January 2010
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4-H Developing Online Learning System to Boost Interest in Science, Technology

Goal is to meet nation’s need for competitive workforce

More than a half-century ago, Sputnik’s launch by the former USSR sparked a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. students opting for studies, and ultimately careers, in science, math and engineering.

Today, nearly a decade into a new century, the importance of those fields has increased. But as challenges in biotechnology, alternative energy, genetics and other fields have come to the forefront, members of the Sputnik-inspired generation of scientists and engineers are retiring. And experts say replacements aren’t coming fast enough to maintain the nation’s technology leadership in the future.

Agricultural science is a notable case in point due to its diverse impact on so many aspects of people’s lives, both here and throughout the world. Everything from the foods we eat and clothes we wear to the fuels we use have a link to agriculture.

With that reality in mind, and with its decades of experience with and commitment to America’s young people, the national 4-H Youth Development Program has embarked on Project Pathways, a research-based learning system for youth ages nine to 19. To be available online and in CD sets, the new program is designed to take advantage of how young people learn and communicate today.

   
 
   

"Inventive 4-H out-of-school programming like Project Pathways will allow youth to be exposed to and engaged in the sciences earlier, which has been shown to motivate (them) to pursue a career in the sciences as adults," noted Donald T. Floyd, Jr., National 4-H Council president and CEO.

A look at some statistics shows the need for Pathways initiative.

• Only 18 percent of U.S. high school students are proficient in science, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

• Just over 32 percent of U.S. undergraduates are enrolled in science-related degree programs according to the National Science Foundation. That compares with 63.3 percent in Japan, 62.1 percent in China and 56.2 percent in Germany.

 
   

• Of all science-related degrees now awarded, only 3.7 percent are in agriculture.

The clear conclusion is if America is unable to keep up with the increasing demand for professionals trained in science, engineering and other technological fields, it faces a daunting task of competing effectively in today’s global marketplace.

4-H is uniquely positioned to play a key role in encouraging young people to develop an interest in science and engineering. The 4-H mission states the organization "empowers youth to reach their full potential, working and learning in partnership with caring adults."

Achieving that goal involves a team effort including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 106 land grant universities and the National 4-H Council. The end result is what ranks today as America’s largest youth organization, encompassing some six million young people, 4,500 4-H educators, 500,000 volunteers and 60 million alumni.

With Pathways, 4-H has set aggressive targets of fostering one million new scientists and one million new ideas. It will assess progress toward those targets by measuring literacy in ag science, engineering and technology (SET), the number of ag SET majors and the number of college graduates pursuing ag SET careers.

In designing the Pathways effort, 4-H leaders recognized the organization faced a number of challenges, including greater demand for 4-H project materials, the need to respond rapidly to changes in ag science, today’s tech-savvy youth and the need to connect with a larger community of learners.

The obvious solution: Going digital and making materials available online. Work now under way aims for offering a curriculum with some 1,000 learning activities dealing with cutting-edge plant and animal science content.

A "Project Builder" interface will enable prospective users to find the content-driven activity they want to pursue. Projects will be customizable according to a user’s age, where he/she lives, the identity of any sponsor(s) supporting a particular activity, etc. According to Roger Olson, 4-H Council vice president of rural and agribusiness development, the number of possible combinations will be virtually unlimited.

Project activities will be entered and tracked in a "V-Book," an online virtual project book replacing printed project and record books.

Overall, the online content will provide a blueprint for self-guided learning, with additional information including online videos, accessible to enrich the learning experience. Questions a user will be asked to answer will reinforce important concepts in each project.

In addition, a protected online community at the 4-H website will provide opportunities for social networking, free online collaboration with subject matter experts and a searchable database of relevant project information from land grant universities and industry sponsors.

Partnerships developed with sponsors and other content providers will affect how the ultimate cost in dollars and man hours will be borne. But there’s no doubt it will be a multi-million-dollar project involving many thousands of man hours.

According to Dr. Bob Horton, professor of educational design at The Ohio State University and chief architect of the Pathways initiative, the development plan timetable is for the initial content to be completed and online by late 2011, assuming all necessary funding is obtained. Updating will be continuous after the Pathways debut. 

Olson noted industry sponsors will be able to gain added visibility by providing branded online content like "Ask the Expert," simulations and moderated chats, podcasts, news tickers and blog centers, and tracking and reporting journals.

"Project Pathways will be designed to accommodate, inspire and empower a wide variety of learners," Horton said. "This is the first time the efforts of industry, academia and youth development are combining to create a robust curriculum blending the latest interactive online programming with offline, hands-on work alongside passionate, expert mentors."