For decades, the 4-H program through the University of Tennessee’s Extension Office system has introduced thousands of school-aged children to educational opportunities in traditional subjects such as agriculture and home economics.
But today’s 4-H program in Williamson County is far more diverse in its course offerings, according to a press release, from bringing 21st century concepts in science, technology, engineering and math to life through a series of fun courses taught by local professionals willing to lend their expertise in the classroom.
Starting in September, multi-week afterschool and weekend courses will range from Crime Scene Investigation to Drones, Robotics, Solar Sprint Cars and 3-D Printing, among others.
The CSI course, taught by veteran federal court attorney Jennifer Hartsell Stockdale, takes middle- and high-school students on a journey through the analysis of forensic evidence most often utilized in the courtroom — blood splatter, fingerprints, the effects of alcohol and drugs, determining time of death, and the legal aspects of prosecution and defense — in an age-appropriate curriculum that incorporates science, mathematics and technology.
“These courses have been very popular, and are typically something you wouldn’t have access to until you reach the collegiate level,” Stockdale said in the release. “It’s a joy to be able to introduce these concepts to children, as you can literally see their wheels turning. Many of our participants have chosen career paths as a result.”
In STEM courses, including one segment geared toward Girls’ STEMPowerment, students are introduced to astronomy, circuitry, engineering, environmental science, physics and other relevant hands-on subjects. More advanced courses delve into biomedical engineering, where participants build a functioning prosthetic hand, and a working model of the human circulatory system.
In Junior Solar Sprint, kids as young as fifth grade build a sprint car out of Styrofoam, install a solar panel on top and then race the cars. Another course explores aerodynamics and computer-aided drafting to produce race cars on a 3-D printer, and yet another set of classes taught by two degreed engineers builds and operates microdrones.
Instructor Elvia Klym, a teacher at Nolensville High School who collaborates with local mechanical engineer Jeff Duncan, says it’s the perfect hook to get kids interested in STEM subjects.
“It also gets into the arts, humanities and career education,” Klym said. “Think of the many uses of drones: farmers monitoring fields, scientists monitoring volcanoes, NASA, emergency medical services, e-sports with college scholarships, and then where it all started, in the military.
“It positions kids for a wide variety of career paths. We think it’s a great way to be introduced with easy-to-fly, introductory drones, and they have a blast designing courses and learning about aircraft.”
Microbit robotics courses teach basic block-based coding at the middle-school level utilizing a Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer that engineers use to program a variety of tools and products. Students might build their own versions of an “Alexa,” or a streaming Bluetooth speaker, learning from a retired Cisco engineering instructor. This year, a Nissan engineer is starting a new electronics course covering basic electrical circuits, such as how to wire a three-way switch or put an audio system together.
Stockdale references one former student, now enrolled in Vanderbilt University’s engineering program, who secured a coveted internship based on the soldering experience gained in a Williamson County 4-H class. She also reflects on her own career path, and how it was guided by her 4-H experience as a child.
“4-H has been a critical part of my life since the 4th grade,” she said. “It helped shape me into the person I am today, and it’s important for me to give back. Leadership, commitment, service, public speaking — these are the threads that offered me all kinds of opportunities and mentors, and I ended up going to law school. 4-H has evolved, staying true to our roots while also being responsive to the world we live in today.”
Courses start as early as Sept. 1 at the Williamson County Agricultural Expo, and interested participants are encouraged to sign up right away, as some fill up quickly. More information, including a full schedule and more details on individual courses, can be found here.