July 8, 2015

4-H teens get a taste for college at Career Explorations

4-h fair
Lindsay France/University Photography
4-H students from across New York state visit Cornell's Nanotechnology Facility.

At the annual 4-H Career Explorations conference June 30-July 2, a group of 4-H youth were offered mealworms at a “Food, Texture and Eating Bugs” workshop. That wasn’t the only thing on the menu, as 360 teens and 80 adult chaperones sampled scientific pursuits from rocketry to ornithology and experienced life on an Ivy League campus at dozens of hands-on sessions led by Cornell researchers.

4-H members from some 40 counties across New York, joined by one group from Philadelphia, attended the event – a campus tradition dating back nearly a century.

“It started in the 1920s as a junior version of the Farm Field Days that Cooperative Extension offered for adults,” said organizer Alexa Maille, New York State 4-H STEM specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research. “Over time it has evolved into a program that focuses strongly on career pathways and offers kids the opportunity to try things that they have never heard of before.”

On the morning of July 1, a dozen 4-H teens met in Stocking Hall for a workshop on polymer science in food production led by Lee Cadesky, graduate student in the field of food science, who guided them through a series of hands-on exercises.

“We’re taking bouncy balls and Styrofoam balls and linking them together with pipe cleaners and paper clips to form networks,” he explained. “And then we use that as an analog to understand foods that are chewy and soft, because these are built from networks of polymers and molecules.”

Alyssa Jacon, a ninth-grader from Rensselaer County, particularly enjoyed the subsequent cheese-making exercise.

“I never knew how to make cheese,” she said. “It was fun to learn that lemon juice is positively charged and milk negatively charged and that if you put them together, the milk proteins can stick together to curdle.”

The resulting cheeses had different consistencies, depending on the percentage of fat in the milk used, Cadesky explained. “As you reduce the fat, you get denser networks, which leads to chewier textures.”

Next Cadesky introduced C-Fu, a protein gel he developed from shelled, ground-up mealworms. Despite assurances that “it’s the same idea as cheese, only from bugs,” Cadesky found just two volunteers to try squares of fried larvae dipped in soy sauce.

Throughout the conference, Cornell faculty and graduate students taught workshops in disciplines across campus, covering 4-H’s mission mandates on healthy living, leadership and civic engagement, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), according to Maille. While Cadesky’s course was part of University U, a variety of short programs aimed at middle school youth, Focus for Teens offered 10th- through 12th-graders specific career tracks to explore for three days.

This year, new curricula at the Lab of Ornithology and with University Communications joined old favorites such as rocketry, animal adventures, code to craft, and engineering to the max.

Between classes, the teens experienced Cornell more fully by sleeping in dorms, eating college food and exploring campus.

“I didn’t expect the campus to be so big,” said Andrew O’Dell of Orange County, who decided to attend Career Ex after his sister had a good experience last year. “I’m not used to all this walking. But I’ve enjoyed meeting all the new people here.”

Such relationships are an explicit goal of this year’s conference, themed “Get connected, stay connected.”

“Learning is so social, especially where the kids are in their world right now,” Maille said. “We hope to connect our participants to each other across the state, to careers and to colleges, especially Cornell.”

Olivia M. Hall, Ph.D. ’12, is a freelance writer.