UConn 4-H Brings High Tech to Connecticut Youth

A unique program gives Connecticut youth the chance to gain skills in STEM and see the world

Athena’s Warriors 4-H Team from Hartford, CT (Contributed photo)

Athena’s Warriors 4-H Team from Hartford, CT (Contributed photo)

When you think about 4-H programs, robotics may not be the first thing that comes to mind.

In existence for over 100 years, 4-H programs have historically introduced farming communities to new technologies or approaches through youth development. The “Head, Heart, Hands, and Health” embedded within its name have expanded in recent decades to include more programing in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, like robotics.

Recently, several UConn 4-H robotics teams competed at the national level at the FIRST 2022 Championship and the VEX 2022 World Championship, both held in Texas.

Reaching the national competitions is no easy feat, says Jennifer Cushman, UConn Extension educator and co-program leader of UConn 4-H.

“The annual robotics competition requires team members to work together to build and construct a robot over the course of eight weeks,” says Cushman. “These students not only gain invaluable skills for their futures, they get the opportunity to compete against teams from around the globe. It’s not your common image of what it means to participate in 4-H, but this is exactly the type of development we provide to youth.”

UConn 4-H launched their robotics program in 2006, when Al and Barbara Bishop from Bishops Orchards in Guilford provided a gift.  The Bishops were UConn alumni and strongly believed STEM and 4-H go hand in hand.

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The challenge at the FIRST 2022 competition consisted of a 15-second autonomous period where robots operated on pre-programmed instructions to score points by taxiing from their tarmac, retrieving, and scoring their assigned cargo into the hub. Later, the robotics team drivers take control of the robots and score points by retrieving their assigned cargo and engaging with their hangar. One UConn 4-H team placed 2nd in their division at the World Championship, while another came in 5th in their division. The 4-H teams also won several design and engineering awards to underscore their achievements.

While STEM is one of 4-H’s three mission areas, the goal is also to give youth participants an opportunity to meet others, have fun, and prepare for potential future careers in the technology sector.

“This season was a learning experience that taught me many things past just mechanical skills,” says Reid, a participant from Southington.

The 4-H robotics program wouldn’t be possible without the support of dedicated volunteers, says Cushman. One volunteer, Bill Smith from  the Operation PEACCE Robotics team, explained that he felt like he gained as much as his youth participants.

“The most rewarding part of this season has been the students working together, collaborating their ideas, testing and iterating them to the final design. Then, as the season went on, learning from the successful things as well as the not so successful ones, [and] making changes, as needed.”

Initially, Smith planned on volunteering a few hours of his time to work with the participants. However, as he says,  “Little did I know how hooked I would be helping these kids, spending hundreds of hours. Eventually bringing my own kids.”

While all of the participants are still celebrating their wins, everyone involved in the UConn 4-H robotics program already has their eye to the future, whether it be upcoming competitions or the future potential of the youth involved.

“This is the heart of 4-H’s mission, from the positive youth adult mentorship to the growth in the youth,” says Cushman. “It’s all about looking and moving forward for the benefit of the communities we serve.”

UConn 4-H is the youth development program of UConn Extension with the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR). As part of the University of Connecticut, 4-H has access to research-based, age-appropriate information needed to help youth reach their full potential. The mission of 4-H is to assist all youth ages 5-18 in acquiring knowledge, developing leadership and life skills while forming attitudes that will enable them to become self-directing, productive and contributing members of their families and communities. For more information on UConn 4-H, please visit s.uconn.edu/4-H.

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