When our great-great-grandfathers were farming, their approach to agriculture was "if it was good enough for my daddy, it is good enough for me." If the Farmers’ Almanac said today was favorable for planting beans and tomatoes, any farmer in any agricultural zone and in any weather conditions should, by golly, plant beans and tomatoes.
Through 4-H, the United States Department of Agriculture introduced agricultural science to Alabama’s family farms. When Junior’s 4-H corn yield was twice what Dad grew, folks started to pay much closer attention to crop improvement, crop rotation, irrigation, and modern fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides.
That introduction of a more scientific way of thinking had a tremendous impact on Alabama and its economy. From forestry to manufacturing, science created modern Alabama. Just as rural opportunities were fading, young people left the farm to become the physicians, engineers and educators who created modern Alabama. Think, for example, of the economic impact the space program had on the Northern region of our state.
As we have noted before, America faces a future of intense global competition with a startling shortage of scientists. In fact, only 18 percent of U.S. high school seniors are proficient in science and a mere 5 percent of current U.S. college graduates earn science, engineering or technology degrees, compared to 66 percent in Japan and 59 percent in China. And, unfortunately, Alabama does not rank well in math and science education among America’s education systems.
To address increased demand for science and technology professionals, 4-H has been working to reach a goal of engaging one million new young people in science programs by 2013. In Alabama, strong science undergirds dozens of our most popular programs. Through our Junior Master Gardener program, urban and rural young people are introduced to some of the same topics that corn and tomato clubs were covering a century ago.
Our rocketry programs like 4-H Space Day help show young people our place in this wonderful and amazing universe and a small road map to "bravely go" where future generations will certainly journey. They are the kids with the "Gee whiz!" look as they stare heavenward, tracing the paths of their homemade rockets.
Through Robotics and Design, young people meet the ideas and materials that will be the foundation of current and future manufacturing. Concepts like problem solving and teamwork, produce plenty of "That’s Cool!" moments, as well. Through 4-H, young people learn about energy, animal science, wildlife and forestry. Currently, 4-H Science programs reach more than 5 million youth with hands-on learning experiences possibly helping to ensure global competitiveness and prepare the next generation of science, engineering and technology leaders.
You may have heard, in the future, water will have the same political and economic impact that oil has had during this century. Even now, the Water Wars among Alabama, Florida and Georgia indicate that complex and competitive direction.
Through 4-H science education programs, young people are beginning to think about the biology and hydrology behind clean water. As an example of this impact, 84 percent of students participating in our Coosa River Science Center at the 4-H Youth Development Center have a "better understanding of the importance of clean water."
Few Alabama industries have the economic impact of forestry. Good forestry – and good lumber or paper production – is built on good science. Alabama 4-H’s Classroom in the Forest: Forest in the Classroom provides the classic 4-H hands-on science learning experience. And an overwhelming 96.8 percent of participants report they "understand why trees are important to the environment."
Exciting programs like Skins and Skulls show young people how neat zoology can be like the amazing differences between hunter and hunted. Why else would 92.5 percent of participants say they can tell you what a predator is – with its distinguishing teeth, claws and skin?
Plant and Animal Science programs are designed to engage and excite young people in the modern, high-tech, and fascinating field of agricultural science. The 4-H AgriScience curriculum fuses the emerging fields of biotechnology and business/economics with the agriculture industry through hands-on experiential learning activities and online learning courses for youth.
And yes, the science behind health and nutrition programs like Body Quest or Health Rocks! seek to tackle the problems of youth health in much the same way its precursors helped tackle family corn production.
4-H’s approach is comprehensive and well-rounded — from agriculture to climate change to alternative energy. Youth are learning about highly-relevant, complex systems and issues to ensure their contributions to their communities today and their success as global leaders tomorrow.
Chuck Hill is a 4-H Youth Development Specialist.