May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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


Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.