4-H Club churns out engineers

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A husband and wife team up with 4-H Club to fill voids in STEM education.

In the corner of a large white room at TechWeek Chicago 2013 was a group of students playing with hand-built robots. It wasn't until I started talking to Jenn Griffin of Octagon Robotics, that I learned the students were part of the 4-H club. Obviously I've been out of the loop because I thought 4-H Club was in existence to churn out farmers, not engineers. I asked Jenn a few questions to help clarify. What I found was yes, 4-H has expanded, but more importantly I learned how Jenn and her husband took STEM education into their own hands.

What is Octagon Robotics?

"Octagon Robotics was started seven years ago by my husband and I, Tinicko Griffin, as a way to supplement the math and science skills our own kids were not receiving in the public school system. For several years, our team operated out of every room of our home: kitchen, living room, basement, garage, anywhere with available space! Bruce Peterson, a retired engineer, joined us as a mentor in 2011. In January 2012, Dennis Roberson, Vice-Provost with Illinois Institute of Technology, donated space to the team in the basement of a building on campus.

As a community-based organization, our program has survived through word of mouth from the students themselves along with community outreach events the team participates in throughout the year. All of the students attend different schools which sometimes can present interesting challenges. We use everything as a teaching moment, even our failures. For Octagon Robotics it is about more than the robot and the technical skills; it is about helping mold and shape young people into productive citizens in society. Skills like public speaking, time management, presentation, and leadership will carry with them throughout their lives regardless of what path they choose to take in life."

I see Octagon Robotics partnered with 4-H.  Can you explain how this partnership happened, why 4-H?

"4-H is the largest youth development organization. The idea of 4-H is to help young people gain skills needed to be proactive forces in their communities and develop ideas for a more innovative economy. Due to advances in technology, 4-H has expanded its programs to include engineering and technology. 4-H has developed a robotics curriculum to provide the basic skills needed to build robots of all types.

Two years ago, Illinois 4-H was looking to start expanding their robotics programs. At a competition, we met briefly with Lisa Bouillion Diaz, Technology and Youth Development Specialist at the 4-H State Office. During our discussion it was determined that Octagon Robotics would be a good pairing with 4-H. Many of the core values of Octagon Robotics mimics the values of 4-H. For Octagon Robotics the partnership allowed us to have a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit via the 4-H Foundation. Our not-for-profit arm helps with fundraising and sponsorship along with access to the 4-H resources."

Do you have any previous students who are now working as engineers?

"Currently we do not have any students working as engineers, but we do have two students considering a career in engineering. And, we hear our students talking about exploring engineering options when they graduate high school. In our early years, many of the students did not think college was an option, much less exploring college to become an engineer. Our goal is to show students from all socio-economic backgrounds that college is an option."

So, how did your season go?

"The 2012-13FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) season was an interesting one for the team. During the season, the team rebuilt the robot three times. Each time was an improvement on the drive system or the manipulator. The final robot Midnight was built in less than a month and ready for a competition in Kentucky. As a mentor, it is always about continuous growth and learning. At the Whitney Young Qualifier, the team won the Connect Award (most connected with their local community and the engineering community), and was runner up for the Inspire Award (represents a ‘role-model‘ FTC Team), Rockwell Collins Innovation Award (the most innovative and creative robot design solution), and the PTC Design Award (recognizes design elements of the robot that are both functional and aesthetic)!"

What happens during the off season?

"During the off season, the team looks for new opportunities to engage their community. This year we participated in an off-season competition, helped another team recruit new teammates in their area, and showed our robot at TechWeek Chicago and the Taste of Chicago over the summer."

How can the engineering community help?

"The team is always looking for sponsors and in-kind donations. Some of the team's immediate needs are computers, printers, tools, materials, and funds."

For more information, you can reach Jenn Griffin at roboticsmentor@gmail.com.

For a list of dates of FIRST challenges in your area, visit http://www.usfirst.org/roboticsprograms/frc/regional-events

Discuss this Blog Entry 8

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 10, 2013

As a youth more than 50 years ago I was in 4H raising lambs. I entered a mechanical state machine using a telephone stepping relay and a pushbutton switch from a old AM radio that only let you only select one button. This was married up with a test of multiple choice questions and each position of the stepping relay was associated with a different question. The stepping relay had more sections than push buttons so the stepper was wired up to be valid with a corresponding pushbutton. The push buttons were the multiple choice answers and if the correct one was selected you got a go indication. It was a BLUE ribbon winner. 4H has encouraged this type of advancement for a long time.

Catherine (not verified)
on Oct 24, 2013

I am there with Anonymous. I participated in a robust 4-H program from age 10 to 18 more than 20 years ago. Then and now there are wonderful programs to develop the skills becoming of an engineer. Take a look at any senior team ag. mechanics project to see wonderful examples of budding engineers in a 4-H or FFA program.

Pamela Waterman (not verified)
on Oct 24, 2013

This is such a great effort - kudos to Jenn, her husband and the students. I'm a member of the Society of Women Engineers and I love to see this kind of program that offers so many benefits.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 24, 2013

I agree with (the other) Anonymous.
Though only 40-something years ago, 4-H provided me a great number of opportunities to learn life lessons, and critical thinking skills that aided me well in college and my engineering career. From Soil Conservation & Productivity and Tractor Maintenance & Operation through to Good Grooming, there are plenty of skills to be learned -and great opportunities to see problems that need solving. (You aren't prepared to design a better mouse trap if you haven't seen the one you're trying to better.)

Joe Engineer (not verified)
on Oct 24, 2013

4H is a natural path for teching science and technology with farm equipment and the many electro-mechanical devices such as the color and size sorters in fruit and vegetables, the mechanical shakers in nut trees, the combines, plows and balers in farm machinery. Even the Vet schools are sources of former 4Hers so engineering is not that big of reach either. I'm glad it is still a club that encourages skills and interests beyond the basic 4H ideals. Every organization has to attract new people and advanced technology is a great way!

on Oct 24, 2013

I was in 4-H about 40 years ago and one of my projects was electrical technology. 4-H has been about more than farms and fields for a long time. It is a great organization providing learning and growth opportunities for kids and parents.

on Oct 24, 2013

I've got to put in a plug for a degree in Agricultural and Biological Engineering. The curriculum gives students an introduction the the engineering content of every phase of agriculture, then lets them select an area in which to specialize. Topics range from managing soil and water, to designing farm machinery, to designing structures and facilities for animals and crops, to processing food and fiber, to remediating environmental issues. The professional society web site is www.asabe.org .

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 24, 2013

I was an 11 year member of 4H. When I started 4H if you wanted to be in an animal project you joined the boys club. If you wanted to learn other projects cooking, sewing, home ec., welding, etc you joined the girls club. 4H had a very wide arrange of projects over the years. And still are expanding. I happen to be a club leader for our local 4H club and there is a project for everything. I have seen several very interesting projects that are called Self-Determined (where you can make up a project that is not in the set project list). One of my members wanted to learn more about make up cause she was thinking about cosmetology school. Now I have one that is going to take Legos for a project. Many different careers are explored in 4H wither it is in projects or during trips that you send the members on. I just happen to be a mechanical engineer now and it is thanks to 4H and hard work.

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