Have you ever seen the light of discovery come on in a young person’s eyes? It’s that "COOL!" moment when a kid really understands something amazing.
Nowhere in 4-H do we see that light shine more brightly than from young people participating in our Science, Engineering and Technology programs. It happens when they see their 4-H rockets blast into the sky, when they understand how a feather’s design allow owls to fly silently or when they see the ultra-sound heart-beat of a bovine fetus.
A century ago, 4-H was developed to help launch "scientific agriculture" on small farms and in rural communities. It must have worked, because, these days, it would be difficult to imagine our modern greenhouses or sod producers "planting by the signs." And no one in our poultry industry still believes the gender of holiday visitors determines the sex of spring chicks. Superstition and "old wives’ tales" were supplanted by logic and scientific experiment.
In the last century, 4-H and the Cooperative Extension System successfully transformed American agriculture. Today, university-based research in science, engineering and technology remains the backbone of what we do. You are probably aware of our solid focus on agricultural science, electricity and natural sciences. Today, however, 4-H opportunities also exist in subjects like rocketry, robotics, bio-fuels, renewable energy and computer science.
Nationally, 4-H Science, Engineering and Technology programs reach more than five million youth with hands-on learning experiences which encourage young minds and are helping prepare a cadre of young leaders and future professionals who are proficient in science.
It is often noted the United States is falling dangerously behind other nations in developing its future workforce of scientists, engineers and technology experts. America now faces a future of intense global competition with a startling shortage of scientists. Only 18 percent of U.S. high school seniors are proficient in science and a mere five percent of current U.S. college graduates earn science, engineering or technology degrees compared to 66 percent in Japan and 59 percent in China.
The 4-H Science, Engineering and Technology Program is part of the long-term solution for improving the science literacy and aptitude of American youth. 4-H is addressing one of our critical challenges by preparing young people to excel in fields crucial to our state and our nation.
There may be some things you don’t know about our science programs. For example, did you know 4-H is the leading youth environmental education organization in our state? Through club and regional programs, many young people get their first real "hands-on" introduction to biology, zoology and environmental sciences. Our Coosa River Science School, housed at the Alabama 4-H Center near Columbiana, provides hands-on, scientific experiences for school children (and others) from all across Alabama. What kid doesn’t get a thrill out of meeting a beautiful hawk "up-close and personal"?
With this "hands-on, minds-on learning," young people also develop their critical thinking and communications skills. Tomorrow’s leaders will have to develop and communicate their own ideas on difficult and sometimes contentious topics like global warming, energy use, and water and air pollution. By having a strong scientific understanding, they will be better able to delve into the political and economic consequences of our dilemmas and find the best solutions to those problems.
Chuck Hill is the 4-H Youth Development Specialist.