By SAMANTHA GRENROCK
GAINESVILLE— Each week, 28 middle schoolers from Hastings, Florida, gather at the W.E. Harris Community Center, where they practice programming robots to light up and move around or learn the physics behind the bow and arrow. These 4-H Tech Wizards are not just getting a leg up in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—but also developing life skills they might otherwise miss out on.
“Most of these youth have grown up under difficult circumstances,” said Julia Kelly, 4-H agent with University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension St. Johns County. “Some were born drug addicted or come from homes that receive public assistance, while others are cared for by a single parent or have one parent who is incarcerated.”
UF/IFAS Extension St. Johns County is one of five other Florida counties—Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Duval, Osceola and Broward—that has a 4-H Tech Wizards program.
“Youth arrive with a with a variety of science backgrounds and skill levels, so our goal is to supplement what they are learning in class and spark an interest in science they may not have known they had,” said Kelly.
In the past, participants have been challenged to think like engineers as they competed to build the tallest structure out of Keva Blocks, simple wooden pieces that can be fitted together to form imaginative designs. Tinkering with circuit boards is another favorite Tech Wizard activity, Kelly said.
Groups of participants are paired with adult mentors who not only guide them through various projects but also act as a consistent presence in their lives, Kelly said.
“The kids know that they will see their mentor every week. The mentors work to get to know their mentees and what’s going on in their lives,” said Kelly. “They end up as someone the kids can look up to—the presence of a caring adult is what really makes the program work.”
This combination of mentorship and science exploration can have a big impact on participants’ attitudes and confidence. “I’ve seen their interest in science increase, but I’ve also seen them start talking to mentors about things outside of 4-H Tech Wizards. They are generally more apt to open up,” Kelly said.
Kelly tells the story of one participant who was very shy when she arrived at 4-H Tech Wizards but has since come out of her shell.
“Her mentor took her under her wing and nurtured her innate curiosity and strong willingness to learn,” Kelly said. “When she mastered the more advanced projects, she was given the opportunity to mentor less advanced youth. Now she teaches the youth the 4-H pledge and volunteered to give the first speech.”
4-H Tech Wizards is always looking for volunteers to mentor youth, Kelly said. To learn more about volunteer opportunities with UF/IFAS Extension St. Johns County 4-H, please contact