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4-H’s “AgOvation” combines agriculture and innovation

By Staff | Mar 7, 2019



A new program launched by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach will bring young people together in teams to explore and develop innovative, science-based solutions to agricultural problems identified in communities.

“AgOvation” is a research-based competition for youth in grades seven through 12. Youth are charged with identifying an agricultural issue or problem in their community, and working with an ag industry mentor that matches closest to their project area to find a solution.

Teens will work in groups of two to five with an adult coach as they seek out an issue and develop a project and presentation to share their results, findings and/or their created solution or product.

“(AgOvation) is an ag-related program, but as it was developed originally in Minnesota one of the things they wanted to have as a basis was that everything came back to agriculture,” said Ben Pullen, youth program specialist/west field supervisor for 4H youth development, and based in Clay County. “It does not have to be an agricultural production problem … but could be something that related back to agriculture.”

Pullen said teams will use the Farm Bureau’s “Pillars of Ag Literacy” as a basis for their problems. Those pillars are meant to bridge the gap between agriculture and society as a whole. They center around six primary areas of relationship, including:

  • Agriculture and the Environment: (land/water stewardship, family responsibility, environmental decision-making);
  • Agriculture and Food, Fiber and Energy: (food safety; inspection; energy sources; shared values; ethics; production methods);
  • Agriculture and Animals: (animal welfare, animal safety, animal housing systems);
  • Agriculture and Lifestyle: (food cost, nutrition, processing, healthy living);
  • Agriculture and Technology: (new developments, impact of technology, biotechnology, environmental impact);
  • Agriculture and the Economy: (careers, impact on the U.S. economy, hunger, role in global economy).

“AgOvation actually started as a science and agriculture contest in Minnesota,” said Ashley Peters, ISU Extension and Outreach youth program coordinator in Osceola County. “A few co-workers and I attended a conference on it in Minneapolis in 2017 and wanted to get it going in Iowa and put our own spin on it and make it our own.”

Peters said the projects can be “anything under the sun.” Groups have all summer to identify a problem, find an industry mentor (with the help of ISU Extension and Outreach staff) and find a solution for the problem.

“They’ll work on their solution, try it, fine tune it and try it again … and then we’ll meet for regional events sometime in the fall,” said Peters.

She said youth will be judged on their presentation, team work, leadership values involved and the problem and solution itself. A state competition will follow the regional competition, and teams will be judged on the same things there.

Depending on how they place at the state competition, they have chances to win scholarships from the Iowa 4H foundation and other industrial sponsors, along with receiving matching scholarship money from ISU, should youth decide to attend college there.

“It’s really exciting because (kids see issues differently) … they think so much more outside the box than adults to,” said Peters. “Extension people can help them find projects they might be interested in.”

She said someone could choose to fix a problem in the fashion industry, for example.

“We can help them link it back to the clothing and textile industry in agriculture,” she said, adding that they do lots of brainstorming to help them decide on a project.

“We’re trying to show the kids that everything comes back to agriculture-not just things on the farm, but it goes so much higher than just our rural area,” said Peters.

Peters said she hopes participants learn some good critical thinking skills with this youth-driven project.

“I’d like them to see that thinking outside the box can take you a lot farther, and you don’t always have to conform to what the answer already is, but asking ‘why’ and re-evaluating gets you far,” said Peters.

She described a project from a Minnesota group of youth who discovered a large population of moose in the Iron Range area. They developed a GPS tracking device that goes on the ear tag so they can be tracked. Today the Department of Natural Resources is interested in that tracking system.

“So this isn’t just about farm problems it’s other real world problems as well,” said Peters. “It’s exciting from an Extension standpoint to see these interview, leadership and communication skills being instilled that are becoming less and less important. For kids it’s exciting to see them take ownership of a project and see that there is a place for them … even if they are interested in some off-the-wall thing … it’s still important.”

Pullen said in visiting with industry representatives, he often hears about the challenge of talent acquisition in today’s fast-paced world of agriculture.

“AgOvation helps solve this problem by providing youth with the opportunity to develop career skills as they research and develop solutions to what they feel are relevant problems in agriculture,” he said. “Our hope is that AgOvation will use 4H roots to empower youth to reach their full potential, then connect that with the needed interest areas, abilities and workforce needs of the 21st century.”

Team registration is currently happening at county extension offices.

Pullen said AgOvation aims to prepare youth for handling future issues such as economic growth and stability, food security, human health and environmental sustainability, etc., by emphasizing essential life skills, public speaking, lifelong learning and leadership skills and exemplifying opportunities in ag science, engineering and technology.

Pullen added that the program-combined with the Farm Bureau’s Ag Literacy Pillars-makes sense.

“The reason is so kids don’t automatically look away from the program thinking they are not interested in farming, but that really, our whole world relates back to agriculture.”

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