When 4-H’ers across the county pledge their “heads to clearer thinking,” they may not realize that recent research suggests this venerable yet adaptive youth development organization may be delivering much more than mental clarity. A study using data collected over five academic years from Florida students in grades 3 through 10 reveals that standardized test scores in math and reading are higher in school districts, grades and years that saw more 4-H participation. The research was conducted by Alfonso Flores-Lagunes of the State University of New York – Binghamton and Troy Timko of the University of Miami, and it appears online in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.
The magnitude of the effect of 4-H participation on test scores was similar to the effects seen from reducing class size and other well-known approaches to enhancing student test scores. Analysis of the data further suggests that the positive effect of 4-H on test scores accumulates over time, particularly for performance on math tests.
The program’s many benefits all got started in 1902 when local school superintendent A.B. Graham recruited 103 students in Clark County, Ohio, to join a Boys and Girls Agricultural Experiment Club, considered to be the birth of 4-H in the United States.
“Basically, if you look at the projects that A.B. Graham started with — how to grow better plants and testing different ways to do that, and rope projects involving splicing rope and tying knots, which used basic mechanical and engineering principles — that was what we call STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) today,” said Tom Archer, the assistant director of Ohio State University Extension in charge of Ohio 4-H Youth Development.
Since the 1950s, 4-H has spread into urban areas and its focus has shifted towards life skills development of youth. Flores-Lagunes and Timko find evidence that 4-H appears to be more effective in district-grade-year combinations with a higher proportion of urban students and with a higher proportion of African American students, although the evidence is not fully conclusive.
Flores-Lagunes and Timko note that the standardized test results are particularly remarkable given that the 4-H program has not been designed with the purpose of improving test scores. They suggest test score improvements are most likely by-products of positive youth development and the programmatic focus on science, engineering and technology. For example, improvements in test scores could result from increased student interest in academically related topics, improved general motivation for school, or more productive interaction with instructors.
The authors point out that, while their research focuses on standardized test scores, the program obviously only represents a partial effect of 4-H’s overall impact on participants. The ubiquitous nature of 4-H across the U.S. means it has a large reach and can complement the efforts by teachers, schools, and communities to improve their schools in the face of the higher accountability brought about by federal and state pressures. This synergy can provide valuable positive spillovers to schools and communities beyond the private benefits to participants in the program. Finally, they note that 4-H makes use of a vast pool of volunteers in the delivery of its programs in a cost-effective manner, which must also be appealing to school officials looking to stretch ever tightening budgets.
4-H is known worldwide for its excellence in providing hands-on, experiential learning activities. And a 2014 report from Tufts University provides data supporting the notion that 4-H contributes to youths’ interest in science.
The report, “The Positive Development of Youth: Comprehensive Findings from the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development,” summarizes findings from data gathered from 42 states, including Ohio, and more than 7,000 participants from 2002 through 2010.
It found that youths in grades 10-12 involved in 4-H programs were twice as likely to participate in science, engineering and computer technology programs during out-of-school time as their non-4-H peers.
In addition, it found that young women in grade 12 who were involved in 4-H were three times more likely to take part in science programs than their peers who participate in other out-of-school activities.
“This shows that 4-H instills science concepts in its members, and we’re especially proud that the young women in our membership are more likely to participate in science-related activities, which means they will more likely pursue science careers,” Archer said.
Those involved in any 4-H project, whether it involves animal sciences or foods and nutrition or any of the hundreds of projects Ohio 4-H offers, are practicing science-related skills, he said.
“It’s a combination of the science of whatever project they’re working on, but also the acts of gathering information, comparing things, making decisions and explaining why they made those decisions,” he said. “That process not only reflects the STEM aspect of 4-H, but it provides leadership development, too.
“And that’s what I hear the most from the 4-H’ers I used to work with (as a 4-H educator in Shelby County). They tell me, ‘Now I understand why you had me do all that stuff. That’s what I do now in my job, in my life or for an organization I’m involved with.’ That’s why the individual, self-directed project is still integral to 4-H membership.”
The study also found that 4-H’ers in grades 7 through 12 are nearly four times more likely to make contributions to their communities as non-4-H’ers.
“Every club does some sort of community service,” Archer said, “from maintaining a community building to cleaning up highways to helping at senior assisted-care facilities. They not only give to others, but it’s usually a project where they’re working together.”
That teamwork provides a number of benefits, he said.
“It helps participants learn how to get along with different personalities, and realize that people have different talents that they can contribute,” Archer said. “It helps them understand and appreciate the different people on the team, and how to get along with others.
“And, I think we can all agree that working as a team, you can get more done. If you put six people together working on one project, you can get a lot more accomplished than if those six people worked individually.”
Other findings from the Tufts study, which began with fifth graders during 2002-2003 and ended with 12th graders in 2010, include:
- 4-H’ers in grades 8 through 12 are twice as likely to be civically active.
4-H’ers in grade 7 are twice as likely to make healthier choices, including engaging in positive activities such as exercise and healthy eating as well as avoiding problem behaviors, including smoking, drinking and bullying.