Two students test nano treated
A STEMentor appears on a video screen helping students at Omaha's Kennedy Elementary School learn about nano technology. Soham Patel, UNL computer science major, uses Beam technology to video conference from Lincoln - the screen is mounted on a robotic platform so he can wheel around the gym to assist multiple groups. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication

Through the power of science and sparkles and after 26 hours of planning, Nebraska Extension’s 4-H Youth Development launched the first session of Living Room Learning on March 17 with a glitter bomb tutorial. Subsequently, thousands of kids have tuned in on Zoom for 4-H’s virtually-guided live experience initiative, making robot hands and rocket loads while gaining insight on Nebraska-based careers. 

Living Room Learning and other virtual opportunities came together quickly because they needed to, according to Extension Educator for 4-H Youth Development Tracy Pracheil, who works at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“(Two words) that we use in Extension often are that we’re responsive and nimble,” Pracheil said. “This has been a great example of that. We’ve really tried to pull together our resources and deliver them in a way that benefited the youth of our state.”

And this fall, as the pandemic continues to keep kids home, the hands-on virtual programs are still going strong. Since March, the elementary-aimed Living Room Learning has grown into a broader focus on offering more virtual sessions for select age groups, such as Virtual Field Trips for seventh through 12th grade and Career Chat Live for sixth through ninth, with an emphasis on providing education wherever the learning space. 

Katelyn Day, who teaches agriculture education to seventh and ninth through 12th graders at Cambridge Public Schools, uses Virtual Field Trips as lessons in class and a way for students to consider realistic and diverse Nebraska-based careers. So far, her class has been on the agronomy and field scientist field trip, and she plans to sign up for more.

“I love this Virtual Field Trip program,” Day said. “It was so great to see numerous adults of different backgrounds sharing their experiences. I think they really were able to match students of different backgrounds also. It was really neat getting to hear how they got to where they are today, along with what their day-to-day schedule and job duties are. Having these virtual field trips makes it so much easier to help students find Nebraska careers and help keep them in our heartland.”

According to Day, the sessions take a lot of time off her hands in trying to find similar videos with the same information, most of which do not exist. Live questions can be sent in to answer during the field trip and videos are posted to YouTube afterward. Through market research – interviews with homeschool families and people who work with youth in and out of school settings – Pracheil said 4-H is now focusing on providing resources both synchronously and asynchronously for ease of accessibility.

“We’re really trying to grow those true leaders for tomorrow and help prepare them for the skills that they need to be contributing members of their community,” Pracheil said.

The 4-H program has also found that youth need a learning place where they feel like they belong and can build mastery, generosity and independence skills – traits which the program calls its “essential elements.” Living Room Learning in particular follows this model of youth development by establishing live connections between Nebraskans through a computer screen and allowing elementary-aged students to explore different areas of study.

“Experiencing new things all the time is important for youth,” Pracheil said. “And that special mixture of youth development that we’re able to bring to the mix is important in really trying to help youth know that they belong and that they’re connecting with others, gaining that independence and being generous, and mastering something in the process.”

Extension Educator Andy Larson, based at UNL, has been helping to run many of the live experiences and said the successful part of it was just that – the live experience.

“Youth get to interact and connect with other youth and adults across Nebraska who they normally may not have had the opportunity to interact with prior,” Larson said. “Throughout these experiences, starting in March and until now, we have reached over 2,500 youth and families across Nebraska and beyond.”

Reaching all parts of Nebraska with the newest UNL-based youth development research is one of the goals of 4-H. 4-H’s grant-funded STEMentors is an example – UNL students virtually teach after-school programs to youth from primarily rural communities across the state, who are less likely to have STEM opportunities in-person. This program began before the pandemic and is still being offered.

“Even if you’re in a rural portion of the state, you might be able to connect with a program that might not be delivered in your community face-to-face,” Pracheil said. “So some of the programs are really focused upon taking the teaching and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln out to rural communities.”

From Sept. 22 to Oct. 13, students across the state and beyond have watched the Lancaster County 4-H EGG Cam, charting the development of brown and white eggs to fluffy, wobbly new-born chicks, even as the pandemic has hindered third-grade classrooms’ ability to do so in school.

While the EGG Cam has existed since 2002, the program has been revamped for the pandemic with virtual embryology sessions for youth. They can, in real time, watch incubation, candling sessions and births all in a 21-day cycle. Lancaster County private, parochial and county schools, as well as schools throughout the country have tuned in. Since schools have slowly been opening up, 4-H is also offering Chick Days – after the chicks hatch, each school in the Lincoln area signed up will have the opportunity to take in the chicks for a couple of days to get the handling and caring experience.

UNL-based 4-H Extension Assistant Calvin DeVries has been coordinating the camera and teaching about embryology in schools since February 2019.

“We’ve heard from the surveys that we’ve got back very positive feedback,” DeVries said. “Nationwide, embryology is done in quite a few counties, but there’s not really another egg cam similar to what we have here. So once the pandemic hit, once we revamped it, it served as a pretty good tool for those who still wanted to provide an embryology experience for the students that typically have it in the fall.”

Whether through eggs or online field trips, Pracheil said 4-H as a whole is looking to continue to incorporate both virtual and in-person opportunities.

“The future of 4-H in this space is that we know we do face-to-face instruction well, but we’re also doing virtual instruction well,” Pracheil said. “In the future, the combination, that blended format, is probably where we will be with many of these programs.”

New this semester is the Classroom Connection page, where educators can more easily search for learning opportunities for school classrooms, homeschool co-ops, after-school learning and supplemental experiences such as Living Room Learning.

These are steps that reflect what the umbrella of Nebraska Extension is all about – using research-based education and innovation to enhance lives. Extension faculty and representatives can be found in 83 county offices, four research and Extension centers in Scottsbluff, North Platte, Norfolk and Mead, and in academic departments at UNL, serving all 93 counties. While Extension has an expansive list of programs ranging from entrepreneurship, to nutrition, to disaster education, the 4-H Youth Development program focuses directly on developing emotional and intellectual skills in young people for the future.

The pandemic has made daily life harder, certainly, but as Pracheil puts it, there are no walls in online learning.

“The resources that we’re able to take to youth wherever they might be; there’s no limit,” Pracheil said. “And that’s pretty awesome to think that they can really start to connect to some of those college majors and careers through these experiences.”

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In this screenshot from a Zoom session, Nebraska elementary school students participate in virtual learning over the summer. Photo courtesy of Nebraska 4-H.