COLUMBIA — Like many people, Jeffery Feaster once thought that 4-H was all about agriculture — sows, cows and plows, so to speak — but soon after learning about the program during a tour of Clemson University as a 14-year-old, he realized it could also stoke his passion for math and science.
Now a senior at Fairfield Central High School in Winnsboro, Feaster came to the South Carolina 4-H Engineering Challenge at the State Fairgrounds on March 30 to share his story about how 4-H Youth Development allowed him to develop those skills.
“4-H guided me to actually learn more about math and science and how can I take math and science into other fields like agriculture or health and wellness,” said Feaster, who volunteered at the event. “My passion is engineering. I like math and science; those are the two things that I’ve just liked doing since I was a child. I’m here to show kids and inspire kids the ways of learning STEM.”
Now in its seventh year, the S.C. 4-H Engineering Challenge aims to raise student interest in science, technology, engineering and math — STEM subjects — and allow them to experience various STEM disciplines while competing against other students.
The youth development arm of Clemson Cooperative Extension, South Carolina 4-H offers the Engineering Challenge to allow students to compete in six different challenges: Bridge Building, Lego Robotics, Mystery, Rocketry, Coding and Photography.
For Clemson senior genetics major Morgan Nichols, better known to many as Miss Clemson, the event was a chance to expose South Carolina’s young people to what’s possible through developing their skills in life sciences.
“This is where it all starts for students,” Nichols said. “Going to these competitions and showcasing your skills; it allows you to see parts of engineering and science that you might have never thought were out there. It allows students to diversify what they think of when they think of STEM. It allows them to have hope for the future in applying what they learn in the classroom in a hands-on, real-world setting.”
The goals of the 4-H Engineering Challenge are to provide a safe learning environment where youth can try, fail and try again, gain valuable life skills, increase interest, confidence and knowledge in science, and encourage futures in STEM-related careers.
Greenville County 4-H Agent Patricia Whitener said those goals perfectly embody the land-grant mission of Clemson University — taking unbiased, research-based science and sharing it with citizens across South Carolina to improve the quality of their lives.
“Getting kids involved with STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is essential to not only building future career pathways, but also just encompassing all of those four H’s, that head, heart, hands, health, and getting kids excited about science and excited about STEM,” Whitener said. “There are so many challenges for all of our state participants today that they’ve been working hard on all year long, and today they get to show off and showcase those amazing skills that they’ve been developing.”
But while 4-H is about much more than agriculture these days, that doesn’t mean it has forgotten it’s roots. And for Erika Jones, her introduction to 4-H was very much via a traditional agricultural route.
“I got into 4-H because I had a horse trainer who was the club leader in Lexington, and she told me that I could not ride my horse if I didn’t come to 4-H meetings,” Jones said. “After that, I just kind of fell in love with it.”
Jones moved from the 4-H Horse Project into the Leadership Project area, served on S.C. State 4-H Teen Council in her last year as a club member, took an internship in the State 4-H Office and eventually, after graduating from Clemson, became a 4-H agent in Marlboro and Dillon counties.
“My agent in Lexington County was phenomenal, she was a great mentor to look up and, seeing what she did for me and getting to work with her over the summers and see what she did for other kids, made me want to do the same thing and be the same person that she was for me to others,” Jones said. “I felt like being an agent was the best way I could give back to an organization that gave so much to me.”
And while Jones may have joined 4-H to be part of the Horse Project, she says the organization helped her expand her horizons — something that was epitomized by events such as the Engineering Challenge.
“Our 4-H mission is hands-on learning — one of our mottos is ‘learn by doing’ — so this is a great example of that,” Jones said. “Every challenge at the Engineering Challenge is extremely hands-on. I think it’s really cool too, especially with the Mystery Challenge where they come in not knowing what they’re going to do, to sit down and watch how each individual thinks and problem-solves.”