GREENSBURG — A remote island needs help to get food after a natural disaster. Planes can’t land there, and ships can’t dock.
It’s up to 40 fourth- and fifth-grade 4-H club members gathered at the St. Helena Arts and Technology Academy cafeteria to find a solution.
“Are you ready to put your engineer brains on to figure out how to do this?” asks Angela Myles, the 4-H agent for St. Helena Parish.
They decide to land a rocket on the island and use basic physics and engineering principles to create a model rocket packed with raisins to simulate the food supply.
Physics and engineering? What does any of this have to do with 4-H?
An organization traditionally focused on agriculture, 4-H has expanded its scope in recent years. It’s no longer just “cows, sows and plows,” as some old school 4-H’ers explain it.
“We’ve gone from a rural population in a lot of parts to a suburban population, and from an agrarian society to a society that does not need to raise their own food,” says Mark Tassin, the head of 4-H youth development. “In order to be relevant, we’ve had to adjust.”
More than 200,000 Louisiana children participate in 4-H, either through in-school programs or after-school clubs. While raising livestock and crops are still important aspects of the organization, students are just as likely to build rockets and robots or learn target shooting.
4-H began as agricultural after-school clubs in the midwestern U.S. in the early 1900s, and in Louisiana, the organization traces its roots to boys’ corn clubs founded in Avoyelles Parish in 1908. The 1914 Smith-Lever Act, which created cooperative extension services, spread 4-H nationwide .
At the in-school program in St. Helena Parish, the orderly meeting opens with parliamentary procedure. The officers lead the Pledge of Allegiance and the 4-H pledge, which, directs children to devote their whole selves — heads, hearts, hands and health — to their club, community and the world.
Taiya Self, the 10-year-old president of the club, says she joined to be a leader and learn skills that could be useful as an engineer or even as president of the United States.
“It’s about learning how to do things and how to act,” she says.
Learning to become leaders is a chief mission of 4-H, Tassin says. The organization’s three national mandates are to teach citizenship, healthy living and principles of science, engineering and technology.
But mainly, Tassin, said, 4-H leaders want children to feel like they belong.
“They are part of a group, everybody contributes teamwork, they have an adult who is a role model,” he says.
In the past, 4-H programs focused often on raising livestock, which could be months-long projects that required constant attention. But about 15 years ago, the number of teenagers raising animals peaked in Louisiana and has since declined, Tassin said. Raising animals has become more expensive, and fewer Louisianans have access to the barns and pasture land needed to care for a steer, hog or goat.
Some newer 4-H projects require less time and money. Shooting sports, introduced in the early 2000s after seeing success in other states, is Louisiana’s fastest-growing program, Tassin said. Participants can choose from seven disciplines — archery or six gun-related sports.
“What this project does, it instantly has results,” Tassin says. “A kid learns how to fire an air rifle. … They can see results and it starts building their confidence. That’s what 4-H wants to do.”
Another popular project, robotics, allows 4-H’ers ages 9-18 a chance to build a robot from a kit. In textile and apparel, youngsters can learn about all aspects of the fashion industry.
Each parish office can choose which programs to offer depending on how much interest the teenagers show.
With every program, Tassin said, 4-H tries to teach responsibility and independence.
“We’re trying to raise responsible citizens that can give back and contribute to our community and our state,” Tassin says. “We’re not trying to develop Olympic marksmen. That’s just the catch and the interest to get those kids to us.”
Many of the youngsters who join 4-H in St. Helena Parish were drawn to it because of field trips they take, Myles says, but they discover new interests along the way.
Davian Simmons, 10, says he attends the 4-H meetings because they’re fun, but he likes the experiments, too.
“I like to find out what happens,” he says.
As they complete their rocket, formed out of plastic pipe, Simmons aims it carefully to ensure its trajectory will send it to a hula hoop, a stand-in for the starving island. It takes a couple of tries, but they hit their target.