What is STEM education and why is it so valuable? A U.S. Department of Education report states, “If we want a nation where our future leaders, neighbors, and workers can understand and solve some of the complex challenges of today and tomorrow, and to meet the demands of the dynamic and evolving workforce, building students’ skills, content knowledge, and fluency in STEM fields is essential (https://www.ed.gov/stem).” “In today’s constantly changing climate, our youth must be prepared with the fundamentals of STEM teaching such as problem-solving, making sense of important information, and being able to gather and examine evidence to make just decisions,” explained Morgan Appel, Assistant Dean for Education and Community Outreach at UC San Diego Extension (https://extension.ucsd.edu/http/extension-ucsd-edu/news-and-events/extension-blog/June-2020/Why-STEM-Education-is-Essential-for-the-Youth-of-T).
Volusia County 4-H offered a one-day STEM Career day camp on July 7, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. to fifteen youth. Numerous guest speakers educated the youth about what they do and provided games and materials to take home.
The popular model that 4-H incorporates, “Do-Reflect-Apply,” (based on the “Experiential Learning Model”) is used to engage youth in project area activities. It works like this: the educator introduces or shows the youth what they will be doing, and then the youth engage in the educational experience. Following the activity, youth discuss and think about the experience – asking questions, evaluating their performance, and developing goals. Using their new-found knowledge, they apply what they have learned to begin the process over.
As the youth entered, they made crystals two ways – with Epsom salts and with Borax. The youth chose their own colors and were able to take them home at the end of the day. Science can be done in the kitchen, the garden, or anywhere!
Our first guest speaker was Mike Nahirny from the County of Volusia’s Solid Waste division (https://www.volusia.org/services/public-works/solid-waste-and-recycling/). He taught the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. He brought crayons made from soy, key chains made out of old circuit boards, letter openers made out of corn plastic, and pencils made out of money, newspaper, and denim to give to the youth. He further explained what items should and should not go in our recycle bins.
Kelly Young, an Environmental Specialist from the County of Volusia, was our next guest. Ms. Young showed how she uses various tools and techniques to evaluate water quality while actively engaging the youth in the process. The youth were amazed at a simple demonstration of the actual amount of water we have at our disposal – it brought home to the youth how necessary it is for us to conserve and protect our water. All of the youth received a “goody bag” with information and shower timers – less than three minutes! As well, the youth played the “Water Cycle” game (https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/education_safety/education/project_wet/sample_activity.pdf and https://www.stevespanglerscience.com/2013/09/11/learn-the-water-cycle-through-an-interactive-game/).
Joining us by Zoom was Jennifer Standley, Outreach Coordinator from the University of Florida Entomology Department (https://entnemdept.ufl.edu/). She introduced us to the world of entomology, defining terms like metamorphosis, explaining how arthropods have adapted, and telling us how yummy mealworms are roasted. Furthermore, we were introduced to several arthropods in her office: Rosie the tarantula, a very large scorpion, hissing cockroaches, and a vinegaroon. The youth were full of questions and were so excited to see her handle all of her “ambassadors.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife’s bear biologist, Amy Orlando, was just as amazing. She brought many items with her for the youth to touch and take home. The most impressive was the hide of a male bear. In life he would have been over 350 pounds but sadly was hit by a car. Ms. Orlando encouraged the youth to handle the teeth samples, skulls, and the bear hide to understand how scientists can determine age, what the bears eat, and life cycles. By the way, over 70% of what they eat is plant material. Much of what Amy talked about was how we can live with bears. Bear-proof trash cans, electric fencing for farms, bringing in pet food overnight and other simple techniques can prevent tragedy (https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/bear/managing/).
Phillip Hughes, from Volusia County’s Land Management, and representatives from Florida Forestry brought a lot of equipment, including a bulldozer, and demonstrated how they manage fire on local lands. A video, produced by Volusia County government (https://www.volusia.org/services/community-services/resource-stewardship/land-management/), showed the youth how science and technology are used to make equipment safer and more effective and to monitor conditions. Did you know that drones have become valuable tools to workers in land management? Fun was had when the youth were encouraged to wrap themselves in protective gear for a pretend fire. They also learned just how heavy equipment can be.
Last, but not least, was Trey Hannah, with Environmental Management. Trey taught the youth how to use iNaturalist’s app SEEK (https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/seek_app) to identify insects and plants in the garden. Mr. Hannah helps teach the Master Naturalist program in partnership with the UF/IFAS Extension Volusia County Office.
The discussion and sharing part of any lesson is critical. For our program, we took time during each activity to review what was covered, analyze the information presented, and ask questions. In a safe space, such as 4-H, youth feel comfortable asking questions and sharing insights with others. A primary focus of this camp was to expose the youth to scientists addressing current issues and concerns.
By providing programs to youth focusing on careers, in this case STEM careers, it is our hope that more youth will pursue careers in science-related fields. “According to the U. S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 24%, while other occupations are growing at 4%. STEM degree holders have a higher income even in non-STEM careers. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers play a key role in the sustained growth and stability of the U.S. economy, and are a critical component to helping the U.S. win the future. STEM education creates critical thinkers, increases science literacy, and enables the next generation of innovators (https://www.engineeringforkids.com/about/news/2016/february/why-is-stem-education-so-important-/).”