Keating: At Fair Time, 4-H ‘Learns by Doing’

July 26, 2013

by Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D.

There is currently discussion about apprenticeship and structured work experiences to promote the school-to-work transition. This concern emphasizes the development of young people to have the skills needed for applying academic learning to real-life situations.

Here in Indiana there exists an exciting such program that enrolls thousands of young people between the ages 8 and 18 in critical-skills training — it is called 4-H.

With a network reaching every corner of the state and country, 4-H is the nation’s largest youth-development organization. More than 6 million 4-H youths participate from urban, suburban and rural farming communities. The 4-H program fosters an innovative “learn by doing” approach with proven results.

Tax funds from the U. S. Department of Agriculture and state universities support Extension System personnel who develop and deliver 4-H programs. The Extension System manages a revolving account for each county or regional unit. Donations and fund-raising revenues are generated and managed by local 4-H councils.

At a number of 4-H clubs located in every county in Indiana, skilled adults spend hours leading members into the world of reading and interpreting manuals to create projects in which the child has expressed an interest — all for stipends that just cover expenses.

The foods coordinator at one club, a mathematics instructor by trade, uses recipes to reinforce measuring and counting techniques. Another teaches machine safety, referencing trigonometry in calculating angles for connecting legs to a third-year member’s woodworking bench. A skilled “handcrafter” volunteers to meet throughout the year so that members’ projects are completed in time for judging at the county fair.

4-H is not a drop-off program. It requires that parents monitor and invest time and resources in each project. Both parent and child are together on the hook when a decorated cake is smashed in transport or when photographs are presented in a way that fails to meet precise specifications. In such instances, a Hoosier parent can only hope that dairy treats on the Midway will compensate when a white ribbon for participation substitutes for the coveted blue.

Fees for 4-H are nominal. Members, on completion of a project, are sometimes given an entrance pass to the county fair. Note carefully, however, that parents are placed in the position of having to say, “No, our family will not be showing horses at the fair” or “Your short’s seams will be sewn on an ordinary machine; we cannot afford a serger.”

Fortunately, identical purple champion ribbons are awarded to a multitude of low-budget projects as well as presented for prized dairy and beef cattle.

Considering the intense involvement required of 4-H stakeholders, one questions whether or not the organization’s programs can be scaled up to significantly increase participation. Certainly, current 4-H members are offered a leg-up on valuable academic, vocational and personal skills, all of which necessarily increase self-esteem.

One cannot imagine the degree to which the thrill of competition and meeting friends at the fair compares with an expensive destination vacation. Everyone, however, can appreciate the value of the human capital inculcated in those Hoosiers who learn by doing through 4-H.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell, 2009.




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