May 2012
4-H Extension Corner

4-H and the Path to Education


4-H has a tradition of linking young people to the possibilities of a college education. This “barefoot” club from the 1920s had college-graduate county agents who served as positive role models. And there is even a poster for “Alabama Polytechnic Institute” on the wall. For many rural American children, their first trip away from home was a visit to a college campus during State 4-H Congress.

My father remembers exactly where he was in the South Pacific when he learned that "Mr. Roosevelt is going to send us to college." Dad’s first thoughts: "Now I won’t have to walk behind a mule the rest of my life!"

For many in the Greatest Generation, the GI Bill was the ticket to a brighter future. Some, like my dad, became science and agriculture teachers. Some, like my father-in-law, became ministers. Many became business innovators or the trailblazing farmers who fully implemented scientific agriculture. Education opened the doors to America’s exceptional post-War economic boom, when our nation was recognized as the world leader in its commitment to learning.

You don’t have to look far to see we have fallen behind. In a 2010 study, out of 34 countries reviewed, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. Over a generation, the U.S. slid from 1st to 12th among 36 developed nations in the proportion of young people with college degrees. Korea, Canada, Russia and Japan all outpace us.

While U.S. education often seems politicized, from both sides of the spectrum, our international competitors have gone about building cultures where education is valued and accessible. They see education as the foundation for personal and national achievement, no matter whether that education is technical, academic or professional.

Naturally, we in 4-H are deeply concerned with the current and future welfare of Alabama’s youth. As the youth outreach program of the USDA and the Land Grant Universities, we believe in what our kids can achieve and we are deeply committed to the power of learning.

Modern 4-H continues to inspire and motivate young people. The “hands-on” experience of wading at the Coosa River Science School to catch “critters” and then looking at them under a powerful microscope teaches kids about water quality and biology. It might also open the doors to educational opportunities and careers in science, engineering or technology.

Who knows where this young man’s participation in the Chick Chain program might lead? Poultry production? Veterinary science? He might even become one of the world’s leading authorities on viruses. 4-H Inquiry Learning is teaching young people to think about their activities as a series of scientific questions, not simply formulas for success.


Robotics is one of Alabama 4-H’s most popular projects with young people. Learning to build and program robots presents interesting challenges and raises important questions. Build a “better mousetrap,” and no one may pay attention. But if you “build a better robot,” the world will beat a pathway to your door.

In St. Clair County, Abby, Sarah, Rebecca, Eden, Caitlynn and Braxton prepare Chinese food during the Cooking Around the World Kids Camp. 4-H presents a diversity of educational directions. For example, Rachel Sarro of Calhoun County has followed her interest in the 4-H culinary arts to professional chef’s training.

In December, the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree was 4.1 percent. It was 7.7 percent for those with an associate’s degree or some college, 8.7 percent for those with a high school degree and no college, and 13.8 percent for high school dropouts. A high school grad earns 3/5 of what a college grad earns. There are even positive links between education and strong marriages and physical wellbeing.

Of course, those of us in 4-H would be remiss if we did not note the educational impact 4-H has on young people. There are health and social benefits for youth, but there is also a "bottom line" link.

Kids in 4-H have higher educational achievement and higher motivation for future education. Young people in 4-H:

• Report better grades, higher levels of academic competence and an elevated level of engagement at school;

• Are nearly two times more likely to plan to go to college; and

• Are more likely to pursue future courses or a career in science, engineering or computer technology.

In 4-H, we dearly love our history. We have a heritage built on using science and on knowing we can always do better: improving our land, our farms, our communities and our lives. That proud heritage continues today, but we are not focused on fighting yesterday’s problems and meeting bygone opportunities. 4-H is focused on today’s and tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities.

One of the most exciting developments is a new approach to science, math and technology. 4-H Inquiry Learning focuses on hands-on experiences to get kids to ask real, scientific questions – and seek answers for themselves. Our field surveys of kids suggest they lose interest in science and math because the subjects are presented in a manner that is often "boring," with an emphasis on taking notes and memorizing facts and formulas. Research also shows "learning for the test" doesn’t have the long-term impact of "learning by getting your hands dirty."

4-H Inquiry Learning has implications beyond the computer lab and factory floor. Studies show good science education is a solid basis for building the skills employers seek and entrepreneurs need: observing, questioning, planning and communicating. The orderly investigation of facts and the search for explanations is equally useful to the plumber, poultry producer or attorney.

Since Paleo-Indians’ first settlement of our state, the notion of improvement and the hope for a better future have been fundamental, driving traditions in Alabama. That is what led to the tremendous acceptance and impact of the Alabama Cooperative Extension Services, since people were eager for new and better ways to feed their families and sell all that newly-acquired surplus farm produce.

In Alabama 4-H, we have a slogan: "4-H is Where You Live." That could also serve as a charge to us as educators, 4-H volunteers, Extension professionals and concerned adults. If we were to also recognize that learning and education are "where we live," that would empower every Alabama school and community to tirelessly advocate for their children’s academic and intellectual growth. From Bayou la Batre to Bridgeport, our state’s future depends on it.

Chuck Hill is the 4-H Youth Development Specialist.