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Urban 4-H: This Ain't Your Cousin's County Fair

Kids made paper airplanes trying to understand weight and accuary during the 4-H Science class at Athmar Recreation Center.

Rusty Collins and his team have evolved the 4-H model to fit with today's urban child.

Denver's 4-H concentrate most on neighborhoods where there simply aren't a lot of other outside-of-school opportunities.

Denver County's Colorado State University Extension is the entity ultimately responsible for our local Denver 4-H.

4-H is famous for its rural clubs and championship cattle, but in the 21st century -- and especially in the city of Denver -- 4-H-ers are more devoted to robot technology than the livestock trade. Defying expectations is nothing new for Denver 4-H.
In Rusty Collins' world, there are two kinds of people: those who have heard of 4-H and those who haven't. 
 
Chances are, though, even the folks who are familiar with the iconic four-leaf clover and the head, hands, heart and health mantra -- and who maybe even raised a prize-winning hog or two in their day -- will be surprised to learn that there's a chapter of the organization that's thriving right here in the City and County of Denver.
 
"No, people obviously don't have the large livestock here so we can't do much with the whole farm thing," says Collins, who is the director of Denver County's Colorado State University Extension, the entity ultimately responsible for our local Denver 4-H
 
But they are doing a lot with the whole youth development thing. Collins' staff of five -- along with a group of devoted volunteers that numbers about 40 -- makes regular appearances at schools and neighborhood recreation centers to lead a wide selection of programs that range from robot engineering to healthy cooking to a sort of "agriculture light" curriculum that deals with chickens, bees and backyard goats.
 
"That's about as far as we venture into the animal arena," Collins says. 
 
It's an interesting, and important, component, especially because the majority of the kids who are involved in Denver's 4-H have very little exposure to actual livestock. Still, this is a metropolitan environment so there are other priorities, namely what's known as STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. 
 
Blossoming STEMRusty Collins and his team have evolved the 4-H model to fit with today's urban child.
 
"That's the biggest push in 4-H right now," Collins explains. "The idea is that 4-H, on a national level, wants to create one million new scientists. That's why STEM is so big, and it all starts with the kids, so we do things like robotics and energy and all types of projects based in science that connect with kids at our local level."
 
There's no doubt that they're connecting with the kids. "We're in front of between 15,000 and 20,000 4-H kids a year," Collins says. "I think our final numbers tallied up at just shy of 18,000 for 2013. We've only got five people on staff that do 4-H. That's a pretty good impact on a per person basis in terms of getting out there and making strides in the community."
 
In order to make those big strides, Collins and his team have evolved the 4-H model to fit with today's urban child. The first step was to go where the kids are. In other words, schools and recreation centers -- and to Collins' credit, they concentrate most on neighborhoods where there simply aren't a lot of other outside-of-school opportunities. 
 
"We're primarily in the distressed communities," he says. "It's very similar to where poverty is. It's not exclusive to that. We do some programming in Cherry Creek and other similar areas, but predominantly, we're downtown and in some of the north side rec centers and schools."
 
The second part of Denver's 4-H evolution was to provide the programming in spurts, as opposed to a months-long ordeal that can give rise to various scheduling conflicts, not to mention a general waning of interest. Currently, one of the most popular offerings is a two-hour program during which aspiring astronauts learn how to build a toy rocket and then delight in launching it into the Colorado sunset.  
 
Robot cultureDenver County's Colorado State University Extension is the entity ultimately responsible for our local Denver 4-H.
 
True scientists, of course, can't just call it quits after one successful rocket launch; they have questions and inquiring minds. Fortunately, for any students who are interested in becoming one of those one million scientists, Denver 4-H has plenty of other, more involved STEM-focused workshops.
 
"One of my favorites is the little bug robots," Collins admits. "We give the kids the head of a toothbrush, a little battery and the piece inside of a cellphone that vibrates, and we task them with assembling all of it to make an actual robot bug."
 
"Once they've got it all together, they race them…and then we start asking questions: Why did that one go faster, why didn't yours go straight, and so on. Then we give them time to make adjustments to see if they can improve the performance. We don't tell them exactly how to do it; instead, we allow them to make mistakes and then fix them. Kids like to be challenged, and they like the responsibility of building their own thing. After it's all said and done, we ask them if they can explain what worked and what didn't, and why. So there is actual learning taking place, but it's happening in a fun way."
 
And it's happening in a way so that an entire new population of kids is becoming familiar with the four-leaf clover, and learning that even if they don't raise a prize-winning hog, by making their head, hands, heart and health a priority, they may just launch a real rocket into outer space or build a life-altering robot someday.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by JB Bissell.

Based in Denver, JB writes about local happenings and far-flung places often getting sidetracked at various points between. He can be reached here.
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