By Cindy Hadish
The 4-H youth development program has moved far beyond the farm.
While agriculture is still the backbone of 4-H, skills developed through the organization’s clubs, classes and county fair exhibits can lead students to business and leadership opportunities.
“The thing about 4-H is, it has its roots in agriculture, but for me, it’s more about communications and leadership skills and working as a team,” said Emily Savereid, a Wartburg College graduate who participated in 4-H from the time she was nine and living on an acreage in rural Marion. “There are so many opportunities.”
Now working on her master’s degree at the University of Northern Iowa, Ms. Savereid said she is able to use the skills she learned during a 4-H presentation in front of members of Congress, and many other 4-H projects and events, in her new role as marketing director for the Iowa Wine Growers Association.
“I can’t think of another organization that gives kids what 4-H does,” she said.
Since its inception more than a century ago, 4-H has become the nation’s largest youth development organization, serving more than 6 million young people across the United States.
One in five Iowa school-age youths participate in ISU Extension 4-H Youth Development programs, according to the group’s website.
The four H’s on the organization’s four-leaf clover emblem still stand for head, heart, hands and health, but the traditional showings of cattle, sheep, pigs and other livestock have been augmented with programming in subjects such as aerospace, digital storytelling, robotics and geospacial mapping technologies.
For example, a summer STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Academy offered at McKinley Middle School in Cedar Rapids provides business tours for students who might normally not have that science exposure, said Ann Torbert, urban 4-H program specialist at the Linn County Iowa State University Extension.
Torbert noted that the STEM Academy, like many other 4-H programs, utilizes partnerships; in this case, the organization is partnering with the United Way and others.
Pilot classes this summer at the Marion and Hiawatha libraries, with the Partnership for Safe Families and funding through the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, will teach skills to children who want to stay at home by themselves, which has a positive ripple effect on parents’ productivity at work.
Learning how to prepare snacks and how to shut off the home’s water supply in the event of a plumbing emergency are among the topics that will help parents feel more at ease and lessen the workday phone calls from their children, Ms. Torbert said.
Anne Jahnke, a Cedar Rapids parent who leads the Iowa Club, a 4-H group that started as “Clover Kids” when her twins were just 5, said she uses skills learned during her own years at 4-H in her job as a mechanical engineer.
“We do a lot of presentations,” Ms. Jahnke said of the club. “That ability to get up in front of a group and talk is important.”
Learning parliamentary procedure is another valuable opportunity provided by 4-H, Ms. Jahnke said, noting it is an important piece of knowledge for those serving on boards or in elected positions later life.
Janet Martin, urban youth development specialist for the Johnson County ISU Extension, said STEM programming has become a priority for Iowa’s 4-H program, particularly in the last decade. In Johnson County this summer, 4-H on Wheels, a program designed for first- through sixth-grade students, will focus on STEM learning, with hands-on activities that include building gliders and straw rockets, raft building, extracting DNA from strawberries, making glue, building arches and other educational activities.
“4-H focuses on experiential learning where youth do the activity, reflect by sharing their observations and identifying problems and opportunities, and apply information to connect hands-on learning to real situations,” Ms Martin said.
Tricia Stouder, a 4-H youth development specialist in Johnson, Iowa, Keokuk and Washington counties, is leading Clover University in Johnson County this summer, which teaches various age groups of children about sound, making parachutes, veterinary science and robotics, among other topics.
As in other areas, much of the 4-H activity culminates at the summer county fair.
“The fair symbolizes the pinnacle of the youth’s 4-H year,” said Camie Marshek, youth outreach educator for the Johnson County ISU Extension.
She cited communications events, a talent show, livestock judging, a fashion show, working exhibits and more that will be taking place during the Johnson County Fair from Saturday, July 19, through Friday, July 25, at the fairgrounds in Iowa City.
At the Great Jones County Fair in Monticello, 4-H activities kick off the day before the fair on July 15, with events continuing during the fair from July 16-20, said Monica Gray, youth program coordinator for Jones County ISU Extension.
One 4-H member might give a presentation about Lyme disease while another displays a clock made from a steel tire rim, she said of the varied events in which children present their projects to a judge.
“A lot of people think 4-H is just for the farm kids. It’s not,” Ms. Gray said, citing about 300 Jones County 4-H participants in fourth grade through high school, and more than 100 younger Clover Kids. “The opportunities are endless.”
The Linn County Fair, held from June 25-30 at the fairgrounds in Central City, includes many of the same events as those in Jones and Johnson counties.
“Throughout the year we provide many hands-on learning experiences to help (4-H members) grow and become a better person,” Ms. Marshek said. “To us, it is not about what color ribbon you receive on your project, but the journey, what you learned and how you got there.”