4-H program boosts youth STEM interest

Bitmoji classroom - girl bitmoji on the right waving, there is a desk in the middle with a computer and plant, the white board says "welcome to 4-H world changers inspired by girls who code," there is a Brutus Buckeye poster on the wall on the left, a poster that says "STEM' below the Brutus poster, and a bookshelf with 4-H project books.

Last summer, Braelyn Miller thought she’d try coding, though she was a bit intimidated about the prospect of programming a computer.

She had never done it before. She had, however, spent hours and hours drawing buildings, people, eyes of people, and animals—all on her computer.

So, when she discovered that coding involved creating a video game, she was immediately interested, though still a bit daunted.

“I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing at first,” said Miller, now in 6th grade in Marion.

That uncertainty dissolved into eagerness as the weeks went by and Miller learned skill after skill. Those skills built upon each other, and over the summer, she created an app to teach her toddler sister about animals and colors.

“It was fun because I was creating something I was interested in,” Miller said.Braelyn showing her goat at the Marion County Fair.

And there was no grade. It didn’t have to be perfect, which was a relief to her.

Having spent the summer tinkering with the app, she sought out a coding class when school started in the fall. Soon she was creating another app, this one adapted after the popular Flappy Bird mobile game in which a player controls the movement of a bird that tries to fly between columns of pipes without hitting them.

What Miller loves most about coding is that she can decide what she wants to create and how to make it, what it will look like, what it will do. It can be practical, or just whimsical.

“I think it surprised me,” Miller said about coding. “I didn’t think I was going to be very good at it. I had never done it before. I thought it looked really hard.”

Miller got that start, and the experience and confidence that grew from it, as a participant in the 4-H World Changers program.

An idea takes shape

The World Changers idea started with Margo Long (’11 BS Agricultural Communication), an Ohio 4-H youth development educator in Marion County.

Long, who is also a doctoral student in the CFAES Department of Agricultural Communication, Education, and Leadership, said she got the idea from a course assignment, one that focused on gender disparities in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

From that assignment, she said, she saw a need to bridge those disparities, saw a need “to change the image of what a programmer or scientist looks like and does,” and saw Ohio 4-H, with its statewide reach and focus on hands-on learning, as an ideal vehicle for doing that. A screenshot of the app Braelyn created.

Long grew the 4-H World Changers idea from there, inspired in part by Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that works to close the gender gap in technology jobs. 

Yet while closing that gap is indeed part of World Changers’ purpose, Long is sure to emphasize that the program is open to everyone, boys too. She said the program’s wider aim is sparking any youth’s interest in STEM.

Initially, Long planned to launch 4-H World Changers as an in-person program in March 2020. But the pandemic lockdown forced a switch. World Changers ended up getting underway as a virtual program in May 2020.

The change had a silver lining, Long said. It led to new collaboration that helped the program grow even more.

A team comes together

Three states to the east, two educators with STEM interests—Lauren Traister, Vermont 4-H teen and leadership coordinator, and Lisa Dion, lecturer in the University of Vermont College of Engineering and Mathematical Science—read about World Changers in a 4-H professionals Facebook group, reached out to Long, talked with her by Zoom, and starting last fall, joined her to work virtually on the program as a team.

Photo of a Zoom meeting - the upper video feed is instructor Margo Long, below her is Cora presenting a design.Today, the team’s expanded 4-H World Changers program offers youth four, six-week series (for now still only virtual):

• 4-H World Changers, which introduces youth to STEM through “unplugged” and coding activities, inspired by Girls Who Code’s Women in Tech curriculum. Youth learn about design, robotics, hardware, software, binary coding, computer science, space exploration, and test cycles.

4-H World Changers: Thunkable Apps, in which youth discover mobile app development, including wireframe development, coding variables, conditionals, and functions. They eventually create their own mobile device app using a cross-platform program called Thunkable.

4-H World Changers: HTML/CSS, which introduces youth to web design and HTML and CSS coding languages. Participants create their own web sites from scratch using Trinket, an all-in-one coding environment designed for education.

4-H World Changers: Gaming With p5.js, in which youth gain skills to program a collecting game by using p5.js, a JavaScript library created especially for artists and designers.

All four series are designed for middle and high school youth. But in some cases, Long said, youth from upper-level elementary school grades have been able to participate too.

More youth and STEM

In all, 4-H World Changers has reached more than 150 girls and boys to date—from Ohio, like Braelyn Miller; from Vermont; and from eight other states from Maine to California.

Long’s passion for the program is both professional and personal.

“I’ve been blessed to be the mother of three wonderful boys, so I hold the ‘boymom’ title proudly,” she said. Long Family photo - The family is sitting on a couch in front of a window. The mother is holding two boys on her lap, to her right is her husband, and their third son.

At the same time, she said, working to close STEM’s gender gap “helps fill that void that I have by not having a daughter.”

Long finds the program’s success gratifying, and pleasantly surprising, and said some lemonade came from the lockdown’s lemons.

“I never in a million years would have thought that this small idea would have grown into what it is today, especially during a global pandemic,” she said.

“I started out with 17 girls in the first virtual program, and now we’ve expanded to connect youth from all across country, from all walks of life, to bond over similar interests.”

If not for the pandemic disrupting 4-H’s in-person programs, she said, “they might never have had this opportunity.”

To learn more about 4-H World Changers, email Long at long.1632@osu.edu.

Are you interested in helping to support this program? You can donate here. In the special instructions, please indicate that the gift is for 4-H World Changers.