Today’s 4-H

STEM Ambassadors in a lab on the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus. (Photo courtesy of 4-H of Mercer County)

Broadening its mission from the farm to the science lab

By Wendy Greenberg

I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
my heart to greater loyalty,
my hands to larger service,
and my health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world
—The 4-H Pledge since 1927

The almost-century-old 4-H Pledge still stands, as does its patented clover logo and community club structure. But one hint that this is not your grandparents’ 4-H is its local headquarters in semi-urban Ewing, next to a strip shopping center.

A more significant sign is what goes on inside: STEM classes, robotics, marine science, and lessons on climate change and sustainable energy. Members are not only teens from rural areas of Mercer County, but a large contingent from Trenton and suburban areas as well.

The goats and the chickens? Animals are the focus of several clubs where members have an interest — and there is a lot of interest — including rabbits, calves, and hogs as well. But there is also a youth investment club, 4-H Investment Club of Mercer County; an archery club, Hot Shots Shooting Sports; a wellness club, Healthy Body, Healthy Mind Club, which has a large membership from Princeton; and one that addresses composting and recycling called Treasuring the Trash.

Whatever the project, the goal is to develop leadership, and other skills, among youths and teens. The 4-H programs in all 21 New Jersey counties have evolved since the early 1900s but have kept the same emphasis, whether it’s a teen developing a Saturday STEM program in Robbinsville or presenting a project on raising chickens in Lawrence.

A graphic on the national 4-H website notes that nationally, serving 6 million youths, the organization has 2.6 million rural participants, but also 1.8 million urban and 1.6 million suburban participants — a combined 3.4 million.

Locally, 4-H programs are part of Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Mercer County, a partnership between Rutgers University, Mercer County, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Cooperative Extension is led by land grant universities — in New Jersey, Rutgers; in Pennsylvania, Penn State University; and in New York, Cornell University. The Mercer County chapter is headed by Chad Ripberger, a longtime 4-H extension agent with a background in teaching.

1948 Yardville Jr. Dairy Club. (Photo courtesy of 4-H of Mercer County)

A Fair History

Mercer County has a strong 4-H history, and one of the highlights has been the summer 4-H Fair, the longest running in New Jersey. From the first 4-H Fair on the grounds of Princeton High School in 1919 (with stops at the Trenton State Fairgrounds, Washington Crossing State Park, and other sites), the fair found a home at the 130-acre Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell Township, where it has been held since 2008. In 2021 (in person after a break in 2020 for the pandemic), the fair attracted some 5,700 people, says Ripberger.

The 103rd fair is planned for Saturday, July 30 from 10am to 8 pm, and Sunday, July 31 from 10am to 4pm, with free admission and a suggested donation of a canned good in support of Rutgers Against Hunger.

The fairs began in 1892, when Kewaunee County in Wisconsin organized youth competitions and several thousand farm youths produced and exhibited fruits, vegetables, and livestock. The 4-H clubs began because teens and young adults were more open to new agricultural technology than older farmers, according to the 4-H website. A youth program in Clark County, Ohio, is considered the birth of 4-H in the United States in 1902, with the first clubs called the Tomato Club or the Corn Growing Club. By 1910, the clover with an H on each leaf was created. The H letters stood (and still do) for head, heart, hands, and health.

One of Mercer County’s original and most successful clubs was the Pleasant Valley Calf Club, according to a local 4-H history. Youths met at the Pleasant Valley Schoolhouse, and the largest clubs at the time included the Calf Club, Hopewell Junior Dairy Club, and Yardville Junior Dairy Club — eventually involving several generations over many decades.

The area movement grew under Joseph B. Turpin, who came to Mercer County as an assistant to the agricultural agent and became one of the first full-time county club agents in New Jersey, according to a 4-H local history based on news clippings and Turpin’s scrapbook. In the fall of 1919, he organized the fair on the grounds of Princeton High School.  Beyond Mercer County, he helped shape 4-H in New Jersey, and was nationally recognized for his pioneering work in assigning older members “junior leader” responsibilities and in creating 4-H advisory councils largely comprised of teen members. He retired in 1956.

Goat show at a 4-H Fair. (Photo courtesy of 4-H of Mercer County)

Today’s 4-H

Through its long history, the program maintained its character as a youth development organization, says Ripberger. “The basic principles of 4-H are positive youth development – helping kids develop a sense of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity,” he says, noting that this spirit permeates the clubs, camps, after school programs, and everything else.

4-H is a legacy in many families, including Ripberger’s. An agent for 20 years, the former Indiana middle and high school agricultural sciences teacher says his now college-aged children are fourth generation 4-H members. “These multi-generational families tend to be more involved in animal projects, with roots in agriculture,” he says. In Mercer County, there were three large, multi-generational dairy cattle clubs focused on improving the local dairy industry.

Ripberger explains that 4-H began because there was a need for practical education outside of the regular school day at the time. Rural educators started forming clubs to teach “how to grow a healthy and high-yielding stand of corn, improve their livestock, and preserve food from their gardens, and the local land-grant universities became natural partners due to their research and resources. My father and grandfather both competed in early corn clubs — learning new agricultural practices by growing five-acre plots of corn as part of their club. It was hands-on experiential learning long before that became the norm in formal education — they were learning by doing, the 4-H slogan.”

In Mercer County, the longstanding Clever Clovers, a club that has been active for decades, and the newer Seeds of Green both focus on agriculture to develop youth leadership. Clever Clovers has hosted invitational goat, poultry, and sheep shows at the 4-H Fair. Seeds of Green started in 2018 and meets at Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrence.

“I love animals, work on a horse farm, and grew up on farms in Canada,” says Seeds of Green leader Kel McGowan. Her family was raising chickens in their backyard and wanted more hands-on work with animals.

A smaller club, the 12 Seeds of Green members are studying the animals available on the farm, having completed units on sheep, goats, and chickens. Coming up are units on horses, calves, rabbits, and gardening and farming sustainability. The units are led by the youths themselves.

“The best thing about 4-H,” says McGowan, “is that it empowers the members to follow their own interest and competencies.”

Stem Emphasis

In the 1960s and 70s, says Ripberger, Mercer County 4-H began to expand its program to youths in Trenton. The approach was the same — positive youth development — but the means was a growing and more diverse variety of science and technology.

“A lot of kids have STEM role models in their families, but many do not,” says Ripberger. “We help support their development of a STEM identity by engaging them in coding, robotics, and several fields of science. Some are exposed to career paths they had not imagined. A lot of what we do fits well with the current maker movement and our longstanding approach of learning by doing.”

Tomorrow’s Innovators Saturday Science Program includes fourth to seventh graders and is a partnership with Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS). BMS employee Vani Kodandaram, a 4-H parent and club leader, helped start the program.

On one of six Saturdays last December, Trenton-area students completed the Galactic Quest, a national 4-H STEM challenge based on space exploration. They also built and used telescopes to explore constellations and built and used a mechanical claw operated with hydraulics.

Kodandaram was on a BMS committee exploring how to be engaged in the community. Partnering with 4-H made sense, she says, knowing her own sons enjoyed 4-H’s Science for Communities, which teaches healthy living and robotics at local schools. So, with 4-H facilities and outreach, and BMS volunteer expertise, Tomorrow’s Innovators started in 2013 with some 15-20 students. It now attracts up to 50 participants each month.

“The biggest thing is that we wanted to make a program that was sustainable, with a continuous stream of volunteers,” she says. And she was excited to elevate the science aspect of 4-H.

“4-H had a good impact on my boys,” says Kodandaram, “4-H lets kids drive what they want to do in the community. It’s a nice way to let them give back. My boys benefited from learning values.”

Image courtesy of Condé Nast

Urban Stem Ambassadors

Some 50 or 60 youths from Mercer and six other counties are taking their interest in STEM to others as STEM Ambassadors, a program Ripberger co-founded in 2009. STEM Ambassadors spend an immersive week at Rutgers-New Brunswick and then provide ongoing service in their home communities in partnership with their local 4-H staff throughout their remaining years of high school.

During their weeklong Rutgers residential experience, they engage in hands-on activities in animal science, biomedical science, biotechnology, computer science, engineering, exercise science, food science, geospatial technology, landscape architecture, marine science, microbiology, nutritional science, and other subjects, while participating in discussions, workshops, research projects, and engineering challenges alongside faculty, staff, and graduate students.

A current Trenton STEM Ambassador, Megan Denton, completed six weeks of a STEM Explorers program in collaboration with Millhill Child and Family Development over the summer. Denton, age 15, said she will continue in high school because of what she has learned.

“Because of this program Rutgers is definitely on my top list of colleges I would like to go to, and I feel that the positive impact of the STEM program definitely helped me speak out a little bit more and get my point across without having to be nervous and stuttering all the time,” she says. “Along with the fun of the STEM program it’s just a positive program to be in, and everyone is really friendly and encouraging. I’d definitely recommend it to one of my friends or family.”

A 2021 report from the Rutgers Extension Service, “Extension Programming to Address Urban Issues,” co-written by Ripberger, outlines how the program began with the objective of “encouraging urban youth from groups underrepresented in STEM to participate in science and research in a series of interactive activities, and gain a better understanding of opportunities available in science, engineering, and technology.”

“Part of the growing 4-H youth development mandate,” the report notes, “is to prepare and empower our youth to get involved in a career in STEM.” The program targets youth from urban communities between Philadelphia and New York City, where 4-H has fewer youth engaged in traditional projects, but more afterschool and summer program provider collaborations.

STEM Ambassador Dhruti Raghuraman, a high school senior, wrote about her experiences starting a Science from Home club on the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station website. She wrote that with classes moving online, a “good way to connect with my community and share my interests in science would be to create this 4-H club.”

Working with Ripberger and researching science experiments and middle school curricula, she took care to sequence the experiments, and to choose scientific principles that could easily be taught through a computer, “keeping in mind the availability of materials and workspace at home.” The materials were packaged and delivered to each club member’s house.

“It was important to me to find experiments that highlighted science that is constantly at work in the world around us,” she writes. “For example, through a water filtration experiment, we were able to have in-depth conversations on climate change and pollution. Through these experiments, we covered the topics of temperature, physical separation, pollution, chemical reactions, acids and bases, solutions and mixtures, and osmosis!”

Raghuraman was a member of one of the robotics clubs in middle school, and over the past five years has led many 4-H coding and robotics afterschool programs, summer day camps, and workshops for youth from The Children’s Home Society of New Jersey, CYO of Mercer County, and Tomorrow’s Innovators, and provided training for the STEM Ambassador program.

“4-H has helped me develop my interests and pushes me to pursue leadership in the things I am passionate about,” she says. Raghuraman noticed, for example, that many of the Science from Home students were not at their target grade reading level so, under the guidance of adult staff, she created and led a two-week literacy camp this past summer.

It seems 4-H may be a lifelong interest for Raghuraman, who says, “After high school, I am really interested in staying involved with 4-H, whether that means the Rutgers Mercer County 4-H Extension or another extension near where I will be going to college.”

Robbinsville Innovators

The Robbinsville Innovation Club is known for, appropriately, its innovation. About 40 youths work in teams on projects tailored to their needs and interests, says Ripberger. They use their new skills and creativity to invent a variety of products each year that address health and wellness, environmental sustainability, food production, and more. They have shared their inventions at club-sponsored maker fairs, Rutgers Day, and the annual Mercer County 4-H Fair.

“Their maker fair was one of the neatest things,” says Ripberger. “The club demonstrated their projects to family members, clubs in other states, and collaborators in India. The group is mostly about teaching others.”

Over the past three years, the Robbinsville Innovation Club has planned and conducted in-person and virtual STEM camps for youth of The Children’s Home Society in Trenton, led two weeks of coding and robotics camp for the STEM Explorers summer program with Millhill Child and Family Development in Trenton, and is currently leading Saturday morning STEM sessions for Trenton High School students with the Upward Bound program of Mercer County Community College. The club also has a program that teaches employability skills to individuals with physical disabilities in India, remotely, with a lab set up in the 4-H office.

Image courtesy of Condé Nast

The Future

While 4-H staff used to physically go into classrooms throughout Mercer County, the pandemic rendered that more difficult, so Ripberger, staff, and volunteers have been dropping off materials to schools and organizations prior to connecting with them through Zoom.

Yet during the pandemic interest grew in food production, land, and gardening, and more people looked to the Extension service for related programs. “What has really grown is the number of teens who want to do outreach for younger kids,” says Ripberger.

“Going forward,” he says, “4-H is taking a hybrid approach with remote opportunities. A lot of online programs were well-received.”

The organization is seeking volunteers to supplement teen leaders, but it doesn’t have to be a year-round commitment. Special interest clubs can be just six weeks long.

Teen leadership is what it’s always been about. “Today, we are doing the same kind of work through our STEM efforts, and we are working to make college and STEM opportunities more accessible to a more diverse population within our local communities,” says Ripberger.

While many 4-H participants are not involved in animal or crop production, Ripberger says they are “involved in a variety of innovative STEM projects with the intent to improve personal health, the health of our communities, and the health of our planet — that is very much in keeping with our 4-H and land-grant university mission and tradition.”

More information on 4-H activities in Mercer County can be found at mercer.njaes.rutgers.edu/4h/clubs.