Addressing the Need for STEM Education
While some may think of cows and pigs at the county fair when they think of 4-H, what they don’t know is that those projects are rooted in a firm science foundation. In fact, from its founding in 1902, 4-H has incorporated science education into its curriculum.
As society evolves from agrarian to urban and new technologies emerge, greater emphasis is being put on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. 4-H programs support STEM learning by exploring robotics, rocketry, environmental science and biotechnology, complementing its programs in agricultural science and veterinary science.
In Idaho, the robotics program has blossomed under the guidance of Tim Ewers, University of Idaho Extension 4-H Youth Development specialist, and Robin Baumgartner, program coordinator. Approximately 3,000 youth participate in 4-H robotics programs each year in Idaho.
A Need for Volunteers
Although the program is thriving, there is still work to be done to provide robotics and other STEM opportunities to interested youth in Idaho. Recruiting and training qualified volunteers continues to be an area of need.
“To build a program not only includes building the interest and awareness, but also developing the support system,” Ewers said. “Our programs are primarily run by volunteers. We have to develop not only the science curriculum, but we have to develop the training system to be able to support the volunteers.
“One of the key limiting resources for every single county in terms of offering programs is access to qualified and eager volunteers. We may have a whole bunch of children who are interested in robotics, but if a county doesn’t have a volunteer to run it, those kids don’t participate.”
One way Ewers is addressing the need for volunteers is the development of STEM centers in communities across the state. The centers would provide the needed support system to offer more science programs locally by giving access to specialized equipment, trained staff and volunteers. The centers also would provide a place for teachers to learn about new technologies without having to buy and maintain equipment.
“There is a need for us to educate all of the community, not just children,” Ewers said. “So the STEM centers, if they were to develop through the Extension system, would be an area where people could come and learn. There is a great need for even people outside of high school to learn about technology.”
The concept of STEM centers is not unlike what Extension did with 4-H agriculture programs in the first part of the 20th century. Educators took science concepts from universities and trained local volunteers who then worked with youth to implement better, higher quality agricultural practices. Now the time has come to recruit and train volunteers on STEM programs.
A Pilot Program
Eureka! Palouse, Inc. in Moscow is serving as a pilot for UI Extension to learn more about how to implement STEM centers across the state. Eureka! Palouse is a nonprofit corporation and a 4-H affiliate organization. All volunteers and staff undergo a background and reference check as they do in 4-H, and volunteer training is provided through the 4-H system.
“What we’ve started here is developing collaborations with other entities like libraries and schools and exploring the idea of how do we, within a community, maximize our use of limited resources,” Ewers said. “The bottom line is, we all have the same goal, which is to enrich our communities. How do we work together toward that shared goal and not against each other?”
With the pilot program in place, UI Extension is now working on developing staff positions to be located in communities that have expressed an interest in STEM centers. Ewers is also working on a National Science Foundation grant.
“I would like us to start envisioning that STEM education is as equally important for our communities as recreation facilities,” Ewers said. “If you take a look at many of our communities they have ball fields. Who pays for the ball fields? It’s the county or the city. They pay for that because as a community we recognize the need for physical activity. What we don’t have yet is the equal appreciation for what STEM does for our communities.”
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Published in May 2018.