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Youth program shakes up science education

August 19, 2014
Kristin Dill, a sophomore at West Lafayette High School, shows Jonathan Siskind, 9, how to extract s

Kristin Dill, a sophomore at West Lafayette High School, shows 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.

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.

The children are learning science, but their teachers aren't adults with advanced degrees: they're high school students who are learning right along with their pupils. It’s part of a Purdue Extension program called Teens Teaching Youth AgriScience/Biotechnology.

All participants are in a 4-H program that was piloted in two Indiana counties and expanded across the state. The national pilot program, jointly funded by the National 4-H Council and United Soybean Board, involved five land-grant universities, including Purdue.

"I was looking for youth who were self-starters, had leadership capabilities, were creative and who had science background and interest," says Erika Bonnett, 4-H youth development educator in Bartholomew County, who helped coordinate the program.

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.

When she texted Gray that she had "this amazing science opportunity for you to learn and teach . . . Are you interested?" he jumped in. The Columbus Signature Academy-New Tech student 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," Gray says. Little did he know!

Gray and Joey Perry in Bartholomew County and Grace Baldwin and Kristin Dill in Tippecanoe County were among 16 teen leaders from five states who attended the four-day national training event. They were introduced to the agriscience/biotechnology curriculum, toured local industry and practiced their hands-on teaching activities. 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.

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

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," Orvis 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 program targets a new audience for 4-H — youth who do not necessarily have agricultural backgrounds and may not be 4-H members. 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."

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