2022-2023: 4-H Positive Youth Development
4-H Ambassadors Mentoring Students Toward STEM Careers
Developing Maine youth science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) literacy is vital to ensuring that our state continues to thrive economically and socially. Given the remote and diverse communities where Maine youth live, informal education can help minimize inequities in rural youth STEM education and career pipelines. Future career opportunities in Maine will depend heavily on STEM skills, whether in the growing fields of healthcare and engineering, or in positions requiring technical skills, such as construction, and maintenance of transportation and energy systems.
4-H STEM Ambassadors are trained University of Maine System students enrolled as 4-H volunteers who facilitate hands-on STEM activities with youth 8–14 years old throughout Maine. Since 2014, our 4-H STEM Ambassadors program has enrolled and trained more than 500 UMaine system students who have facilitated in-person, hands-on learning experiences fostering youth STEM enjoyment, literacy, and identity, reaching more than 6,000 Maine youth in classrooms, libraries, and after-school clubs across the state. In the Fall 2020, Extension redesigned the program to be virtual, including training, mentoring, and experiential STEM programming.
The shift to a virtual program allowed for multicampus student teams and increased access for more distant community partners regardless of the local program model (remote, in-person, hybrid). In 2021 the program reached more than 300 students, grades 3–8, across 18 sites with the help of 39 volunteer Ambassadors and staff. In 2022 program staff spent the first part of the year upgrading the virtual programming and then reached another 89 students at seven sites with the help of 11 Ambassadors. Through this program, youth ages 8–14 come to view these Ambassadors as mentors and leaders in their community while also developing skills in STEM through hands-on activities and becoming connected to research, resources, and scientists at Maine’s public universities.
Summer of Science STEM Enrichment for Children Experiencing Poverty and Immigrant and Refugee Families
Children experiencing poverty have less access to enrichment activities, contributing to an achievement gap between them and their more affluent classmates. This gap accelerates during summer months when children from low-resource backgrounds tend to fall behind in grade equivalency compared to their peers. This condition can be especially acute for children living in public housing neighborhoods, including many of Maine’s immigrant and refugee families in the metro areas of Portland and Lewiston. Access to STEM enrichment activities leads to improved academic success, more educational attainment, and better employment opportunities.
UMaine Extension created the 4-H Summer of Science (SOS) in 2012 to: 1) improve youth aspirations in STEM, 2) introduce STEM careers to youth, and 3) mitigate summer learning loss and the achievement gap. Over time, the SOS program has developed to include teens as teachers and college interns as teacher mentors. In 2022, UMaine 4-H faculty and staff designed four STEM lessons that were taught in seven southern Maine communities at 15 sites, including Boys & Girls Clubs, the YMCA, summer lunch programs, public housing centers, and libraries. There were 153 adult volunteers and summer staff who taught 535 youth in the field of environmental DNA (eDNA). Forty-eight percent of youth participants were non-white (225 of them of black or African American origin).
SOS is unique among STEM programs in using teens to be the teachers; SOS is often the first paid position for our teens. These teens were trained to deliver lessons, understand content, manage classrooms, motivate young learners, and work with community partners. Seven college interns were recruited, trained, and tasked with mentoring the teen teachers, thereby creating an integrated generational approach to delivering community programming. The college interns and teen teachers gained workforce skills such as time management, leadership, public speaking, problem-solving, ethics, and teamwork. Funding for stipends for the teens and college students came from USDA NIFA, Portland Public Schools, and the UMaine EPSCoR program.
The SOS program focuses on programming where youth already are (in neighborhoods, libraries, and community sites) and uses positive 4-H youth development practices to reduce barriers to STEM activities. By engaging in Summer of Science activities, the 4-H youth are well poised to return to their academic school year with reduced summer learning loss and an increased interest in science.
Research by UMaine faculty shows that well-designed STEM lessons delivered by near peers (teens and college students) supports STEM career aspirations and leads to better content knowledge. Research also shows that youth involved in 4-H are more likely to pursue future courses or a career in science, engineering, or computer technology, which can lead to improved employment opportunities. For Maine elementary school youth, SOS supports narrowing their STEM achievement gap during summer months, and for the teens trained to deliver programming, it fosters their career development, leadership abilities, and sense of responsibility. Teen teachers in the SOS program report improved socio-emotional skills and applicable workforce skills, as well as increased resiliency.
4-H Aquaponics Project Sparking Youth Interest and Workforce Development
Maine communities have a long tradition of harvesting healthy seafood and taking care of the environment. Maine aquaculturists are leading suppliers of fresh, sustainable, and locally grown seafood, and as a result, aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing industries in the state. Maine aquaculture generates more than $137 million in sales output, 1,975 full- and part-time jobs, and $56 million in labor income annually, and there is an increasing need to grow the local workforce to support the growing industry.
As a global leader in the aquaculture industry, Maine is uniquely positioned to engage youth in aquaculture education programs that will help grow and strengthen local businesses and the economy. A workforce shortage in Maine’s aquaculture industry has been an obstacle to growth for many businesses and could stunt the industry’s tremendous growth potential.
The recirculating aquaculture system sector is booming, with five large-scale companies recently investing in Maine, bringing economic benefits to rural communities. Hancock County in particular has a thriving aquaculture industry due to its coastal location and access to the UMaine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR). To support this growing industry, effective workforce development programs must provide the flow of talent needed to create and sustain a robust aquaculture industry. With roots in agriculture and animal science, the 4-H Youth Development Program of UMaine Extension is a natural fit for aquaculture advancement programs.
In 2022, Hancock County 4-H partnered with CCAR and the Aquaculture Research Institute to expand the 4-H Aquaponics project, an experiential learning program for K–12 youth that includes learning experiences in introductory aquaponic systems and design, fish husbandry, aquaponic gardening, cooking and nutrition, and more. Youth practice important life skills such as record-keeping, problem-solving, food safety, collaboration/teamwork, science and math literacy. They can participate in the project from home, from their classroom, or any other youth group setting, such as after-school programs, summer camps, etc.
Youth participants gained a deep understanding of novel, complex systems, while practicing important life skills such as resiliency and troubleshooting. They also developed skills that are sought after by the aquaculture industry (e.g., basic knowledge of fish biology, understanding water quality issues, project management, teamwork, and more), specifically related to recirculating aquaculture systems. The 4-H Aquaponics project is being lauded as a viable workforce development program for the aquaculture sector in Maine and nationally. It was externally funded for 2022 and beyond and received the 2021 Denise Miller National 4-H Innovator Award from the National Association of Extension 4-H Youth Development Professionals.
NorthStar Program Raises Student Aspirations
Many employers now require bachelor’s degrees for an increasingly wider range of jobs, and there is a significant achievement and mental health gap for rural Maine youth. According to the 2021 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, one in five Maine students have experienced more than four adverse childhood experiences that significantly impact health and behavior outcomes. The percent of Oxford County residents with a bachelor’s degree (20.6%) is far below state and national averages. Isolation, lack of social capital, and access to important resources are related challenges for these rural youth.
Based in rural western Maine, NorthStar is a 4-H mentoring program that raises youth aspirations via long-term adult and peer relationships, part of a statewide network called Aspirations Incubator (AI). Students are recruited in seventh grade, referred by a teacher or parent, and are mentored through graduation. Cohorts are formed by grade level and meet monthly to plan and execute yearly “core trips,” which include community service, cultural exchange, outdoor adventure, college visits, and career shadowing. NorthStar offers many other activities based on student interest and community need, and refers students to local employment.
The program’s first six years have been promising. Our first cohort is about to graduate from high school, with 90% planning to go to college this fall. All of these students report feeling more connected to their community, and 75% of them report a positive change in their relationship with adults and peers because of NorthStar. NorthStar staff and volunteers have acted as frontline support for teens in the SAD44 community, providing a much-needed bridge to available support services and direct support in numerous crisis situations. More than 70% of students in the program reported experiencing positive growth on measures related to learning interest and critical thinking. AI students were half as likely to be chronically absent compared with their peers, and more likely to exceed academic expectations. The majority of AI students reported improvements in their peer and adult relationships each year. In Year 4, 89% of eighth graders in Cohort 3 agreed that the program had helped them to feel connected to their community, and 86% said they have people to talk with when they feel lonely.
4-H Summer Camp and Learning Centers: Connecting Youth to the Outdoors and Building Community
Research has shown that positive social and emotional learning experiences can significantly impact youth development and connecting youth to a positive adult role model decreases the risk for making unhealthy choices or engaging in risky behaviors. With youth spending more time connected to social media and other digital platforms resulting in isolation and sedentary indoor time, many youth suffer from obesity and/or ADHD, and some lack opportunities to develop positive interpersonal communication skills.
UMaine Extension 4-H Camp and Learning Centers provide programs for youth ages 4-17, many from underserved populations, to have transformational experiences designed to develop a sense of place and belonging, and confidence in the outdoors. Our programs include both day and residential summer camps, onsite open-air classrooms for schools, and school-based programs, as well as adult programming and workshops. We have a well-developed virtual component to our programs that gives them added depth and maximizes accessibility. Our Learning Centers typically attract more than 2,500 youth each summer, and provide school programming for more than 6,000 students from 60+ Maine school groups.
In 2022, our 4-H Camp and Learning Centers:
- Delivered year-round programming at the UMaine 4-H Learning Centers at Blueberry Cove, Bryant Pond, and Tanglewood, including programs in water ecology, forest ecology, wilderness survival, and conservation education.
- Collaborated with NH and VT developed and delivered an AgriSTEM curriculum virtually and in person among the 3 states to over 600 students, including summer campers at 4-H centers.
- Continued to support Telstar Freshman Academy at Bryant Pond, offering daily, yearlong, experiential learning designed to engage students in an outdoor setting.
- Continued to deliver the NorthStar Youth Mentoring program that connects young people with caring adults through community engagement, cultural exchange, and adventure challenge and leadership. The program is grounded in in-person contact, and also uses virtual contact for family and other activities.
- Continued, through Tech Wizards, to provide STEM education and service-learning to help youth learn life and workforce skills, improve academic performance, and aspire to pursue post-secondary education, leading to fulfilling careers and participation in their communities.
- At Greenland Point in Washington County, one of Maine’s most impoverished counties, offered hands-on, ecology-focused education, and through scholarships making sure that price is not an obstacle to anyone who wants to come to camp.
- At summer camps and open-air classrooms, Tanglewood and Blueberry Cove offered programs tailored to community needs, including youth development programs for schools seeking to address the learning loss students had faced during the pandemic.