Virginia Cooperative Extension has introduced a new robotics course into its 4-H camping program that teaches teamwork and problem solving to Virginia youth. Two of the commonwealth’s six 4-H educational centers began the course this summer as part of an effort to enhance science and technology education.

“We have been trying to emphasize science and technology programs for youth and update the public image of Virginia 4-H,” said Joe Hunnings, a 4-H youth development specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension. He added that more than 50 percent of Virginia 4-H members live in urban and suburban areas.

During National 4-H Week, Oct. 1-7, the 4-H program begins its 105th year of existence. 4-H originated from a need for basic agricultural education for youth, but today the program offers a comprehensive curriculum that includes career and economic education, citizenship, communication and expressive arts, family sciences, and leadership.

As part of the science and technology curriculum, the new robotics course at the 4-H educational centers modifies programming from FIRST LEGO League, a national organization to teach technology and problem-solving skills to schoolchildren, ages 9 to 14.

“The students use the computer and software that LEGO provides to program certain tasks for a robot,” said Win Iden, program director for the Southwest Virginia 4-H Educational Center in Abingdon.

The W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake also offered a robotics course. “This was a very popular program with the students at our camp this summer,” said Chris Smith, program director for the Smith Mountain Lake camp. “The robotics classes were always full each time we offered them, and we noticed that a number of kids originally came to the camp because of the robotics program. We have noticed a trend that science and technology classes will attract campers who might not be interested in other programs, such as outdoor activities or arts and crafts.”

Though not a part of the FIRST LEGO League tournament structure, the camp robotics program might instill an interest in technology and encourage students to form a competitive team, Hunnings said. Because the FIRST LEGO League pairs adult volunteers with children in small groups who work together to solve a science-related problem, 4-H decided to adapt the LEGO technology for its summer camps.

“Students are not only learning physics and computer programming—but also life skills,” Hunnings said.

Bill Duggins, interim director of FIRST LEGO League, coordinated the pilot program for the 4-H educational centers. “The robotics classes in the camps teach kids how to work well together under time pressure to complete a larger project by breaking it into smaller pieces,” he said.

Hunnings and Duggins both said they hope to duplicate the robotics program at the four other 4-H educational centers and boost the number of FIRST LEGO League clubs sponsored by 4-H.

“In the clubs, not only do students create the robot, but they also research a problem that their robot has to solve,” Hunnings said. He explained that schools and other community service groups, not just Virginia 4-H, often sponsor these teams.

The robotics course is not the only technology-based course at 4-H camps. Iden said youth at the Abingdon center, for example, have a chance to take a broadcast journalism course where they use digital photography and audio equipment to create a weekly slideshow and podcast for other campers. Virginia 4-H’s camping program is one of the largest in the country and provides character-building experiences to more than 25,000 participants at the six 4-H educational centers.

Virginia Cooperative Extension brings the resources of Virginia’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, to the people of the commonwealth. Through a system of on-campus specialists and locally based agents, it delivers education in the areas of agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, community viability, and 4-H youth development. With a network of faculty at two universities, 107 county and city offices, 13 agricultural research and extension centers, and six 4-H educational centers, Virginia Cooperative Extension provides solutions to the problems facing Virginians today.