One Million New Scientists. One Million New Ideas™

By Sarah Van Dalsem

Nebraska 4-H Program is working to achieve the national goal of educating one million new scientists by 2013 in science, engineering and technology.

That's the national 4-H goal - to educate one million new scientists in the U.S. by 2013. It's an ambitious goal, but one set by national 4-H administrators so more young people will consider careers in the sciences.

Elizabeth Birnstihl, Associate Dean and Associate Director of UNL Extension and Nebraska State 4-H Administrator, said she and several of her national counterparts met several years ago to share concerns that young people were not excited about science, engineering and math, and what that would mean to the next generation.

"We set a goal for ourselves and the goal was One Million New Scientists. One Million New Ideas™, which meant we wanted to engage a million young people," she said. That national initiative extends across all the land grant institutions in the United States and its territories.

The 4-H Science, Engineering and Technology program (SET) is designed to teach science to kids so it's fun and hands-on, she said. Thousands of Nebraska 4-H members apply SET skills through the Nebraska 4-H robotics program, in which kids design, build and program robots.

"They love, love, love science and engineering and technology, if you can make it fun!" Birnstihl said. "They have started robot clubs on campus and in counties. We have robot clubs at Boys and Girls Club sites, we have robot clubs in commercial businesses, we have robot clubs in schools, we have robot 4-H clubs," she said. "What does it teach them? It teaches them the applications of math and engineering and technology." Birnstihl said 4-H has other projects to engage kids in science-focused learning, including wind power and insects. "If they can get excited about this whole field, there are career opportunities. That's the goal. To create the next generation of scientists, engineers and technology specialists," she said.

In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences published a book titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. That book - called the RAGS report - makes four recommendations: "1) Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education; 2) Sustain and strengthen the nation's commitment to long-term, basic research; 3) Develop, recruit and retain top students, scientists and engineers from both the U.S. and abroad; and 4) Ensure that the U.S. is the premier place in the world for innovation."

Dr. Elizabeth Birnstihl
Dr. Elizabeth Birnstihl holds a robot like the ones in the 4-H Robotics project


4-H in Nebraska

Nebraska's 4-H program engages 135,000 young people and 10,000 volunteers, giving Nebraska one of the highest per capita participation rates in the nation, Birnstihl said. "We provide applied, experiential learning experiences," she added. "It's our job in 4-H to take our science-based education here at the University of Nebraska and help extend that beyond the classroom."

Nebraska 4-H members study science, entrepreneurship and careers beyond the classroom, using the resources of the university to extend the learning to out-of-school time, she said. Besides that, the 4-H program emphasizes higher education and currently, 96 percent of Nebraska 4-H members go on to post-secondary education.

Birnstihl attributes the success of the Nebraska 4-H program to three things - getting kids excited, having a good curriculum and having volunteers that nurture members' interests. Additionally, the University of Nebraska embraces 4-H and encourages visits to college campuses so young people know what it's like to be on a university campus, she said.

One of the 4-H slogans is "Step up to the responsibilities of the next generation," Birnstihl said. To achieve that goal, 4-H focuses on: careers; healthy lifestyles; science, engineering and technology; and citizenship, in addition to its longstanding animal science and nutrition projects. "We want to help young people learn to thrive and grow; they are our next leaders and we need to prepare them to lead," she said.

Birnstihl hopes the future will show these young people leading in multiple areas - finding cures for cancer and diabetes, going to Mars, leading the world in technology. "I think we can help young people dream, and I think we have to help them, encourage them to be successful. Helping young people be successful is our job."