Extension 4-H Program Inspires Students’ Sustainability Projects

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has received renewed funding for a 4-H program that has introduced hundreds of middle and high school students to sustainable lifestyle practices and inspired them to positively influence their schools and communities through service-learning activities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently allocated $140,000, the third installment of a five-year, $660,000 grant-funded 4-H project. The grant focuses on “at risk” youth in schools and school districts with high eligibility rates for the National School Lunch program, according to Bryant Pond program director Ryder Scott. The program introduces entire middle and high school classes to service-learning, sustainability and, ultimately, leadership toward those ends.

Since the Maine Sustainable Communities project started three years ago, more than 35 middle and high school classes from throughout Maine have participated at either Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and Learning Center in Western Maine or Tanglewood 4-H Camp and Learning Center in Lincolnville.

Scott has been impressed with the results.

In 2009, Buckfield Middle School students left the five-day residential experience to go home and start a school garden. The students last year decided to raise honeybees to improve garden pollination, Scott says, and the garden won a statewide award this year from Maine Agriculture in the Classroom.

“We teach principles of ecology, environmental studies and principles of sustainability, conservation, recycling and reuse and ecology, and combined with that — and this is the unique part — we have combined it with a service-learning curriculum,” Scott says. “Our intent is to spark an interest in change — making communities and schools more environmentally and ecologically sustainable.”

Students learn, for instance, about organic foods and composting by hauling kitchen and meal scraps to a compost site after camp meals as part of that sustainability package, Scott says. The Maine Sustainable Communities Project civically engages youngsters, who often feel powerless to effect change in an adult world, he says.

During the typical two- to three-day camp experience, 4-H staff and teachers guide students though a facilitated process where they’re asked how they would make life better in their community. Then they create an action plan.

Both Bryant Pond and Tanglewood “have supported lots of successful programs that the students have conceived during their experiences at the 4-H camps,” Scott says.

“I’ve been an outdoor educator for 15 years, and for me, the service-learning component is the biggest success story for us. By integrating service-learning and sustainability into a program, it’s more than a knowledge transfer lesson,” he says.

“The implicit message is we’re all connected and action matters. Student participation is important. You’re exposing them. You’re giving them a true sense of empowerment. I have to believe it’s a life-long lesson.”

The program is one of several overseen by Extension professor Cathy Elliott, a founding member of the National Network for Sustainable Living Education who teaches and conducts research and presentations on sustainability. She and Kristy Ouellette, Extension educator for 4-H Youth and Family Development, in the Lisbon Falls office, are the principal investigators for the grant.

Contact: Ryder Scott, 207.665.2935; Cathy Elliott, 207.581.2902