December 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA1

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4-H Classroom Science Programs Enriching the Learning Environment

This study addresses the role of 4-H Classroom Science Programs as a catalyst for enriching the learning environment of students. Convinced that 4-H could have an impact on the quality of science education in the classroom, researchers from The National Center for Science Teaching and Learning and the National 4-H Network for Action in Science and Technology set out to establish a model approach for the delivery of 4-H classroom science programs. The model put forth in this program shows great promise in guiding the science enrichment efforts of 4-H professionals across the country. Clearly, 4-H can play a role in the initiating and nurturing effective science learning environments.

Robert L. Horton
Extension 4-H Specialist
Science Education
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
Internet Address:

Joseph Konen
Extension Agent, 4-H Youth Development
The Ohio State University
Cleveland, Ohio
Internet Address:

Nationwide more than three million youth were involved in 4-H school enrichment programs in 1995. The National Center for Science Teaching and Learning (NCSTL) and the National 4-H Network for Action in Science Technology (NNST) recently joined together to study ways of increasing the impact 4-H classroom science programs have on the learning environment of elementary grade students.

Studies suggest that participation by community organizations such as 4-H can enrich the learning environment of elementary and middle school classrooms (National 4-H Science and Technology Committee, 1991). During the past five years, Ohio's 4 -H professionals have introduced more than 3,700 elementary teachers to the use of hands-on science activities to help students comprehend difficult concepts and apply particular skills. Conversations with teachers and Extension agents suggest that programs with follow-up support of the teacher achieve the highest level of teacher satisfaction and sustained involvement.

A 1993 statewide assessment of 4-H classroom science programs (Horton, 1993) suggested the need for additional follow- up once teachers were engaged in teaching a unit. Elementary teachers in the study expressed a level of anxiety when using 4-H science units, even when comprehensive training was provided. Approximately 83 percent of the teachers sampled requested additional support in the form of classroom visitations. Apparently, these teachers viewed the workshop much like a student-teaching experience in which follow-up visitations would be made by a supervising instructor.

Convinced that 4-H could play a role in enriching the learning environment of students, NCSTL and NNST researchers set out to establish a model approach for the delivery of 4-H classroom science programs in Ohio. Based on their review of the literature, the group determined that a model 4-H classroom science program should contain the following components: (a) experiential teaching materials; (b) compatible school and community partners; (c) an introductory workshop for both teachers and partners; (d) support for both teachers and partners during the workshop programs; (e) student materials and teaching supplies; and (f) program closure, including alternative assessment activities and a celebration of student accomplishments.

In the pilot program, 4-H acted as a catalyst for recruiting and sustaining community partners as well as for preparing and supporting classroom teachers and partners. In spring 1995, research began on the effectiveness of this model within Ohio's 4 -H program. Cuyahoga County was selected as the initial pilot site based on its experience in developing partnerships among 4- H, community resources, and the schools. Each of the six program components was included in the pilot:

1) Experiential Teaching Materials

The researchers selected the Ohio 4-H curriculum entitled "Rockets Away" as the course of study for the pilot program. This multi-disciplinary curriculum is designed to stimulate interest in mathematics, science, engineering, aerospace, and physics while incorporating verbal and mathematics skills through the exploration of rocketry science. The content covers Newton's three laws, gravity, air pressure, velocity, altitude, and other aerodynamic concepts and principles.

The curriculum materials are divided into three units. Each begins with several "Rocket Run-down" facts that lead into a background information section; this discussion section provides simple demonstrations with explanations for students to understand basic science concepts. The last part of each unit focuses specifically on hands-on activities for students to explore and learn.

2) School and Community Partners

The effort to support the work of the teachers with community-based partners was an important component. The five community partners who attended represented private and public organizations: B.F. Goodrich, Great Lakes Science Center, and Cuyahoga County Extension. Teachers and partners were matched by proximity; each partner was grouped with at least four teachers.

Recruitment of an adequate number of community partners was not entirely successful and showed two obstacles to effective recruitment: (a) Corporate down-sizing has left many businesses without the ability to free scientists and other workers for community volunteering; and (b) recruitment of committed volunteers takes long term coalitions between the Extension program and corporations.

3) Science Enrichment Workshop

Ohio State University Cuyahoga County Extension, in conjunction with NCSTL, sponsored a program to prepare Cleveland- area elementary and middle school teachers and interested community partners for a hands-on/minds-on curriculum. Twenty-two public and elementary school teachers attended the workshop.

Partnering with community, business, industry, and educational leaders was used as a means to enhance and stimulate science education in the classroom.

Specific workshop objectives included: (a) combining presentations, demonstrations, discussions, and practice in the workshop setting; (b) providing hands-on/minds-on activities related to conceptual themes of science; (c) introducing partnership opportunities involving teachers and community resource persons; (d) offering information on how to access free or low-cost materials and resources from Extension.

The agenda was modified from NCSTL's partnership preparation program by the inclusion of curriculum and partnership development activities. The workshop program began with introductions and a brief summary of the purpose. Introduction to the curriculum followed. Units were taught through demonstrations, group and individual activities, and discussions that provided clarification of concepts and time to synthesize the material. After the curriculum was experienced, a demonstration rocket was launched outside. Later, teachers and their community partners designed their own rockets, which they launched after the partnership workshop.

Many group activities during the partnership preparation session were designed to allow teachers and partners to get to know one another. The first activity asked each member of the group to introduce himself or herself and describe a typical workday. Teachers and community partners did the next activity separately. Both groups were asked to develop a list of advantages and disadvantages of working together in the classroom and a list of concerns and expectations for the partnerships Later, the lists were shared and discussed. The groups' lists were thematically very similar.

For example, the teachers' list of advantages included students having better school attendance, studying more, and seeing real-life examples of what they could do with science when they grow up, and partners becoming resources in teaching. The community partners' advantages included promoting the sciences to students, helping students learn, encouraging students to study and take up careers in math and science, and involving themselves within the community. Prior to the workshop, teachers were asked to respond to the question, "What does the phrase school/community partnership mean to you?" Their responses included:

    "The school and community both take on the responsibility of educating our children by working together to provide the best possible learning environment." "Schools/businesses interacting to promote science awareness/learning." "The school and community share resources, personnel, funding, and credit for projects. It is an educational experience for all, not a make-work situation." "Schools and community working together to educate students." "Materials and support can be provided for teaching my curriculum." "Schools and businesses working together, sharing experiences, talents, resources with teacher training or student activities." "That [the] community can help enrich my classroom curriculum through materials and guest speakers." "Involving families and businesses with school experiences."

The concept of partnering was presented as a variety of different relationships between schools and community resources. Teachers were asked which of the three partnership models (adopt- a-school, project-driven, or long-term, reform-based) most closely resembled what they had in their schools and in their classrooms.

Prospective community partners told the teachers of any previous partnering experiences in which they had been involved. Then followed further explanation and a group discussion about how each unique relationship between teacher and partner might evolve over time. A prescriptive approach to creating partnerships was deemed unrealistic and dismissed.

4) Support for both teachers and partners

After the teacher training sessions and during the time the teachers present the materials to the students, the role of the Extension office is to support the process. Contact with the teachers and partners facilitates their interaction. Both teachers and partners tend to be busy and assistance to each of them in contacting and continuing the relationships of the workshop can be helpful.

Contact with the teachers at the countywide launch day also provides an opportunity for the teachers and partners to continue informal development of their relationships and to share refinements in the implementation of the program.

5) Student materials and teaching supplies

Cuyahoga County Extension supplied each teacher with a kit of materials to support Rockets Away! activities in a classroom of 30 students. Experience has shown that urban school districts are often unable to assist teachers financially in purchasing even inexpensive teaching materials.

Teachers trained after the first round of training have been able to borrow launch day kits from the Cuyahoga County Extension Office.

Based on the experience and success of this program the Cleveland public Schools have appropriated nearly $50,000 to purchase Rockets Away kits for all 5th grade classrooms in the district (approximately 300 classrooms). Other parochial and public school districts have provided funds for teacher purchase of classroom and launch kits.

6) Program Closure

The culminating event of the program was Student Rocket Launch Day, sponsored by Cuyahoga County Extension. This all-day event, at the end of the six-week curriculum, was an opportunity for partners, teachers, and students to celebrate their involvement in the program and for students to demonstrate their two-liter bottle rockets. Eighty-six students launched rockets. Prizes were awarded for the most creative, best constructed, and highest flying. Students were required to calculate the altitude and speed of their rockets.

Program Evaluation

After the program, teachers and partners were asked to evaluate the workshop introduction, the Rockets Away! Curriculum, aspects of partnering, individual and group sharing, and teacher and partner action planning. They were invited to suggest steps for the future. They were also asked, "What did you like most about the workshop, and what did you like least?"

"Liked most" responses included:

    "Great hands-on ideas and experiments with nice simple explanations." "Hands-on approach toward training and curriculum." "All of it! Especially making and launching the rockets."

"Liked least" responses included:

    "Not enough time allotted for synthesis of all aspects of training." "The computer program got rather technical." "Talking about partnerships..I'm not sure it will work but I'll give it a try." "Not enough time given for teachers and partners to schedule classroom involvement."

A few obstacles to the workshop experience should be noted. The first, known prior to the program, was the time of year the program was presented; teachers suggested offering it earlier in the school year. The second concerned the partners' involvement in the delivery of the curriculum. The workshop kicked off a six- week unit of study during which teachers and partners shared in presenting the hands-on activities to students. Teachers later voiced several problems, including that "it was difficult to link up with partners due to operating on different schedules." and that "I did not hear from partner nor did I contact the partner because I was pressed for time." One of the partners mentioned being "burned out" because of past efforts that focused on behavioral management in the classroom.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The 4-H classroom science model used as the framework for this study appears to be a valid approach for establishing meaningful science learning experiences. The emphasis placed on providing the necessary support and follow-up for teachers and partners during the program, along with the availability of classroom-ready kits, was valuable to the success of this program.

Clearly, the county Extension office's role as a catalyst for bringing together and sustaining teacher-partner relationships is worth further examination. The Extension program must devise additional methods of initiating and cultivating the partnerships.

Two strategies are indicated: (a) Expectations of the partners must be clear. Partners in this pilot were only committed to sharing the training with the teachers and doing what they could afterward to assist the teachers. Partners should be expected to visit the teachers' classrooms at least twice during the process of the classroom experience. (b) Perhaps in some cases the Extension office itself might become the partner of the teacher if other volunteers (corporate and individual) are not available. Some foundations have shown interest in funding classroom visitation for support of teachers.

Although Cuyahoga County Extension invested numerous hours initiating and cultivating the partnership among the school, the community partner, and 4-H, the perception was that Extension's involvement would diminish over time. Furthermore, as several successful partnerships mature and grow within a school, others in nearby schools might begin with less effort.

The teacher-partner workshop fulfilled the goal of having teachers and partners learn while sharing a common experience. An assessment of the workshop experiences showed that partners gained appreciation for the role of teachers while recognizing their own capacity to help and teach others. However, there should be occasional follow-up with partners and teachers, as partners tend to put off calling teachers and some teachers go ahead without them.

Also, several teachers suggested an alternative assessment technique for Student Rocket Launch Day that could prove useful for both teachers and students. Students would circulate around a number of learning stations staffed by partners. At a particular station, a student might be asked to demonstrate Newton's third law, for example, by releasing and inflating a balloon or determining an object's center of gravity and pressure. Students might also calculate the altitude and speed of their rockets, based on the number of seconds from launch to landing. Such activities would provide not only immediate feedback, but also valuable assessment data for improving the quality of teacher- partner instruction.

Finally, we suggest planning adequate lead time, at least four months, to recruit and prepare prospective teachers and partners for the program. During the workshop there should be enough time for the partners and teachers to begin planning their lessons together. One of the biggest complaints was that teachers and partners did not establish a level of comfort with one another. This may have contributed to partners' reluctance to follow up with teachers.

The model put forth in this program shows great promise in guiding the classroom science efforts of 4-H professionals across the country. Clearly, 4-H can play a role in initiating and nurturing effective science learning environments. However, additional study is needed to determine if this model is effective in sustaining the involvement of community partners with classroom teachers and in changing the way science is viewed and taught in elementary and middle school classes.


Horton, B. (1993, November). Assessment of effectiveness, 4-H teacher training programs in Ohio. Paper presented at the National 4-H Agent Meeting, Winston-Salem, NC.

National 4-H Science and Technology Committee. (1991). 4-H enhancement of classroom environments. Washington, DC: Extension Service-U.S. Department of Agriculture.