In Room 120 of the New Classroom Building at Virginia Tech, 4-H Computer Science Teen Leaders Terrance Hairston and Cameron Robertson stooped to get down at eye level with a row of colorful chickens built from Legos. Ten minutes earlier, the pair of Martinsville teens had set a challenge for six teams of their 4-H peers during a computer science workshop held at the 99th Virginia 4-H Congress: build a freestanding Lego chicken against a clock.

Hairston and Robertson looked for the winning design. Some tall, some short, some on feet, and some on wheels, the Lego chickens had taken disparate forms after the 4-H'ers talked and worked together on the challenge, comparing their mental pictures of chickens and reconciling their approaches for building one. One group used a quick sketch to relate the parts ⁠— beaks, wings, and jagged combs ⁠— in space.

“It’s design thinking,” said Robertson of the activity. “You give them each the same amount of Legos, and they build their chicken based on how they perceive it. And it’s about teamwork.”

He and Hairston learned about the Lego chicken exercise and more than a dozen other educational activities from Google experts earlier this year, as part of a $6 million initiative by Google and National 4-H to build upon the 4-H Computer Science Career Pathway program.

Representing Virginia as 4-H CS Teen Leaders in the national collaboration, Hairston and Robertson are bringing lessons they've learned from the tech giant to kids in their community. And in workshops like the one they led at the Virginia 4-H Congress, the teens equip their peers from across the state to teach CS in turn.

4-H'ers teach computer science
Hairston and Robertson judge Lego creations made by 4-H'ers in a STEM activity.

Google and 4-H have teamed up to combine the tech company’s expertise with the youth development organization’s reach. National 4-H membership includes nearly six million kids, and in Virginia, 200,000 kids are enrolled in 4-H in-school, special-interest, and community clubs and camp programs in every county and city. CS Career Pathways uses 4-H's "teens as teachers" model to tap into this network and expand local computer science learning opportunities.

With a focus on rural and historically underserved communities, the grant is tied to Grow with Google, which the company describes as an initiative to help people develop skills for the modernizing workforce by giving them access to Google resources and training. As part of the collaboration, 4-H CS Teen Leaders are able to pull expert insights from the minds of more than 250 “Googlers,” who are putting a chunk of 1,000 volunteer hours into training the teens.

In March, Hairston and Robertson traveled to Utah to participate in a CS 4-H Teen Leaders conference and learn from the Googlers. Henry County and Martinsville 4-H agent Brian Hairston appointed the two as teen leaders not for their particular fluency in code, but for their love of science and their ability to work well with others.

“Brian pulled his science geeks to the side and asked us if we’d like to go to Utah,” said Robertson. “We were super down for that. The people at Google taught us everything we taught at Virginia Tech.”

The Googlers also gave the teens advice about engaging their peers as leaders. “They told us, ‘just be yourself and do you,’” said Hairston.

4-H'ers learn computer science
Virginia 4-H CS Teen Leaders have begun leading local workshops statewide to teach youth computer science skills.

Hairston and Robertson have begun teaching subjects like coding, robotics, and electronics to Henry County and Martinsville kids, using tools like Ozobots (robots that fit on the palm of a hand and teach kids how to program), Bloxels (a video game design platform), and SparkFun Electronics (kits that drive learning around circuits and hardware). They’re joined by a growing group of 4-H CS Teen Leaders in their area and from around the state, including teens from the cities and counties of Newport News, Fairfax, Campbell, Fluvanna, and King George. 

Brian Hairston said the effects of 4-H’s staple “teens as teachers” model are tangible in the workshops he helps his Martinsville 4-H'ers teach. “In peer-to-peer instruction, kids learn faster,” he said. “Teen teachers break things down into different terms that kids understand. It’s just like with my kids, when we’re going over homework. I’ll explain a math problem to my son. Then my daughter will break it down for him, and only then will he say, ‘Oh, now I get it!’”

Since becoming 4-H CS Teen Leaders, Terrance Hairston and Robertson have both taken a deeper personal interest in computer science. “I like chilling and focusing with coding,” said Hairston. “That’s why I do it. Any free time I get, I try to help myself with it.”

Robertson found the teaching side of the experience just as exciting to explore. “I have a lot of ideas in my mind right now,” he said. “Teaching is one of them. I think I can connect to a kid.”

“Since they’ve been teaching CS, they have really come out of their shell,” said Brian Hairston. “It’s put them on a different level. I think this is going to be really impactful for the community.”

- Written by Suzanne Irby