themed challenge activity.

In addition to the enriching experiences at the Ignite Conference, STEM track delegates embarked on an educational outreach tour of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The visit gave them valuable insights into ongoing ecology research projects focusing on otters and oysters to create healthier habitats for wildlife and biodiversity.

“The facility was fascinating, and it is something that we understand with the research we are doing on our own projects,” noted Waltz. “This exposure to real-world research reinforces the significance of hands-on learning experiences in fostering a passion for STEM disciplines.”

The group worked on a Lead to Change project on “Empowering Youth Innovation: Integrating 4-H STEM Education at the Iowa State Fair.” Their goal was to spread awareness of the opportunities and impacts of science research to local communities in Iowa; inform youth and schools about the many possibilities that 4-H and STEM offer; and show how STEM and the State Science Fair of Iowa are not only learning opportunities, but also allow youth to develop life skills.

Participating in the Ignite Conference gave these delegates knowledge, valuable connections and insights into new opportunities within STEM and 4-H.

About the Ignite Summit

The four-day summit included inspiring and engaging panels, hands-on workshop sessions and entertainment, along with opportunities for career exploration, youth voice and building connections with teens from across the country. The high-impact programming included speakers, such as national experts, with opportunities to hone leadership skills.

This is the second year the event was held as a super summit, combining all interest tracks: STEM, agriscience, healthy living, career readiness and emotional well-being. In previous years, the event was split into four different summits. Before leaving Iowa, each delegate selected the track in which they were most interested.

Youth also heard from innovative keynote speakers Gitanjali Rao, a young inventor, author and Time Magazine’s first “Kid of the Year,” and Daniel Mac, a content creator with over 20 million followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.

In addition, in partnership with adult mentors, Ignite youth participants developed and presented various 4-H Lead to Change projects during the conference. These projects challenged the delegates to brainstorm and act on an issue they care about, become catalysts for others, foster real change in their home communities, and, therefore, contribute to stronger, healthier communities.

After delegates returned to Iowa from the summit, they could submit these action plans to vie for a grant. Up to thirteen Ignite Lead to Change project teams were expected to receive a $2,000 grant to implement their project, with one possible $5,000 grant.

Many teams plan to continue developing and implementing their Lead to Change project, demonstrating their commitment to positively impacting their communities and beyond.

Experiencing Washington, D.C.

Besides attending the summit, the delegation engaged in sightseeing. One evening, participants took a night bus tour of the national monuments. They walked around the Jefferson Memorial, World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Many delegates had never been to Washington, D.C., and reported that visiting all the memorials and history there was a cherished experience.

The teens also engaged in entertainment opportunities, including a pin trade, a celebration event featuring DJ Lela Brown, a prodigy and former teen Radio Disney show host, and a YouTube creator panel and dinner.

Stephanie Alanis, northwest region program assistant for ISU Extension and Outreach, was one of the chaperones who accompanied local 4-H members on the trip. She said the summit was a fantastic opportunity for the students and the adults who attended, as they connected with other students and extension staff members from Iowa and across the country.

“One of my favorite parts about the Ignite by 4-H Summit is being able to watch youth come out of their shells and interact with other 4-H’ers from across the country,” Alanis said. “Ignite by 4-H has been an event that genuinely tries to create a positive and welcoming environment for all youth in 4-H.”

Participation in the Ignite by 4-H Summit was made possible through funding from the Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program, National 4-H Council, Walmart Foundation, Google and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

For more information on the Iowa 4-H Youth Development program, please contact your ISU Extension and Outreach county office or visit the Iowa 4-H website at

Shareable photo: Emerson Waltz (left) and Taylor Ommen (right), participants in the STEM track at the Ignite by 4-H conference, with their Lead to Change plan.

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