The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture recently received a grant to implement 4-H Tech Changemakers, a unique program that enables teen leaders to learn and train on topics focused on digital literacy, broadband access and evidence-based programming to enhance their communities and bridge STEM (science, technology, education and math) gaps, no matter their socioeconomic status and demographic. In turn, the teen leaders will share their knowledge with peers and adults within their neighborhoods. The grant will assist Tennessee communities that need it most.
Approximately 37% of Tennesseans do not have home access to high-speed, broadband internet and many cannot afford broadband subscription services or the necessary access devices. A lack of digital readiness and literacy poses lifelong consequences for Tennesseans across educational attainment, race, age and socioeconomic status. The COVID-19 pandemic magnified this reality, increasing the digital divide between those who have internet and those who do not.
The absence of digital literacy can lead to missed opportunities for students choosing a field of study or for job-seeking adults. “Although opportunities in the STEM field continue to experience growth, statistics indicate a deficit among underrepresented students pursuing these areas of study and employment,” said Daniel Collins, program lead and state Extension specialist with Tennessee 4-H Youth Development.
The program is also designed to actively recruit underrepresented adult participants, providing them with a STEM-forward curriculum that bolsters greater digital literacy. “Our goal is to teach digital literacy skills to approximately 5,000 adults, with an emphasis on preparing them for the workforce and helping them achieve greater economic opportunities,” said Collins. “Up to half of these adults will be from diverse backgrounds.”
The Tennessee 4-H program currently offers STEM programming across the state. The 4-H Tech Changemakers program will use the existing STEM programming platform and leverage the statewide presence of 4-H in all 95 counties to enable broad access to tools and content.
The new program will provide students with enhanced opportunities to engage in STEM education with nontraditional methods, dismantling system barriers to provide a more impactful educational experience. With the enhancement of virtual platforms, students will have opportunities to participate in virtual STEM clubs and other opportunities through UT’s Tickle College of Engineering. Collaboration with departments and colleges within the University of Tennessee system will be a key component to implementing the program.
In addition to Collins, project members include Sreedhar Upendram with the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Justin Crowe and Jamie Harris with Tennessee 4-H Youth Development.
The one-year grant is funded by the National 4-H Council, along with support from Land O’Lakes, Microsoft, Tractor Supply Company and Verizon.
“The UT Institute of Agriculture, through our faculty and 4-H Program leadership, is pleased to cooperate with many partners to extend STEM opportunities to all of the state’s youth,” said Carrie Castille, senior vice chancellor and senior vice president of UTIA. “This sort of program is a great example of faculty and outside collaborators working together to promote greater success for all.”