Even with a century of history behind it, today’s 4-H clubs are strikingly modern. Sure, there’s still a commitment to learning about agriculture, and participating in county fairs remain a club staple. But these days, 4-H students are spending a lot of their time focused on areas like civics, sustainable living, technology, and leadership skills—and they’re doing it largely on their own.
“In schools, learning is more teacher directed. In 4-H, it’s whatever the students want to learn,” explains Brenda Welch, Youth Program Specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach 4-H Youth Development and oversees the county 4-H program across five Iowa counties. “It’s about giving them choices.”
To hear Welch tell it, when students direct their own learning they not only retain more, but they build crucial life skills like confidence, creativity, and leadership. The organization’s motto—”Learn by doing”—makes project-based activities an ideal fit for club leaders looking to find that sweet spot between hard and soft skills and between organized activities and open-ended learning opportunities. With that in mind, 4-H staff, like Welch, have turned to Defined STEM, an online curriculum supplement with hundreds of hands-on, project-based lessons.
For her counties, Welch typically offers 4-H’ers a list of Defined STEM projects that align with 4-H focus areas, but not necessarily specific school subjects. A project plotting a migration path for Monarch butterflies hits the sustainability and environment target. Another, which challenges students to explore how to make ice cream healthier, pegs to a focus on healthy living. And a project asking students to think like a travel agent as they plan and budget an extensive trip connects with a commitment to civic leadership.
“For us at 4-H, it’s a different assessment than at school,” Welch says. “We are judging the experience and the learning, not what they learned. You’re judging the growth of the child. There are higher order thinking skills at play.”