Kristin Dill leads 4-H Kristin Dill, a sophomore at West Lafayette High School, shows Jonah Bosma, 10, (left) and Jonathan Siskind, 9, how to extract strawberry DNA. Dill and other Indiana 4-H teen teachers lead similar activities at 4-H meetings, camps and school-based programs.


Shaking Up Science Education​

4-H Teens Take Part in National Program to Learn and Teach Biotechnology​

By Nancy Alexander

At an afterschool program at New Community School in Lafayette, Ind., a dozen fifth- and sixth-graders energetically shake plastic bags of soymilk and sugar encased in outer plastic bags of salt. They’re making ice cream while their teachers explain how the cells change as the liquid becomes a solid.

Teen Teachers

These schoolchildren are learning science, but their teachers aren’t degreed adults: They’re high school students—Teens Teaching Youth AgriScience/Biotechnology—who are learning right along with their pupils.

All are participants in a 4-H program piloted last year in two Indiana counties and expanding across the state. The national pilot program, jointly funded by the National 4-H Council and the United Soybean Board, involved five land-grant universities, including Purdue. Renee McKee, program leader for 4-H and Youth Development, was instrumental in forming the teen teaching team and helping secure funding from the National 4-H Council.

Indiana program coordinator Stephanie Femrite, 4-H youth development educator for Purdue Extension in Tippecanoe County, and her Extension counterpart in Bartholomew County, Erika Bonnett, initially recruited two teenagers in each of their counties. “I was looking for youth who were self-starters, had leadership capabilities, were creative and who had science background and interest,” Bonnett says.

And she knew Josh Gray, a 4-H Junior Leader and Boy Scout who aspires to a career in engineering, “would be the perfect fit,” she says. When she texted Josh that she had “this amazing science opportunity for you to learn and teach… Are you interested?” he jumped in. The junior at Columbus Signature Academy–New Tech figured he was good with kids and good with science, but he didn’t realize the scope of what he was signing on for: “I honestly thought it was a service project, like in 4-H.” Little did he know!

Gray and Joey Perry in Bartholomew County, and Grace Baldwin and Kristin Dill in Tippecanoe County, were also among 16 “teen leaders” from five states who attended a four-day national training event in January 2012 in Indianapolis. They were introduced to the agriscience/biotechnology curriculum, toured local industry and practiced their hands-on teaching activities. In April they staffed the 4-H booth at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. And in Indiana, the four trained 14 more teens from the two counties and as teams, facilitated biotechnology education in 4-H clubs, camps, and after-school and school programs and helped to implement the program statewide.

Grace BaldwinTippecanoe County 4-Her Grace Baldwin learns a DNA experiment during a national 4-H training program to help teen leaders facilitate biotechnology education in their home states.

The original four teens helped train 47 others representing 10 more Indiana counties in November 2012. Those teen teachers have returned to their counties to lead classes for upper-elementary and younger middle-school students.

Baldwin, now a first-year agricultural engineering major at Purdue, and her fellow teen teachers were challenged to figure out ways to teach science and biotechnology that kept the younger students engaged. “I learned so much more about agriculture than I ever expected,” says Baldwin, a 10-year 4-H member and Junior Leader. “It was great to see 4-H taking a different approach.”

Focus on Fundamentals

Kathryn Orvis, associate professor in youth development and agricultural education and horticulture and landscape architecture, applied her expertise in plant science and biotechnology to design the curriculum. “One of the main things I try to emphasize is that it’s important to learn the fundamental, underlying concepts that form the basis for some of the technology we use,” she says.

The curriculum is flexible, so different teams can adapt it to different settings. “We gave the teens a toolbox of activities,” Orvis explains. “Then they could change it up. We wanted them to have the ownership, to be empowered with the leadership and teaching experience.”

“The teenagers really took full charge,” says Femrite, who has since taken a position with University of Missouri Extension​. “I continue to be impressed and amazed by their ability. When teenagers are teaching younger students, they serve as role models.”

The program targets a new audience for 4-H—youth who do not necessarily have agricultural backgrounds and may not be 4-H members. According to Orvis, it also reflects the national organization’s commitment to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

For the teen teachers, it’s about sharing new information in creative ways. “Being hands-on is something fifth- and sixth-graders like,” Gray says. “When we tell kids about proteins, and then molecules and so forth, progressing into DNA extraction and encoding, we see the excitement these kids have for science… To me, that is amazing.”​