Fortifying 4-H: scientists at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research are studying how to improve New York's largest youth development program.
Subject: Child development (Educational aspects)
After school programs (Management)
Youth (Societies, clubs, etc.)
Youth (Educational aspects)
Youth (Management)
Author: Boscia, Ted
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: Human Ecology Publisher: Cornell University, Human Ecology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Science and technology; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Cornell University, Human Ecology ISSN: 1530-7069
Issue: Date: Spring, 2012 Source Volume: 40 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Company business management
Product: Product Code: 8681000 Youth Membership Organizatns NAICS Code: 81399 Other Similar Organizations (except Business, Professional, Labor, and Political Organizations)
Geographic: Geographic Scope: New York Geographic Code: 1U2NY New York
Accession Number: 294821775
Full Text: On a warm late afternoon in March, a group of grade-schoolers are running low on patience. The six kids, participants in the 4-H Urban Outreach Program offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, are wriggling in their seats around a table in the lower level of a large, two-story room at Ithaca's West Village Apartments.

They live in the building with their families, and on this day they've welcomed Heather Connelly, a graduate student in entomology with the Cornell Naturalist Outreach Program. Connelly has brought along a few guests of her own: spiders, giant peppered roaches, and vinegaroons--close cousins of arachnids that spray a vinegary acetic mist when startled. There are crickets, too, though they're fated to be snacks for the spiders.

The kids, ages 5 to 8, have listened attentively throughout Connelly's lessons and activities on insect communication. But young children can be expected to sit still for only so long when there are bugs present; they are itching to see and touch the critters up close.

At last, it's time. Connelly invites them over to the cages and opens the lid on a case of peppered roaches, which clamber atop one another and on a hunk of wood. She pulls out a large female--about the size of an egg--and lets it skitter down the arm of a girl, who squeals and laughs. Other children are watching spiders size up their lunch or trying to catch a whiff of a vinegaroon's distinctive scent. It's a happy commotion--what Connelly later called "contagious excitement."

The hubbub over bugs is a common scene at West Village Apartments, home to twice-weekly 4-H after-school sessions for young kids and teens. Program manager Jamila Walida Simon tries to incorporate science into nearly every lesson--one of the three mission mandates for 4-H is science, technology, engineering, and math--so the children are often in the complex's garden, exploring nature, or learning alongside a Cornell expert.

"We view ourselves as an extension of the school day, a way to continue building the knowledge they are getting in the classroom," Simon said.

The Ithaca program is one of hundreds operating across New York through the reach of Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE). 4-H, the largest youth organization in the United States, provides programs in nearly every city and county of the state through camps, clubs, after-school and school-based projects, and other settings. In 2009-2010, almost 17,000 volunteers and 113,000 youth from urban, suburban, and rural communities participated in 4-H. Healthy lifestyles and citizenship, along with fostering an excitement for science, are the main program components at every site. As with the children at West Village Apartments, the emphasis is on hands-on activities, where kids learn by doing.

While 4-H educators and volunteers are getting New York children and teens charged up about science, the state program is going under the microscope. With oversight of 4-H transferred to the College of Human Ecology's Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) last fall, 4-H is being intensively studied by BCTR researchers to uncover evidence on the most effective youth development strategies. The need is critical, not only to further improve programs that are shown to propel youth down a positive path for life, but to demonstrate 4-H's worthiness at a time when lawmakers and the public are closely counting where tax money goes.


Being anchored in the BCTR, 4-H educators, volunteers, and program leaders enjoy connections to youth development experts, and vice-versa. The goal is a "continuous exchange between scientists and practitioners," said Valerie Adams (see sidebar, page 7), CCE assistant director and New York's 4-H Youth Development Program leader.

"The idea is to embed research in every facet of 4-H," added Stephen Hamilton, professor of human development and BCTR associate director for youth development. "The content young people learn at 4-H, whether about robotics or nutrition, should be rooted in sound science, and the entire system under which 4-H operates should be tested and improved to maximize positive impacts on youth. Every decision should be informed by findings on the needs of young people and the needs of educators, volunteers, and staff to deliver the most effective programs."

Research on youth is scant

Studies by Richard Lerner, a renowned youth development researcher at Tufts University, have conclusively shown that 4-H succeeds at preparing youth for the demands of adulthood. In a large longitudinal survey, for instance, Lerner found that--controlling for various social and economic factors--young people who participate in 4-H show developmental advantages compared to their peers who do not. This difference is why nearly every 4-H program in the country touts its ability to foster "life skills" in youth.

Still, Hamilton concedes, researchers are looking at an incomplete picture when it comes to understanding why 4-H works, what programs and practices are best, how they should be delivered, and how they should be evaluated. Cornell and other land-grant universities have produced some valuable evidence, to be sure, but the study of youth development is minimal compared to the roughly $60 billion spent annually in the United States on medical research. In contrast, Hamilton estimates about $5 billion per year is devoted to social science research on all populations, of which a fraction is targeted at youth development.

"I've been involved with 4-H for a long time," said Hamilton, who joined Cornell in 1974 as an extension associate focused on youth and community, "and there are recurring debates about the role of competition in youth development programs, how to retain youth and volunteers longer, and other important topics. Rarely would anyone ask, 'what does the research tell us about this issue?' That's not a discredit to the program leaders and front-line volunteers, who are working long days and weeks to make programs succeed and don't often have time to stop and evaluate. It's a recognition that research has to go hand-in-hand with practice."

Since oversight of 4-H was transferred to the BCTR, program leaders are taking concrete steps to close the gap between the two. For the first time, a project is bringing together campus researchers and 4-H educators, volunteers, and youth to evaluate and enhance the operations of the entire 4-H system. Overseen by Hamilton, Adams, and other BCTR leaders, the three-year study, known as "Making the Best Better: Research for Continuous Improvement of 4-H," is funded by a grant from Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Angela Northern, regional 4-H research specialist based in Erie County, leads a team of 16 4-H educators in the state's western district (Erie, Genesee, Orleans, Niagara, and Wyoming counties) to identify a handful of critical issues that might be solved by research. They began discussions last fall and appear to have homed in on a few common challenges: youth leaving 4-H as they age, difficulties recruiting and retaining program volunteers, and a lack of data on the costs and benefits of county fairs.

"It is so valuable to have the local educators involved from the start, because they see every day what is working and what needs improvement," said Northern, a former 4-H educator on special assignment for the project. "This ensures that the research will be in areas that matter to them."

The group is at the beginning of a four-step cycle known as Plan-Do-Study-Act. Once they settle on the key issues, Northern and others will examine the existing research to seek out possible solutions. At the same time, they also will draw on firsthand observations by educators, youth, and volunteers to develop possible fixes. Once they devise a plan, they'll try it out, all the while studying its implementation and outcomes. The knowledge generated could lead to new standards for youth development programs and practices or spawn additional research questions, starting the cycle anew. The findings will be shared widely across Cornell Cooperative Extension and with other land-grant universities to broaden the group's impact.

"There's a great deal of excitement among the educators to apply more objective evidence to what we're doing," Northern said. "The researchers at the Bronfenbrenner Center are helping us to test what we think to be true based on our experience in the field. But we're often working at such a high rate of speed that it can be hard to pull back and measure the impact you're having beyond just anecdotal impressions."

Take poor youth retention, for example. It's a problem that plagues not just 4-H but nearly every youth development program. Kids get involved in 4-H at a young age but drop out as their parents move around or as sports and other school-based extracurricular activities limit their free time. A few small studies suggest that teens want more control over program activities, so the Cornell team might test ideas to give teens a greater voice in 4-H to help boost satisfaction and retention.

"There's a sense that the longer kids stay with the program, they gain more developmental advantages and are able to become role models for younger kids and to have a large impact in their community," Hamilton said.

That sense appears to be validated at the West Village Apartments 4-H after-school program, part of a neighborhood-based approach applied at two other locations in Ithaca to reach youth in the places they call home. Shortly after the program for "cloverbuds" the elementary-age kids ends, a group of preteens moves in. The same components apply science, engineering, and technology, healthy lifestyles, and citizenship only with greater sophistication. The preteens support older youth with community service projects, including a fundraiser to sew and sell handmade 4-H aprons.

"It's so hands-on and educational and the kids just love it," said program manager Simon. "The older ones do a great job of taking the young kids under their wings. We want to expose them to a whole range of experiences and let them see the many opportunities."

It's the conditions that lead to these experiences that College of Human Ecology researchers are trying to isolate and replicate. The stakes couldn't be any higher, according to Hamilton.

"Improving youth development is important for so many reasons with great implications for society," he added. "When young people are able to learn and develop personal and social competence not only in school but out of school, they will eventually become productive workers, engaged citizens, and nurturing family members. We want to match the research and practice to do everything we possibly can to help young people achieve those long-term objectives."

RELATED ARTICLE: New 4-H Director Brings Wide-Ranging Experiences

Soon after 4-H oversight moved to the BCTR, the program also gained a new director: Valerie Adams, who became New York's 4-H Youth Development Program leader and CCE assistant director this past August.


From Philadelphia to South Africa, Adams has worked extensively with youth and planned, related research projects in a variety of settings. Most recently, she was research coordinator for the Preventing Long-Term Anger and Aggression in Youth Project at the University of Pennsylvania, where she helped develop and implement culturally relevant interventions for minority youth.

A former 4-H educator in Philadelphia--her hometown--she also has worked with Junior Achievement, Children's Defense Fund Freedom School, 21st Century Community Learning Center, Center for Youth Development at the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and as a lecturer in Namibia.

"What's appealing to me about this position is the opportunity to support people who work directly with young people," Adams said. "And with the translational model, we are working to get valuable research findings and data out to practitioners and young people in a much shorter time span, where we can have the greatest impact."

Adams fondly remembers assisting children with the popular embryology 4-H project, in which kids care for fertilized eggs and young hatchlings. Another project, Kids and Cash, helped children learn to comparison-shop and stretch their budget.

"When you are working with youth, it's always so rewarding when you can see the positive changes that occur over time," said Adams, who holds degrees from Philadelphia University, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania. "I'm looking forward to helping to gather the evidence to document that change and to make recommendations for youth development that can go far beyond a single program. In the big picture, knowing what works best for youth development will have a major impact on our nation's educational and global competitiveness."

For more information:

Valerie Adams

Stephen Hamilton

Angela Northern

Jamila Walida Simon
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.