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Hands-on Programs Engage Youths in Technology

4-H tech wizards students and instructors
4-H Tech Wizards completed a community service project in Lyndonville using GPS and creating maps for Kingdom Trails Association. Participants were led by VISTA AmeriCorps member Fred Gonzales, Jr., left, and NEKI AmeriCorps member and 4-H Tech Wizards Program Instructor Geoff Whitchurch, right. (Photo: Lindsay Jones)

For a week last July, 14-year-old Austin Jenks hiked through Lyndon State Forest, GPS unit in hand, in search of the Jack Pine as part of a Vermont 4-H Tech Wizards Summer Science Day Camp. Although he admits he had lots of fun, Austin and the other participants were all business when it came to mapping locations of the trees for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

“I’ve always been interested in technology,” the East Burke home-schooled teen says, “so when I heard about this camp, I thought it might be a good experience to try something I couldn’t learn anywhere else.”

The campers trekked several miles a day through the woods in Lyndonville, using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping technology to collect data, which they later entered on Google Earth to produce aerial maps.

“The best part was being able to see what we did, where we walked and what we mapped,” Austin says. The activity also appealed to him because it was a “real project that helped someone out.” The youths’ monitoring efforts will be used by the agency to determine if this non-native species is sustainable in Vermont.

Geoff Whitchurch, an AmeriCorps state member who works with UVM Extension’s 4-H Tech Wizards program in the Northeast Kingdom, developed the summer camp to foster an interest in science, math and technology in middle school students as well as teach them life and career skills including goal setting, decision-making and problem solving.

“We are teaching them to be curious,” Whitchurch says, “to have an open mind to ask questions and develop the confidence to try new things and not be intimidated by new equipment or vocabulary.”

A second camp held last summer in Caledonia County had kids--including Austin and his 11-year-old sister Melena--mapping out a new connector trail on the shoulder of Burke Mountain for the Kingdom Trails Association. The not-for-profit organization develops year-round recreational trails for non-motorized vehicles to stimulate the economy.

The partnership was a natural fit, according to Tim Tierney, Kingdom Trails’ executive director and a former 4-H’er.

“Kids often ask, ‘When will I ever use this?’ when learning something in school,” Tierney points out. “With this mapping program they are learning geography, geology, history and natural sciences and seeing how it applies to real life.”

Thanks to their work, the association was able to construct the majority of the new trail last fall and will add the finishing touches this spring. A similar camp was offered through Operation: Military Kids at Camp Johnson in Colchester, where campers used GPS mapping technology and digital photography to identify invasive plant species to aid the Vermont National Guard in forest restoration.

The 4-H Tech Wizards program was developed in Oregon several years ago for culturally at-risk youths and quickly was adopted by other states. Funding is through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and administered through the National 4-H Council.

In Vermont, the program also offers units in robotics, model rocketry, videography and other emerging technologies through afterschool classes and vacation camps. It targets kids in Grades 4-8 in communities in four counties that have higher populations of military kids, at-risk youths and free and reduced school lunch recipients.

The three-year grant, which recently received its year two funding, required that UVM Extension reach 120 youths. A total of 176 kids at sites in Caledonia, Chittenden, Franklin and Windsor Counties were reached with 43 percent participating in 26 hours or more of programming and 27 percent a minimum of 10 hours or less.

“The program builds confidence with technology and leadership to help others,” Whitchurch says, noting that a key piece to the program’s success are the volunteer mentors who provide positive adult role models for kids, especially those considering a career in science and technology.

Tierney agrees. “Every time you put kids in a new situation with new peers, they learn how to work with others, communicate and get out of their comfort zone. We are creating leaders by exposing kids to programs like Tech Wizards.”

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