For one Oklahoma County 4-H’er, a series of life-altering events made a big impact on him. In 2014, major health issues and surgeries for his sister led to her being placed in hospice care. A few months later his home burned down. The month after that, his family was involved in a car accident that would change their lives forever.
Suffering from a debilitating back injury that prevented him from doing the things he loved, Aidan Spencer wanted to give up. Fortunately, a couple of his friends saw he was in a bad place and invited him to join the Oklahoma County 4-H Robotics Club. That was a game changer.
“As anyone can imagine, I was broken. I didn't want to leave my house, hang out with friends or do anything that would take me out of my comfort zone,” Spencer said.
But then, through his involvement with that robotics club, he found his place, he found a purpose and developed a passion. Now, several years later, his hard work and dedication paid off and the National 4-H Council named Spencer the winner of the 2021 Youth in Action Pillar Award winner for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
Spencer said after his first year being involved in 4-H, he realized the importance of STEM education in his community. While he was fortunate to have found a program open to anyone who was interested, he later realized the discrepancy of local STEM access and opportunities. He realized the importance of making STEM activities available for everyone and it didn’t matter what a person looked like or where they went to school.
“That’s when an unshakable goal was planting itself in my heart. I wanted to help my club grow by reaching other students, who like myself, needed a place to connect and grow,” he said. “STEM is important. With science guiding the world around us, technology is constantly expanding into every aspect of our lives, while engineering and math educate us to think critically and are the basic design behind everything we have. By exposing students to STEM and giving them opportunities to explore STEM-related concepts, they’ll develop a passion for it and better understand the world around them.”
Spencer said his club leader noticed his passion and appointed him to a newly created outreach position that would push the STEM narrative into the community. Because of this leadership opportunity, Spencer was able to develop a comprehensive community outreach plan that focuses on aiding students who were underrepresented in local STEM circles.
“Aidan is a shining example of perseverance and hard work. He’s an outstanding leader for his club, our community and our county,” said Cody Yount, Oklahoma State University Extension educator, 4-H Youth Development, in Oklahoma County. “He’s an impressive young man and I have no doubt he will go on to accomplish great things. My hope is our other 4-H’ers will see Aidan’s achievements and be inspired by them.”
Not only was exposure to STEM activities a barrier for youth like Spencer, so was funding for STEM programming. Spencer has partnered with organizations such as the STEM Achievement Foundation, as well as other youth-serving groups that target vulnerable populations, to bring more than 60 STEM exposure events to youth in his community. In addition, he created a business plan to raise more than $7,000 to support STEM and robotics programs in Oklahoma City.
He spent two years cultivating business relationships through cold calls, email and LinkedIn messages with corporate and non-profit leaders while gaining support and recognition from the media and public officials.
These efforts have led to launching three new FIRST LEGO League robotics teams in his area and is bridging the exposure gap by creating a more diverse STEM experience for young people in his community. He also developed a summer science camp for kids, has taught over 200 elementary school children to program Lego Mindstorms and planned a FIRST LEGO League Jr. Expo in which 20 teams competed.
Spencer, who serves as president of his club, as well as Oklahoma County 4-H vice president, received a $5,000 scholarship for being named the STEM Pillar Award winner. He is a high school senior and currently is weighing his college options. He plans to study political science and business and obtain a degree in public administration in an effort to help lead non-profits and organizations that are involved in expanding access to quality STEM educational opportunities.
“Being a leader in 4-H has taught me many wonderful lessons, yet it also has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life,” Spencer said. “When I consider what has been accomplished and what still needs work, it creates a welcomed fear within me. In an ever-changing, complex world, it’s more important than ever to introduce kids to STEM – no matter where they come from. Without the support and inspiration from 4-H, my leaders and my friends, I never would have found this passion. This passion is what motivates me to keep going, push forward and find new ways of accomplishing my goals.”
The 4-H Youth in Action Awards, sponsored in part by HughesNet, began in 2010 to recognize club members who have used the knowledge they gained in 4-H to create a lasting impact in their communities.