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Indiana 4-H leaders join conversation

4-H participant and young students
NEW DAY: Indiana state 4-H leaders say reaching nontraditional audiences on subjects such as virtual reality is key today.
State leaders explain what 4-H is doing to develop youth for the future.

Many of you have read Indiana Prairie Farmer’s recent articles regarding the apparent decline in traditional 4-H participation. Here’s a response from the two people who head up Indiana 4-H.

Dear editor:

We appreciate the conversation started by Tom Bechman regarding Indiana 4-H. We would like to share our thoughts and perspective.

Since 1902, Indiana 4-H has equipped Indiana’s youth with the skills they need for their future. A century ago, seven of 10 Indiana residents lived in a rural community. Corn clubs and canning clubs catered to rural youth and brought new innovations, such as hybrid seed corn, to Indiana’s farms.

As these clubs evolved into 4-H, the program focused on developing technical skills required to excel in agriculture. County fairs emerged as the showcase event where youth demonstrated their abilities to raise crops and livestock.

By the turn of this century, Indiana’s economy had evolved from an agrarian to a manufacturing to a service economy. Indiana 4-H has also evolved, offering educational opportunities that develop new skills and help youth flourish in an ever-changing society. Today Indiana 4-H offers special interest clubs for careers of the future such as robotics, fluid power and computer coding. As agriculture goes digital, these skills are vital.

As society and the agricultural industry clamor for people skilled in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), Indiana 4-H is obliged to offer educational opportunities that develop skills for children raised on the farm as well as those raised in small towns, suburbs and urban centers. It’s our duty to empower youth to pursue the professional skills that businesses seek. Hard work, communication, problem solving, team work, critical thinking and meeting deadlines are hallmarks of the 4-H club. These skills can be developed through projects exhibited at the county fair. These skills can also be developed through hands-on learning experiences that don’t result in fair projects.

One such initiative is the Indiana 4-H NFPA Fluid Power Action Challenge, during which youth learn about pneumatics and hydraulics and work in teams to build a machine to accomplish a task. By participating in this challenge youth develop and test ideas, adapt when problems arise, work in a team, develop a portfolio and interact with industry experts.

Indiana 4-H reaches new audiences by partnering with industry leaders. Google and National 4-H Council generously awarded virtual reality equipment, computers and funding for STEM programming to Indiana 4-H in 2017. This partnership brought 4-H experiences to 1,377 youth during the first six months of 2018. For most participants this interaction with Google technology was their first 4-H experience. This partnership attracts new audiences and gives us a chance to spark interest in a sector desperate for a pipeline of talent.  

If corn clubs and canning clubs hadn’t been created, America’s youth wouldn’t have encouraged parents to embrace advances in agriculture or food safety in the early 1900s. Had 4-H not evolved from these clubs, generations of 4-H families wouldn’t have had the wide variety of opportunities they feel nostalgic about today. If we refuse to adapt to meet the needs of today’s youth, we will fail to adequately prepare our youth for their futures. As our world moves forward, Indiana 4-H has a responsibility to develop programming that prepares youth for their futures as the creative and dynamic leaders of tomorrow. 

— Jason Henderson, director of Purdue Extension, associate dean, College of Agriculture; and Renee K. McKee, assistant director, Purdue Extension, state 4-H program leader

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