Nearly 380 middle and high school students from 42 New York counties streamed across campus June 28-30 to launch rockets, dissect mouse embryos, calibrate watershed models, program robots and learn what it takes to create a sustainable future. Those activities were among the many hands-on workshops taught by Cornell faculty, staff and graduate students at the 4-H Career Explorations conference, an annual event targeting 4-H’s mission of healthy living, leadership, citizenship and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
With Cornell’s campus as a launch pad, the event is fueled by the sharing of research tools and expertise facilitated by the Colleges of Human Ecology, Agriculture and Life Sciences, Arts and Sciences, and Engineering and the Faculty of Computing and Information Science.
“Through these resources, we want to spark youth interest in careers and career pathways while helping them develop academic, leadership and life skills,” says organizer Alexa Maille, New York State 4-H STEM specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, a research and outreach arm of the College of Human Ecology. “And through it all, we’re also hoping to foster a connection between Cornell and each kid who participates.”
For Cate Schick, 16, of Garden City, New York, that’s exactly what happened. Along with providing learning and leadership opportunities, Career Explorations has allowed her to take the Cornell student experience for a Big Red test drive.
“When I signed up for my first conference in 2015, I thought I might one day look at Cornell as one of the schools I would apply to, so it would be fun to visit,” she says. “But now, especially after these last two days, I know that it’s definitely where I want to go. It just feels like home.”
Participating in the “Geospatial Discovery” track led by Susan Hoskins, a senior extension associate in soil and crop sciences, Schick said learning about drones, mapping and remote sensing – and all of the related careers – was equal parts eye-opening and inspiring.
“Even though I really didn’t have much background on any of that stuff going in, it’s definitely spurred some new interests,” Schick says. “I’m already planning to get out and do some geocaching when I get home to Nassau County.”
Hoskins’ course was one of the event’s Focus for Teens career tracks aimed at the 265 participants heading into grades 10 through 12. Meanwhile, the 114 middle school attendees rotated through a series of 45-minute workshops on topics such as climate leadership, biomedical research, nutrition, polymer chemistry and coding.
Having just completed his fourth year of Career Explorations, 16-year-old Justin Bennett from Steuben County has sampled a variety of programming tracks during his 4-H experience. And while he’s impressed with the campus, loves meeting faculty and grad students, and like Schick hopes to one day attend Cornell, Bennett says it’s the interaction with other 4-H youth that he looks forward to the most each year.
“I love meeting and learning about other people,” he says. “Plus, being here is just plain fun. I enjoy working in groups on projects and being part of collaborative processes. It’s a great way to interact and to learn.”
CCE Distance Learning Educator Paul Treadwell concurs. Treadwell, now in his 16th year as a presenter at Career Explorations, led the Youth in Focus track “Making for Sustainability.” He believes the energy of youth along with their open minds and diverse voices is what drives the program’s continued success.
“There is always a degree of uncertainty when you meet a new group of youth,” Treadwell says. “It’s during that first hour together that the learning really begins – I learn about them, they learn about each other and together we define the program goals. And then the work begins as the teams form and begin to pick apart the challenge they have been given.
“Less than 48 hours later, the program ends, the kids head home and I stop to marvel in what has just happened,” he continues. “A group of kids from diverse parts of the state came together, learned from and with each other, thought together and developed solutions to a design challenge which they knew nothing about two short days ago. And they did this all with respect and openness and a willingness to speak, hear and share possibilities. It always humbles me. And it’s the reason why I look forward to running my 17th Career Explorations session next year.”
R.J. Anderson is a communications specialist/staff writer for Cornell Cooperative Extension.