Building a ‘spark’ in 4-H for urban and underrepresented families

A girl is making a presentation.

Traditional programs in Oregon State University Extension Service 4-H Youth Development in Jackson County have seen success over the years. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the deadly and destructive 2020 Almeda fire, shed a light on the need for 4-H programming that allows for community-strengthening and positive youth development for everyone.

In response, 4-H faculty and staff in Jackson County created a community club for 4-H members called “Full STEAM Ahead” that targets both urban communities and areas hit the hardest by wildfires. In Phoenix, which was hit hard by the Almeda Fire, Full STEAM Ahead provides opportunities for youth to learn and grow. Club members from Phoenix, Medford and Talent have had the opportunity to rebuild their communities through STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, art and math).

The club mainly focuses on teaching art, science, foods, and gardening, which offer a previously unexplored niche for kids living in Phoenix and urban Medford. There is also a focus on animal husbandry, but in species such as rabbits and poultry that are accessible to youth in urban environments.

To support remote learning during the pandemic, 4-H in Jackson County made take-home education kits where kids could learn remotely and at their own pace via hands-on activities. Targeting project areas accessible to all families, these “Spark Kits” teach kids about electricity, photography, and art. The 4-H program also began a partnership with two fire-affected schools in Phoenix and Talent to expand their electricity spark kits beyond club 4-H and offer them for school educational uses. This effort was supported by a grant from the STEM Beyond School program.

Nearly 30 4-H families have registered for Spark Kits, with positive comments from both adults and children. Club leaders have had kids bring projects to their club meetings from the Spark Kits, such as the electricity kit's “Scribblebot” or the photography kit's “Pringle Can Pinhole Camera.”

“While our electricity kits were careful to not cause any electrical hazards, the sparks they struck in the minds of the county youth were nevertheless clear,” said Lena Hosking, 4-H educator for Jackson County.

As a result, Jackson County 4-H’s Full STEAM Ahead club and the Spark Kits have created an impact in the county’s urban areas. In 2021, Full STEAM Ahead brought in 10 new 4-H members, who have found a sense of community, developed leadership skills, learned about science and art, and participated in the county fair through static exhibits made from their Spark Kits.

As new families from Medford, Talent, and Phoenix continue to join Full STEAM Ahead, so too have they brought their own ideas, passions, and word-of-mouth marketing for the 4-H program.

“The success of a 4-H club is largely due to the dedication and involvement of adult volunteers,” Hosking said. “Club members are looking for more caring adults to become 4-H leaders so they can sustain the growing number of kids and their interests.”

The club meets at the local Phoenix Grange Hall and plans to bring more STEAM related opportunities to Phoenix and Talent area youth. 4-H members will also serve as guest speakers during after school sessions.

“This has been an awesome opportunity to build relationships with local teachers so we can potentially build after-school or in-school 4-H education programs in Jackson County,” Hosking said.