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Extension > Youth Development Insight > June 2014

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Online learning and Rube Goldberg

hui-hui-wang.jpgThis summer, we are very excited to have 16 teams of young people from across the state competing in our engineering design challenge, "Build a Rube Goldberg Machine." These third to eighth graders work together and learn the principles of physics to build a working machine that they can take to their county fairs.

When planning this challenge, I really wanted to know, "What role can an out-of-school, project-based contest play in building and transferring STEM knowledge and skills?


boy-with-rube-goldberg-mach.jpgTo address this, our science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) team has integrated a number of strategies. These teams of 3-10 youth in 10 counties have formed, adopted team names, and each has one or two adult volunteer leaders. Along with building the machine at face-to-face club meetings, the teams use online learning spaces -- team journals, a portfolio, and an "ask an expert" chat -- to support their learning. From these online records, we can also study their learning experiences. I am hoping these online activities will provide data and evidence for us to explore how the engineering design process helps students construct and transfer STEM knowledge and skills in an out-of-school, project-based contest.
Evaluation of this online learning idea is key. Minnesota 4-H is a statewide organization, so STEM teams meet online more often than they meet face to face. Asking youth to do a STEM project that uses a digital tool can move 4-H STEM club activities into the digital age. It can enable them to be mentored from a distance, access resources, interact with other youth, and many other benefits.

To help us understand online learning better, we'll be evaluating these questions: What do youth need in an online learning environment to best support their learning? How do they interact with the online learning tool? What kinds of supports do adult volunteers need to do best facilitate youth learning?

-- Hui-Hui Wang, assistant professor and Extension educator, STEM education

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Is program design an art or a science?

On the one hand, there's data. On the other hand, there's your gut. As I branch out and begin to truly understand the programs I work for and grasp their impact and begin to plant some of my own programmatic seeds, I am thinking about youth development program design. In a recent experience, I had a positive outcome that sparked me to ask this question: Is what we do an art or a science?

My answer? I think there's a healthy tension between the two that goes unnoticed. I am finding tools for program design that bring out both sides.

Many youth workers, teachers, and volunteers don't have time to gold-laptop-figures-shake-h.jpgcritically analyze each lesson or activity on a daily basis. We often rely on quick improvements on quality, feedback, and our own "guts" to improve our practice. In my previous role as a teacher, I remember making quick modifications before class, making notes for next year on what worked, and often-times throwing out the entire lesson plan because I felt it didn't work. This is the art of experience-informed improvisation.

On the other hand, school administrators and program leaders often rely on data (or create the data) to drive programs and program needs. As I improvised in the classroom, part of what drove my decisions was data -- the science side of education.

The healthy, positive tension between art and science in our program design or improvement often goes unrecognized or unappreciated in all education levels as we strive through for the same goal of making the best for our youth.

In some recent work with a small sub-group of the Minnesota State 4-H Ambassadors who were tasked with planning the service-learning project at their annual state leadership conference, a little bit of data mixed with the untouched canvas of ideas. We asked young people to design a program. They held dual roles by wearing the administrator hat (equipped with data) and teacher hat (armed with their passion). We armed them with elements of a technique called smallify in which they made "small bets" on their ideas, merging art with science.

Smallify is similar to another familiar program design improvement technique called Cloud-Bursting. Both of these techniques involve thinking about data and doing exercises to promote creativity in planning. These techniques create a space that promote the highest levels of youth engagement.
The outcome was important (and successful), but the process was equally weighted between art and science. I believe that equal weighting is key to this discussion.

Smallify and Cloud-Bursting are two simple exercises that can help expose the art and science in your program design. I am certain there are many more. How do you create the space that permits this healthy tension? Can you share some examples of how you champion the art of teaching with the logical aspects of science?

-- Joshua Kukowski, Extension educator

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Rethinking youth program sustainability


Joanna-Tzenis.jpgIs program sustainability all about money?

Grants can offer new resources and opportunities to youth programs and the communities in which they take place. The Minnesota Sustainable Community Project (MN SCP), funded by the USDA from 2008 to 2013, helped us to create eight new youth programs throughout the state. In these programs, youth developed leadership skills, gained new mastery and expertise in a subject area and made plans to meet their long-term goals in education.

We knew the benefits to these communities could not be fleeting. To sustain them beyond the life of the grant, we worked within a research-backed conceptual framework.

Mancini and Marek's research says that sustainability is not synonymous with securing more funds. Rather, it refers to the capacity of a program to sustain the benefits it provides. They identified seven factors critical to program sustainability: bug.jpg
  • Leadership competence
  • Effective collaboration
  • Understanding the community
  • Demonstrating program results
  • Strategic funding
  • Staff involvement and integration
  • Program responsivity
Using this framework, the MN SCP project staff began planning for sustainability in year one. One of my colleagues explains, "We were able to have those conversations about sustainability really early on and being realistic about 'money's not going to last forever."

One factor critical to the success of our program at an American Indian Magnet School was effective collaboration, which refers to building a broad base of support of community stakeholders. In this case, the school administration, teachers leading the program, community elders and the 4-H youth development program actively supported the program's goals and guiding principles. Each stakeholder was committed to continuing the programs worked together strategically to secure a promise fellow to lead the delivery of program of the program within the school's after school program, while the program still is supported by the larger 4-H organization.

Another critical sustainability element was program responsivity. This refers to ability of a project to adapt programming and meet changing community needs. This essentially means that the program needs to be flexible and not be married to sustaining the precise program activities. For example, we had three programs in Willmar Middle School. However, once the grant ended, there were no longer enough funds to pay for three different program deliverers, so the three groups consolidated, led by one 4-H program coordinator, who now has been able to include this program into her plan of work.

Sustainability is a dynamic concept the goes beyond the mere securement of more funds. What do your sustainability efforts looks like?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor, Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR)

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

21st century learning stories


Pamela-Nippolt.jpgWhat lessons do you take from a story about two best friends graduating from Stillwater High School this week -- one of them an artist with autism who seldom speaks, the other headed for a local community college? Their steady and unwavering lifelong friendship across their differences bridged them through childhood to their walk across the graduation stage this month.

This story by Mary Divine of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press centers on two young men who formed a bond that has seen them through the years and over many successful "outcomes".

Youth-serving professionals wanting to make a difference by advancing "21st century learning" can take a lesson directly from young people like these boys. According to Robert Sternberg of Cornell University,
"Successful individuals are those who have "creative skills to produce a vision for how they intend to make the world a better place for everyone; analytical intellectual skills, to assess their vision and those of others; practical intellectual skills, to carry out their vision and persuade people of its value; and wisdom, to ensure that their vision is not a selfish one."
What can we as youth development cat-and-duck-best-friends.jpgprofessionals learn from these two young men? No single achievement or benchmark of success distinguishes either boy's life to this point. Neither mentions a program or experience or mentor that helped carve their path .... except, perhaps, the other. They both have parents who had the vision for that first play date. But even so, there was a second play date, and a twentieth, and so on. Perhaps this is a path that could be taken by any young person, provided someone has the vision to see it.
What place do youth programs play in supporting youth to make choices to commit their time and hearts for true collaboration and a commitment to others? In youth development buzzwords, the ability to navigate in one's family, community and, yes, the world is known as a collection of "21st century learning skills." We measure them with survey items like "I can make positive choices." Or "I am able to communicate my ideas to others."
But are we missing something essential in our understanding about what leads young people to be prepared? To be capable of changing the world? Our current "collective impact" largesse and our "soft skill" narrowing of what the world most needs for and from our youngest members may just have set the bar too low.
Take time to read this story if you want a gentle reminder of what youth are doing to change the world. Every young person has the potential and right to be remarkable and to do amazing things.
These stories make the buzzwords real. Do you have a story of 21st century learning in your program? I want to hear it!
-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, evaluation and research specialist

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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