Fields of Opportunity: Cultivating Youth Development and Online Access

Digital Access

Fields of Opportunity: Cultivating Youth Development and Online Access

from Endless Network

By Abbie Misha     Jan 3, 2024

Fields of Opportunity: Cultivating Youth Development and Online Access

This article is part of the guide: Equitable Access to Education: Global Efforts to Close the Gap.

In an increasingly interconnected world, connectivity is the lifeline that bridges gaps, fosters knowledge exchange and empowers individuals to thrive in diverse socioeconomic spheres. But how is connectivity important to agricultural communities?

Endless Network, a global organization committed to addressing equity disparities, strategically invests worldwide to tackle challenges such as insufficient internet access. This article explores the impactful initiatives undertaken by 4-H, an organization supported by Endless Network. The four Hs in 4-H — Head, Heart, Hands and Health — embody values cultivated through experiential learning initiatives. 4-H's affiliation with land-grant universities, specifically through the Cooperative Extension System, also ensures a robust research and science foundation for an organization dedicated to youth development.

Recently, EdSurge spoke to Kathleen Lodl about her experiences working with 4-H. Lodl holds dual roles at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, serving as the associate dean for Nebraska Extension and the state 4-H program administrator. In that capacity, she provides leadership for youth and family programs of Nebraska Extension, a vital component of the land-grant university system, which enables access to campus-based teaching and research across Nebraska's 93 counties through 83 offices. As the administrator for 4-H, she focuses on providing non-formal, hands-on learning experiences tailored for youth ages 9 through 19, emphasizing age-appropriate activities primarily in the out-of-school space.

EdSurge: What are the key focus areas of 4-H's programming, and how have they evolved over time?

Lodl: 4-H has evolved beyond its agricultural roots, focusing on empowering young people to succeed. Agriculture — including animal husbandry, crop cultivation and water-related education — and leadership and decision-making skills remain foundational. Additionally, we've expanded into science, technology and engineering with prominent programs in robotics and entrepreneurship. Our goal is to spark young people's interest and excitement in various content areas.

As we think about programming, we encourage hands-on activities. Though we typically match all of our learning objectives with state and national standards, we can be a little bit more creative. We give kids the chance to dive into curated, age-appropriate activities that end with something cool. We want them to question, reason and think critically. We start things off with some basic tools and experiments, planting the seed. But the kids take it further, as we ask them to solve problems and provide them with the resources they need. That's where connectivity comes in: How do they get info, explore and maybe talk to a scientist or learn about some new technology? Connectivity is the key that empowers them to find answers and make data-driven decisions.

We envision the next generation as outstanding leaders and citizens. However, the challenge lies in addressing disparities in access, especially in underserved communities where internet connectivity is crucial. Many youth lack consistent access to resources, hindering their development.

How does 4-H address the connectivity challenges in underserved communities, and what creative solutions have been implemented to ensure consistent access to resources?

We are deeply involved in underserved communities, often collaborating with local providers to establish portable [internet and hardware] access for specific events or programming. One of our goals is to demonstrate the tangible benefits of such initiatives to decision-makers, making a compelling case for long-term commitment and the allocation of necessary resources, particularly in remote rural areas. [Internet] access is limited to specific times in some communities or requires unconventional measures like sitting in a car on a hill for connectivity. We strive to partner strategically to remove these barriers and ensure that young people have consistent and reliable access to the resources they need.

It's an ongoing effort; we recognize the vital role of connectivity in youth education. At the same time, we're working to convey the importance of connectivity to communities, emphasizing its role in attracting and retaining young talent. Recognizing that young individuals equipped with new skills from college are more likely to return to communities with such assets, we aim to empower them to articulate this significance to community leaders. This is especially vital for the flourishing of rural areas as the ability to work remotely expands.

During the pandemic, we initiated something called Living Room Learning to provide at-home activities for youth. Stemming from the need for connectivity, we conducted virtual STEM lessons, like the popular glitter bomb experiment, engaging kids from across the country on [video conferences]. This endeavor highlighted the importance of connectivity, leading us to explore creative solutions such as providing hotspots or utilizing the local library and extension offices for internet connections. The success of Living Room Learning prompted the development of a new program called CLOVER, a national online initiative sponsored by National 4-H Council in partnership with the land-grant university system, to provide interactive, exciting activities for everyone ages 5 to 18. The CLOVER experience showcases the potential of connecting young people with shared interests, creating a surge in participation and leading to sustained engagement in local 4-H programs.

CLOVER, aligning with the 4-H clover symbol, offers youth who may lack local access to certain content areas the opportunity to explore topics from other communities, such as pollinators, electricity or financial management. CLOVER provides in-depth lessons to ignite excitement, connect young learners nationwide with shared interests, foster relationships and expand knowledge. By using this online approach, we believe we can reach more youth in new ways, drawing them into the broader 4-H platform for further learning and growth.

We consistently explore partnerships to enhance infrastructure for young people. Recognizing that many young people have in-school access, we extend our focus to out-of-school time. This involves transforming schools into community centers with extended hours and open spaces, facilitating internet and equipment access. We explore options like securing grant funding to enable students to check out technology from schools, such as laptops. The emphasis is on ensuring widespread broadband access for these resources.

Additionally, we believe our impact extends beyond the individual youth to encompass the entire family. Many of our projects are designed to involve families, even if the initial work takes place at a specific site. Whether it's completing project-related tasks at home or engaging in joint activities, families play a crucial role. This underscores the significance of connectivity at home, highlighting the essential need for access to resources that support ongoing involvement and participation.

How does connectivity have an impact on agriculture?

Connectivity is critical in agriculture, particularly in remote and rural areas. For crop producers, real-time access to experts allows for quick assessment of field conditions, addressing issues like diseases or weed control. Additionally, connectivity is crucial in agricultural research focused on increasing yield and better management of inputs such as water and fertilizer. It enables monitoring individual plants, collecting data and facilitating timely interventions. In precision farming, connectivity transforms water-use efficiency, allowing precise irrigation. This use of technology also creates new excitement around career opportunities in the evolving agricultural sector. For example, the integration of technology, such as tagging animals for remote monitoring, is reshaping animal-husbandry practices. Drones are being used to monitor crops. In essence, connectivity is a driving force behind transformative changes in agricultural production and opens up new career pathways for young people.

How can teachers leverage the local extension system and 4-H programs?

Teachers can tap into their local extension system and collaborate with 4-H educators. Exploring connectivity options, such as those available in libraries and local Extension offices, can enrich out-of-school learning experiences. Partnering with the Extension System enables hands-on programming during after-school hours, fostering a complementary approach to education. By uniting formal and non-formal systems, teachers and the Extension System can collectively advocate for expanded connectivity, presenting a strong case for community-wide engagement.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

Equitable Access to Education: Global Efforts to Close the Gap

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up