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  • Young man discovers what happens to absorbent polymers when you put water on them.

    Unique Center for Sustainable Polymers/4-H partnership leads to polymer-focused curriculum for youth

Interactive, hands-on, inquiry-based

Young girl draws a picture of what a scientists looks like.
What is a scientist? What do they look like? Answer: me.
What is a scientist, an engineer? What do they do? 
What is this made of? How can we use our senses to find out? 
Plastics are everywhere. What can we do with all the plastics in our world?

These questions and more are part of a newly created, interactive, hands-on, inquiry-based science curriculum developed by the Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP) and its Extension/4-H partners from Minnesota, California, and New York. The polymer-focused curriculum, Be a 4-H Scientist! Materials in a Green, Clean World, was launched in June for Cloverbuds, young 4-Hers in kindergarten through second grade. The engaging curriculum fosters children’s natural curiosity about their world and encourages them to ask questions and conduct experiments to discover and learn more about what’s in it. In the process, they might discover they are already scientists and engineers and be inspired to continue learning about the wonders of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Be a 4-H Scientist! Materials in a Green, Clean World actively engages children in learning about material properties, plastics, sustainability, and the work of scientists and engineers. The themes for its six learning modules touch on the prevalence and impact of plastics in everyday life; the versatility of plastics with their different shapes, sizes, and properties; and how scientists and engineers are working on new ways to create, use, and recycle plastics to lessen the environmental impacts. As they work their way through the activities, the children build foundational science and engineering skills such as making observations, asking questions, sorting and classifying objects, and communicating ideas.

Partnership of experts

Young scientists explore how superabsorbent polymer powder absorbs water.
Young scientists explore how superabsorbent polymer powder absorbs water.

The CSP funded the curriculum development, and it is a major component of the CSP’s education and outreach initiatives as a National Science Foundation-funded Center for Chemical Innovation. Jennifer Henderson, Ph.D., CSP’s director of Education, Outreach, and Diversity, led the development. The CSP is one of the University of Minnesota’s (UMN) major research centers and is focused on transforming how plastics are made and unmade through innovative research, engaging education, and diverse partnerships.

4-H is the largest youth organization in the United States and is available through Cooperative Extension—a research and outreach program of the nation’s land-grant universities. 4-H provides experiences where young people learn by doing in areas such as health, science, agriculture, and citizenship. It is available in every county and parish in the country, including urban, suburban, and rural areas.

The inspiration for this partnership began at the Minnesota State Fair where Professor Anne Stevenson, UMN Extension Center for Youth Development, saw the CSP’s Eco Experience display on plastics. Intrigued that there was a research center at the University specifically focused on polymers, and given her work with 4-H STEM programming, she contacted Laura Seifert, CSP managing director, for information and the partnership blossomed. 

Young scientists learn how to sort and classify objects using their senses.
Young scientists learn how to sort and classify objects using their senses.

“I began to wonder what it might look like to create a hands-on curriculum in the physical science areas, particularly, for our Cloverbuds, because this is an age when they are highly curious and we can spark an interest in science and engineering. Nationally in 4-H, there is little curriculum available for STEM learning for this age group,” said Stevenson. “I also have a personal passion for curriculum that engages children in hands-on inquiry and helps us understand plastics, polymers, and sustainability.”

Collaboration and networking was critical to the development of the curriculum. Both the CSP and Stevenson leveraged their national networks to bring together a team with expertise in curriculum writing, programming, and implementation, including CSP’s partners at Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley, and Cooperative Extension at the University of California, Davis. 

Stevenson leads the team that includes Alexa Maille, New York State 4-H Youth Development STEM specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension; Charles “Chip” Malone, 4-H Youth Development Educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension; Martin H. Smith, Ph.D., Cooperative Extension specialist, University of California Cooperative Extension; Steven Worker, Ph.D., 4-H Youth Development Adviser, University of California Cooperative Extension; and Sarah Carter, SciGirls STEM Content & Outreach Manager. Kiley Schmidt, CSP graphic/multimedia communications associate, designed the website and curriculum materials.

Two years of educational design

A major undertaking, the team has worked for nearly two years to develop the educational design for a three-level curriculum that will ultimately reach youth in grades K-8. The process for the Cloverbuds level included defining learning objectives and then writing, testing, and refining the curriculum, pilot testing in three states, and further editing and review. The team also designed evaluation tools for assessing youth outcomes and facilitator feedback. Concurrent development is now underway of curriculum for youth in 3rd-5th grades and 6th-8th grades.

“It was interesting to tackle such a big education project,” said Henderson. “I learned a lot about building something backwards, first defining the learning objectives and what we wanted the children to know and do at the end, and then building the steps for how to get there.”

Stevenson has worked on a number of curriculum development projects in her career, and is enjoying the challenge of creating an inquiry-based STEM curriculum with a K-8th grade scope.

“We knew we wanted to build curriculum to engage our youngest scientists as well as offer deeper learning experiences for older youth,” said Stevenson. “It was exciting to work together with such a group of great collaborators, and to know that we were creating high quality materials and hands-on experiences for young people that could be delivered by adults who aren’t educators or scientists.” 

Easy-to-use facilitator guide

One of the resources for facilitators is the book, "What is a scientist?"
One of the resources for facilitators is the book, "What is a scientist?"

Designed to be used in non-formal science learning settings such as 4-H afterschool programs and camps, the facilitator guide includes learning objectives that incorporate the Next Generation Science Standards and definitions of concepts and vocabulary. Each learning module has preparation guidelines including materials, step-by-step instructions, activities, and ways to use children’s literature. Using guided inquiry-based learning, teachers are encouraged to employ a variety of tools and facilitation techniques such as “I Wonder Boards” designed to encourage group brainstorming of questions that can be investigated or studied, writing or drawing in science journals, incorporating math, and circle shares where children discuss and reflect on what they have learned and experienced. Each module also has a science at home handout with activities designed to engage families in science learning together. Written succinctly, the comprehensive support materials are designed to build confidence and competence in facilitators.

Gender-equitable STEM learning

In addition to the national science standards, the curriculum uses the Public Broadcasting Service/Twin Cities Public Television SciGirls’ seven research-based best practices for gender-equitable STEM learning that have been proven to work with all learners, including underrepresented youth in the sciences. The best practices, called the SciGirls Seven, focus on what engages learners, including their desire to collaborate, to work on relevant and meaningful projects, to participate in hands-on, open-ended projects and investigations, to use their creativity, unique talents and preferred learning styles, to receive specific positive feedback on their efforts, strategies and behaviors, to be encouraged to be critical thinkers, and to develop relationships with role models and mentors.

Free curriculum available to anyone interested

Both the CSP and Stevenson are now leveraging their national connections to spread the word about Be a 4-H Scientist! Materials in a Green, Clean World, conducting workshops about the curriculum at STEM expos, and national conferences such as the National Urban Extension Conference, National Science Teachers Association, and National 4-H Conference. Stevenson is also unveiling the curriculum at staff training conferences and in webinars. She plans to develop a national webinar to share it with Extension in each state, and will work with colleagues to develop professional development for staff and 4-H volunteers.

The Cloverbuds curriculum is available to anyone interested in using it, at no cost, through the website, So far, people from 23 states have expressed an interest in the curriculum. The team is also submitting its work to the National 4-H curriculum peer review process. Obtaining this designation signals to others that the materials meet national 4-H standards as a research-based, experiential curriculum.

The team is well underway on the curriculum for older youth, with pilot testing planned for 2018 and official launch in 2019.

Photos courtesy of Minnesota Extension and young people participating in the Maxfield BELL Power Scholars Academy, a partnership of the YMCA, Maxfield Elementary School in Saint Paul Public Schools, Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, BELL Scholars program, and Minnesota 4-H.

Young people with their natural curiosity explore materials and, in the process, experience that science is fun and something they can do.
Young people with their natural curiosity explore materials and, in the process, experience that science is fun and something they can do.