NDSU Extension 4-H programs pique youth interest in STEM
4-H programs teach youth to build and program robots and learn the basics of computer coding.
The U.S. has become a global leader through the inventiveness and hard work of its scientists, engineers and innovators, yet America students aren’t pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM.
North Dakota State University Extension is working to reverse that trend through 4-H programs that teach youth to build and program robots and learn the basics of computer coding.
McKenzie County served as North Dakota’s pilot site for the EV3 Robotics program in 2017 in Watford City. Extension agent Marcia Hellandsaas launched the after-school program with 14 youth in grades six to eight. The youth were in robotics classes at school or a teacher recommended them as students who excelled in science.
The youth built and programmed various robots using LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kits.
“We reached out to a high school robotics class in Alexander for some mentoring assistance and relationship building,” Hellandsaas says. “A field trip to interact with those students and their wonderful teacher provided us with some new tools and learning.”
The high school students also visited the younger youth in Watford City.
“Most of the students worked as partners to build the robots, and we found that some great friendships, learning and problem solving took place,” Hellandsaas says.
All of the youth involved in that pilot program said it helped them understand science and engineering better, 83 percent said their experience made them more interested in studying STEM in school, and 58 percent reported they would like a science-related job.
Now Extension agents offer the robotics programming through 4-H using LEGO EV3 or NXT kits in about 20 counties.
“I challenge the kids first so they start thinking like engineers,” says Karla Meikle, Extension’s 4-H youth development agent in Morton County. “I present them the opportunity to build a Ferris wheel. While the results don’t always look like a Ferris wheel, it gets their minds going.
“Once they have completed that task, they look in the books for the designated robotics item we decide on,” she adds. “They build the dancing birds or the alligator, whatever the task is, and then have the opportunity to do some programming.”
Agents offer these programs in a variety of settings. For example, Meikle recently took EV3 Robotics kits to the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center.
“The kids were so patient building their cranes and puppies,” she says. “The teachers were amazed at the time the kids took to build their robots and the thought process that went into coding when they were finished.”
The robotics program does more than pique students’ interest in STEM, however.
“Kids learn they need to cooperate, respect others, think of others’ feelings and listen to each other in order to have a successful project,” Hellandsaas says. “It takes attention to detail and the ability to follow directions, think things through and learn from your mistakes, and lots of patience to make a cool robot. In the end, the times you were so frustrated you thought you could never complete the build is well worth all the sweat and tears when your robot is performing a really cool task and making sounds to boot.”
For younger youth, NDSU Extension’s Center for 4-H Youth Development offers the WeDo program. Youth in kindergarten to about grade five use a LEGO WeDo kit to help them build and program robots.
“It brings much joy and a feeling of accomplishment to completely build a robot and also provide movement and sound,” says Hellandsaas, who has led the program in several schools, and at 4-H clubs and the North Dakota 4-H Camp near Washburn.
“Some kids like to free-style their robots and see what they can build without following the instruction given,” she notes. “Those creations can be really awesome!
“Once children begin to build and create, a room often becomes almost quite,” Hellandsaas says. “Sometimes the next more significant sound I hear will be a robot that someone has successfully programmed.”
North Dakota 4-H offers WeDo programming in about 25 counties.
Youth have other opportunities to be involved in 4-H STEM activities as well. For instance, through a grant from Microsoft, older 4-H’ers plan and lead digital activities for elementary and middle school students.
In 2018, the older 4-H’ers worked weekly with an afterschool STEM club at Cheney Middle School in West Fargo and a CHARISM afterschool program at Fargo’s Carl Ben Eielson Middle School on computer science activities. Building and programming robots with LEGO kits was one of those activities.
“The LEGO kits are a new thing we incorporated with the Microsoft grant,” says Lindsey Leker, the Center for 4-H Youth Development’s science specialist.
Also, North Dakota 4-H’ers and other youth join more than 100 million youth worldwide for the Hour of Code, a program held in schools during Computer Science Education Week. It’s a one-hour introduction to computer science. It helps demystify computer code, the language that allows us to create computer software, apps and websites. The objectives are to demonstrate that anyone can learn the basics of coding and increase participation in the computer science field.
North Dakota youth participated in 215 Hour of Code events during the 2018 Computer Science Education Week, which was Dec. 3-9. Each year in some counties, older 4-H’ers help guide the younger students.
To get more youth involved in STEM learning, Leker holds robotics training for Extension agents, teachers, volunteers and older 4-H’ers at various locations in the state.
“An increase in training has led to an increase in participation across the state,” she says. “Robotics is a great way to get youth involved in engineering and coding activities.”
To get involved in these programs, contact your county office of NDSU Extension.