COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When Rob Isner was growing up, he spent summers at his grandparents’ farm in West Virginia.
“My level of knowledge about farming and agriculture first came from things like bringing in hay and just playing on the farm,” Isner said. “I think a lot of things that we internalize as adults come from those kinds of childhood experiences -- not necessarily from a structured curriculum or working with an Extension educator or a teacher, but just from the fun stuff that kids do.”
Now, armed with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, a master’s in education and two decades of experience in teaching, management and landscaping, Isner is hoping to offer similar inspiration to students in science, technology, engineering and math concepts at George Washington Carver STEM Elementary School on the east side of Cleveland.
Isner is one of two Ohio 4-H program managers hired earlier this year to bring 4-H’s hands-on experiential learning directly into urban K-6 classrooms. The other is Tony Staubach at Rothenberg Preparatory Academy in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati. Both are embedded full time in the school where they are assigned.
The initiative, 4-H Agri-science in the City, was created thanks to nearly $180,000 in special state funding for Ohio 4-H in the state’s biennial budget passed in 2013. Ohio 4-H is the youth development program of Ohio State University Extension, which is the outreach arm of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Isner and Staubach were hired in February and March, respectively. For the final part of this school year, students in grades K-6 have been visiting their science labs once a week to participate in farm- and food-based projects, including seeing how eggs incubate and hatch into chicks.
Staubach said during the "Chick Quest" project, his students were particularly interested in talking about what was going on inside the eggs during incubation. He even took that show on the road to two nearby school districts in conjunction with presentations on STEM careers.
Staubach has also been active in Rothenberg’s after-school programming.
“One week we talked about where food comes from,” said Staubach, whose degrees are in public policy, history and education and who has worked with youth programs since 2007.
“The younger kids, in kindergarten through second grade, were eating apple slices, and I asked if they knew those slices came from a real apple. Some of the kids didn’t.
“With the older kids in grades 3 through 6, we talked about where food comes from in the world. We got out a world map and I had them line up in order of distance representing Guatemala and other places where food may come from, and the importance of growing what we can locally.”
Organizers have high hopes that the project will help students -- and possibly even their teachers -- have a better appreciation and enthusiasm for science overall and for food, agricultural and environmental issues in particular, not only academically but as a potential career path.
“We’re using agriculturally based examples to teach science in a hands-on way in the classroom,” said Bob Horton, educational design and science education specialist for Ohio 4-H. “We want to offer these students a broader understanding of where their food comes from, and that food and agriculture provide a wide array of career opportunities.”
While the mainstay of 4-H in Ohio has been club-based projects, 4-H also has extensive involvement in school-based and after-school programs.
“We not only have the curriculum and the ability to teach it, we have over 40 years of experience in helping teachers teach science,” Horton said.
The state budget also included additional funds for vocational agriculture programs at two high schools in the Cleveland and Cincinnati school districts, separate from the 4-H program funding.
The 4-H portion of the project provides the classroom instruction as a complement to regular coursework; afterschool and summer programs, including creation of a 4-H community club program for interested students; and the participation of parents and community members to support the project.
“We want to engage the community in a way that’s different than the traditional model of room moms or dads or the PTA model,” Horton said.
Staubach said that over the summer, he will partner with three agencies to provide programming in the Over-the-Rhine and another neighborhood in Cincinnati.
"I've had a lot of luck connecting with the community, and there is a lot of support for the program," he said.
Stephanie Eafford, principal at Carver Elementary, said that the project is going well.
“The topics they’re talking about -- food production, plant and seed development, agricultural careers, and the whole lifecycle of food and nutrition -- that’s lacking in our curriculum,” she said. “Our kids just don’t have that type of exposure, so I was elated when the district presented us with this opportunity.”
Eafford said the entire student body is able to participate in the project and the students seem to enjoy learning about food, nutrition and related topics through the activities.
“It’s making learning more fun for the kids because it’s hands-on, it’s not just something out of a book,” she said. “I think every school should have this in their building.
“The students are learning so much. I love it, and I’m excited we have this opportunity for our kids.”
Parents and community members who want to learn more about the projects or become involved may contact the Cuyahoga or Hamilton county offices of OSU Extension and leave messages for Isner or Staubach. Call 216-429-8200 in Cleveland or 513-946-8989 in Cincinnati.