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Excited about science

Published: Friday, Sept. 21, 2012 3:47 p.m. CDT

Some people are surprised to learn my college degree is in the natural sciences. They often wonder whether I am able to use my degree in my job as a 4-H program coordinator. Although I may not do many of the things commonly associated with the sciences, I still find plenty of ways to use my degree, especially now with the 4-H program’s new emphasis on science, engineering and technology.

In Illinois, one of our youth education initiatives is “Science Excited.” Even if youth don’t plan to pursue a career in the sciences, having a basic understanding of science and technology is almost essential for young people today. It’s also important for young people to practice thinking like a scientist, as the scientific method can be used to learn and solve problems in many different areas.

Youth become more excited about science when they can experience the scientific process themselves and be the scientists. Science involves many tasks that interest young people, and that can be applied to other subjects as well; scientists inquire, explore, experiment, investigate, invent, engineer, design, create and discover. To provide youth with opportunities to do these things, 4-H science curriculum focuses on a variety of activities that may include hands-on projects, where youth work directly with materials; experiential activities, where youth experience something that happens in the “real world;” and inquiry-based activities, where the learner is the one asking the questions and designing ways to find the answers. Many of our new activities are designed to provide opportunities for inquiry, where caring adults guide youth in determining their own course of learning. The youth determine what questions to investigate, design experiments to test their ideas, and use the results to lead to new questions for study. Giving the learner control over the process provides opportunities for in-depth, individualized learning. It also teaches young people how to learn and how to solve problems.

Whether 4-Hers realize it or not, there is actually a lot of science involved in some of the traditional project areas, including animals, crops, horticulture, foods and sewing. If you’ve ever tried to determine how to raise the healthiest animal, increase crop or vegetable yields, or alter a recipe or pattern, those tasks all require the same types of thinking and problem solving that career scientists use. We’re also introducing a variety of new projects and events to involve more youth in 4-H science programs.

One of our upcoming events is National Youth Science Day (Oct. 10) during which youth across the country participate in the same experiment supported by National 4-H Council. This year’s experiment is called “Eco-bot Challenge,” and youth will be building small robots and then using them to clean a simulated oil spill. In the Bureau/LaSalle/Marshall/Putnam area, we will be offering this experiment to sites throughout the month of October. If you know of a site interested in hosting this program, please feel free to contact our office.

Another new program our unit is offering is an after-school science special interest club. Each month, after-school students will meet to learn about the same theme. Students will have input into the exact concepts to be studied, and opportunities to practice inquiry will be provided. All local after-school programs are invited to participate and can receive more information by contacting the Extension office.

The youth of today will be the leaders of tomorrow. Four-H science programs can help youth understand the challenges they will face and empower them to make a positive impact, both locally and globally. I hope to see you and your family at one of our science programs this year!

Jennifer Caldwell is the program coordinator for 4-H and youth development at the University of Illinois Extension — Bureau County.

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