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Kansas 4-H Science of Agriculture Challenge pushes students to find answers

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Kansas 4-H Science of Agriculture Challenge pushes students to find answers

“The nature of work and good research is failure.”

Wade Weber, State 4-H program leader/department head for 4-H Youth Development at Kansas State University, said today’s youth need to develop more critical thinking skills. He, along with several others involved with the new Kansas 4-H Science of Agriculture Challenge, are hoping this program might be a good fit for developing leaders of the future.


Photo courtesy of Becky Henderson.

“(The program) gives an opportunity to incentivize young people to dig into everyday problem solving opportunities with community partners tackling real issues,” Weber said. “A partnership to develop those problem solving skills, investigative skills that are essential for equipping young people to be leaders that we need in our Kansas economy going forward.

The challenge is a hands-on learning experience aimed at inspiring the next generation of agriculture leaders in Kansas. Teams of three to five in grades 6 to 12 work with volunteer coaches and mentors. They create projects and develop solutions by first identifying agriculture-related issues in their area. Later they find solutions and share projects with their community. Teams presented their ideas to a panel of industry expert judges, Nov. 3, in Manhattan, Kansas.

Developing real skill

The first place team from Cowley County, Kansas, looked at the economic impact of flies on cattle herds.

Team members evaluated their potential solutions and put them into testing. They were not just coming up with ideas. They were able to see them work.

“That’s the real key skill,” Weber said.

Amy Sollock, southwest area 4-H youth development specialist agreed. As influencers in youth development, Sollock and Weber are hoping programs like this with the challenge concept will increase the relevance of agricultural science.

“At the same time we’re always concerned about being relevant and how do we align ourselves with our corporate partners so that larger ag science companies still see us as producing capable and potentially hireable employees in the future,” Sollock said. “We want to make sure we’re getting kids real world, quality level learning experiences, and we thought that this program could do just that.”

She feels the process of asking the students to identify a problem and to also come up with the solution develops “some pretty high level thinking processes.” And it proved challenging.

“I think it was hard for them to kind of wrap their minds around that,” she said. “We weren’t just asking them to research the problem. We’re actually wanting them to come up with an answer to it.”


Austin Henderson, part of the Cowley County, Kansas, 4-H Science of Agriculture team, practices his presentation prior to the Nov. 3 challenge, which was held at Kansas State University. The event gave teams the opportunity to find a problem in their community and work together to find the answer. (Courtesy photo by Becky Henderson.)

Exploring new territory

This kind of process isn’t something many students are used to.

“We’re not just wanting you to understand a topic or learn more about it, but we’re asking you to solve real world issues,” Sollock said. “And it’s a messy process. It’s not really linear.”

The process is really trial and error.

For Sollock, the most favorite part of the process was watching the students interact and discuss their problems with a panel of judges in a preliminary competition at the Kansas State Fair and the challenge final at Kansas State University. At K-State the dean of the college of research, Martin Draper, was one of the panelists.

“I think he enjoyed it as much as the kids did. How often does a sixth grader get to interact with someone of his rank?” Sollock said. “I think they were a little intimidated by the whole thing, but it was such a cool experience for them to present on campus to someone of that stature and learn from him and him from them and that was really fun for us.”

Outside the norm

Cowley County 4-H agent Kelsey Nordyke saw a number of benefits for her winning team of Brendon Mackey, Braden Mugler and Austin Henderson.

“They all three go to really small schools,” Nordyke said. “I think what they got out of it was just getting out in the community and talking to two producers and people in industry.”

The trio presented their project, a look at the impact of flies on cattle, at the state fair and at K-State. Looking beyond their community was extremely important.

“Because it’s a group of boys that two of three of them, I would say, don’t get out beyond the community a lot,” she said. “So for them to have their world expanded was really, really big.”

The group was able to find a wide range of livestock producers at home in their own county—and Nordyke said they’ve got the gamut of beef producers—from cow-calf to stockers to feedlots and dairies as well as the local sale barn.

“They were really lucky they were able to meet with a lot of different producers and figure some things out,” she said.

The trio was also blessed to have a great volunteer as their coach, Nordyke said. Amanda Mugler took the project on and just ran with it.

“She’s a 4-H mom, but she didn’t grow up in 4-H,” Nordyke said. “So the 4-H experience is all kind of new to her, but she’s also a teacher and so she was really great to engage in the questions.”

In the planning stages of the challenge, Nordyke sat down with the team and coach to help brainstorm who they needed to talk with. The kids had to use a phonebook, and Nordyke was surprised the boys didn’t know how to use it.

“So to think now about some of the things that these kids learned besides just the fact that they have to learn presentation skills and they have to look at the actual subject matter,” she said. “They learned so much more because they’re pretty quiet boys. One did quite a bit of public speaking, but they had to go and talk to producers and do it in kind of a professional manner. So that was really a learning experience for them, too.”

At the state level

Speaking with sources in the agricultural world is important for future interactions in the students’ lives, Jake Worcester, president and CEO of the Kansas 4-H Foundation said.

“As we think about Kansas 4-H and the direction it’s headed and where we need to make impacts, one thing we are always looking for are opportunities to engage young people in solving real problems,” Worcester said. “And giving them real opportunities not only to learn but also in the process of learning but also to contribute.”

Kansas 4-H hoped the challenge could give young people the opportunity to not only learn and be engaged, but also help them be real contributors in the industry when they enter the workforce one day.

“Whatever that workforce is. Whatever industry they happen to go into, wherever they chose to work, they’re having the opportunity to learn how to solve problems at a young age,” he said. “But it also presents an opportunity to do things that matter now and as young people solve problems that are in front to them.”

Worcester said it seemed like too good of an opportunity to not pursue. It’s important for the students to follow the scientific model and engineering practices in developing solutions in a real world challenge.

From the foundation perspective, Worcester sees it as “an opportunity to bring in new industry partners in terms of resource development and we think it’s a way to engage with and demonstrate to our industry partners what 4-H is doing to prepare a workforce in the agriculture industry to get young people excited and interested in agriculture and food as a career.”

“Our perspective and our goals around the program are one, to engage those industry partners and then two, make sure we bring the resources to the table to enable this to be everything we dream it can be,” Worcester said.

He’s pleased with the success of the challenge’s first year and wants to see the program grow.

“We want to continue to engage 4-H members and particularly, one of the exciting things about this program is it engages our older 4-H members,” Worcester said. “As these young people get to the end of their high school career and they’re starting to think about what am I going to do after high school? We certainly want to put agriculture and food science in front of them and this is the way we’re doing it.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or kscott@hpj.com.

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