Purdue University Extension deserves credit for making the best of a historically challenging situation in 2020. With both the reality that COVID-19 was here, it became obvious early that 4-H activities and county fairs couldn’t happen normally this year.
Does that mean administrators and Extension staff made the right decision every time? I’m not making that call. Could some things have been handled more diplomatically? Perhaps. The bottom line, however, is that Extension youth educators and administrators found a way to give 4-H youth some sort of 4-H experience. That’s commendable.
The strategy in some cases was to hold “virtual” judging and activities. 4-H members submitted photos for videos online, and judges sat at a computer and evaluated the 4-H’ers’ work. Some counties opted to bring static, non-livestock projects to the fairgrounds for judges to judge in person but didn’t allow the 4-H’ers to be present. Several counties held live livestock shows, with no animals staying overnight.
I was privileged to judge 4-H crops, assorted poster projects and 4-H photography at a few counties, about half virtual and half live without kids. In most cases, the mechanics and technical aspects of virtual judging worked better than I expected. It was relatively easy to log in, find projects and make comments. Kudos to St. Joseph County for requiring an hourlong virtual training for judging. It certainly helped.
After judging photography, crops and hay virtually, I could offer many tips to help members improve next time. High on the list would be paying attention to lighting. Judging virtual photography is reasonably straightforward, if the “picture” of the “picture” is lighted correctly.
To educators, instruct members to be consistent in choosing backgrounds. I saw everything from tobacco plants hung on a clothesline to soybeans in a jar so close-up I could count every bean. And choose a jar without designs. Light refraction through the Ball jar logo leaves you wondering if the grain is damaged.
That’s enough virtual tips. Why? Because my sincere hope is that after 2020, no one ever judges anything virtually ever again! Rather than figuring out ways to improve virtual judging, let’s devise systems that allow live, in-person judging in every case, preferably with members present.
It’s impossible to judge hay correctly if you can’t smell it and feel it for moisture content. My wife, Carla, says it’s nearly impossible to fairly evaluate a slice of pie, a cookie or a muffin without seeing it close up and tasting it. Is it underbaked, or does it just look like it is?
Learning happens when 4-H members explain their project to a judge and answer questions, no matter what the project is. In that tense moment when a 10-year old 4-H’er, perhaps for the first time, spends a couple minutes explaining to a stranger what they did, magic happens. It’s character building. It’s real life!
So, 2020 4-H judging is in the books, and Purdue Extension, volunteers, parents and kids made the best of a dire situation. Now let’s look to 2021. Let’s make sure that whatever the new normal is for 4-H, it includes real interaction and real learning!