September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

The California 4-H Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) Initiative: Using and Informing Best Practices for Science Education in Non-formal Settings

Posted: Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

by Steven Worker, Martin Smith, Andrea Ambrose, and Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty

4-H is the nation’s largest non-formal youth education program. As part of the land-grant university system, 4-H reaches over six million youth annually through science, healthy living, and civic engagement programs. In 2008, 4-H introduced the 4-H Science Mission Mandate to strengthen non-formal science education targeting improved scientific literacy among U.S. youth. This national effort provides strategic direction to state 4-H programs for science programming grounded in a positive youth development framework and utilizing experiential education and inquiry-based learning.

In California, 4-H established the 4-H Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) Initiative to strengthen efforts around curriculum development, professional development, and research and evaluation.These anchor points are framed around the four essential components of scientific literacy: relevant science content, scientific reasoning abilities, interest and attitudes toward science, and authentic contributions through applied participation.

The principal goal of the California 4-H SET Initiative is to improve youth scientific literacy through effective programming while advancing the research base of non-formal youth science education. To accomplish this, 4-H academic and program staff have identified the need for systematic approaches to the development of programs, professional preparation, curriculum and applied research. Specifically, the California 4-H SET Initiative is focused on the use of strategies to develop, implement, and evaluate curriculum materials and professional development models for adult and teen volunteer educators.

Curriculum Development

The California 4-H approach to curriculum development emphasizes the design and evaluation of needs-based curricula. Curriculum content focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues germane to citizens of California and put forth as strategic initiatives for research and extension by the University of California’s Division of Natural Resources (UC ANR Strategic Vision 2025). Curriculum goals include understanding relevant science content, development of scientific reasoning skills, interest in science, and applied participation in communities.

4-H curricula are designed around the five-step experiential education model (Enfield, Schmitt-McQuitty, & Smith, 2007). Experiential education promotes deep understanding of concepts and application of new knowledge and skills to authentic settings. 4-H curriculum materials accomplish this by engaging youth in community-based service learning projects. Additionally, 4-H curricula promote positive youth development (PYD), an approach to youth programming that encourages long-term life outcomes in young people by fostering caring relationships with peers and adults, healthy behaviors, and leadership development (Campbell et al., 2013; Lerner et al., 2011).

One example of a 4-H curriculum development project that embodies this strategy is Bio-Security in 4-H Animal Science (Smith et al., 2011). Cooperative Extension staff, in collaboration with veterinarians and classroom teachers, developed and tested the curriculum. Subject matter content includes modes of disease transmission, risk assessment, and risk mitigation; activities also provide opportunities for youth to apply new knowledge and skills directly to raising their 4-H project animals. The curriculum evaluation focused on perceived changes in youths’ content knowledge. Outcomes revealed significant (p < .05) improvements in youths’ understanding of science concepts related to bio-security.



Professional Development

While the development and dissemination of high quality educational materials and curricula are of critical importance, a curriculum is only as good as the educators implementing it. Ensuring educators are prepared in effective science education pedagogy requires educator professional development opportunities that emphasize both science content understanding and pedagogical knowledge and skills. The 4-H Youth Development Program relies heavily on volunteers – adults and teens – who facilitate science activities with youth. While one-time, in-person workshops of short duration educational opportunities represent the most common approach used, these are generally considered to be ineffective because they do not model effective science pedagogy and do not produce significant change in educators’ practice (Guskey & Yoon, 2009). In contrast, California 4-H strives to implement professional development strategies of extended duration that promote active learning, emphasize pedagogical knowledge, are embedded in authentic contexts, and provide connections to broader organizational efforts (Smith, 2013; Smith & Schmitt-McQuitty, 2013).

The “Step-Up” Incremental Training Model (Smith & Enfield, 2002) is one example of a professional development model that utilizes many of the elements described above. Specifically, this model targets 4-H teen volunteers who implement science curriculum materials with younger youth. This strategy employs a sequence of three workshops that engage teen volunteers in modeling hands-on, inquiry-based science activities and practicing effective teaching techniques. The workshops alternate with the implementation of the science curriculum in non-formal education settings; allowing time for activity implementation between workshops provides opportunities for individual and group reflections on practice over a period of several weeks. Research objectives for the “Step-Up” model focused on changes in the teen volunteers’ understanding and use of effective questioning strategies and inquiry teaching methods. Analysis of pre-/post-survey and observational data provided statistically significant (p < .01) evidence that this model was effective in improving teens’ understanding and abilities to use effective questioning strategies and inquiry methods (Smith, Enfield, Meehan, & Klingborg, 2004). Furthermore, the teens were successful in the role of cross-age science teachers. Data on critical thinking skills revealed statistically significant (p < .05) improvements.


The California 4-H SET Initiative is focused on helping improve youth scientific literacy in non-formal settings while contributing to the field of research on non-formal science education. Through integrated efforts that involve research-based practices, California 4-H has built capacity within its organizational structure – county-based 4-H programs throughout the state – to offer effective science programming. These efforts support and complement school-based science education to help youth advance their understanding of and interest in science.

For more information about 4-H and to access 4-H SET curriculum materials, please visit


Campbell, D., Trzesniewski, K., Nathaniel, K., Enfield, R., & Erbstein, N. (2013). Positive youth development merits state investment. California Agriculture, 67(1), 38-46.

Enfield, R. P., Schmitt-McQuitty, L., & Smith, M. H. (2007). The development and evaluation of experiential learning workshops for 4-H volunteers. Journal of Extension [On-line], 45(1) Article 1FEA2.

Guskey, T. R., & Yoon, K. S. (2009). What works in professional development? Phi Delta Kappan, 90(7), 495-500.

Lerner, R.M., Lerner, J.V., Lewin-Bizan, S., Bowers, E.P., Boyd, M.J., Mueller, M.K., Schmid, K.L., & Napolitano, C.M. (2011). Positive youth development: Processes, programs, and problematics. Journal of Youth Development, 6(3), 40-64

Smith, M. H., & Enfield, R. P. (2002). Training 4-H teen facilitators in inquiry-based science methods: The evaluation of a “step-up” incremental training model. Journal of Extension [On-line], 40(6).

Smith et al., (2011). Bio-Security in 4-H Animal Science. University of California, Davis, CA: ANR Communication Services.

Smith, M. (2013). Findings show lesson study can be an effective model for professional development of 4-H volunteers. California Agriculture, 67(1), 54-61.

Smith, M.H. & Schmitt-McQuitty, L. (2013). More effective professional development can help 4-H volunteers address need for youth scientific literacy. California Agriculture, 67(1), 54-61.

Smith, M. H., & Enfield, R. P. (2002). Training 4-H teen facilitators in inquiry-based science methods: The evaluation of a “step-up” incremental training model. Journal of Extension [On-line], 40(6).

Smith, M. H., Enfield, R. P., Meehan, C. L., & Klingborg, D. J. (2004). Animal ambassadors…4-H teens learn to lead science program for kids. California Agriculture, 58(4): 209-212.

Steven Worker, Martin Smith, Andrea Ambrose, Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty are with the California State 4-H Office at the University of California’s Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources. Steven, Martin, and Lynn are members of CSTA


Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Leave a Reply


State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.