4-H bringing sustainable science to young ages

Starting this year, the 4-H Polymers program will be available to K-2 classrooms nationwide, introducing science in a way that piques curiosity for kids of all ages. This initiative is the result of combining the educational outreach of  4-H with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP), which conducts research to create plastics derived from renewable resources.

The curriculum, titled “Be a 4-H Scientist!  Materials in a Green, Clean World,” focuses on concepts like materials, recycling and the work of scientists and engineers. It was designed to fill the science void at younger ages and build foundational skills using hands-on activities that apply to the real world, like recycling.

Reaching children at the K-2 level with these topics is imperative to building future leaders in the science field, according to Jennifer Henderson, direction of education, outreach and diversity with CSP.

“At the elementary age, if [kids] decide they aren’t good at science, you will often lose them,” Henderson said. “Our goal with this young audience is to introduce science and let them know it is not scary.”

One of the six modules in the curriculum is focused on renewable materials, such as different polymers like those that are the focus of a recent corn-farmer funded research project at CSP. According to Anne Stevenson, an extension educator with the University of Minnesota, the curriculum’s focus on sustainability topics is attractive.

“Many people know that we are using corn as feedstock, but they are also using it to create sustainably sourced products that can break down unlike other plastics,” Stevenson said.

Although the K-2 curriculum will stick to identifying renewable and non-renewable materials, more advanced topics focused on sustainability will be incorporated as 4-H and CSP work to develop additional curriculum applicable through the eighth grade level.

The unique partnership between 4-H and CSP was the result of opportune timing for both organizations, according to Stevenson, who was introduced to the work of CSP while visiting their booth at the Minnesota State Fair. At the time, 4-H nationally had identified growth of science and engineering education as one of its key missions, while CSP had received a research grant from the National Science Foundation that included funds reserved for educational outreach.

“The kids will now be able to see themselves as someone who can do science or engineering,” Stevenson said. “It helps them learn what scientists do, and then gives them the sense of ‘I can do this.’”

The 4-H Polymers project was developed with help from Cornell University and the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources department.

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