North Carolina 4-H gets students charged up about bioenergy

Interest in bioenergy has soared as concerns about petroleum’s limited resources and its environmental impact have risen. But what exactly is bioenergy, and what does it mean for America today and in the future? With its latest science-based curriculum, North Carolina 4-H is helping middle-school students answer these and other timely questions.

With a grant from BP America, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family and Consumer Sciences recently developed and successfully piloted a series of lessons and activities tentatively titled Bioenergy: Farm-Based Fuels.

Amy Chilcote, the 4-H curriculum specialist at N.C. State University, said it’s “an exciting and innovative science curriculum designed to engage youth about the importance of using renewable energy resources in developing an independent, sustainable energy culture.”

In using the curriculum, young people explore reasons, resources and processes for biofuel production, as well as related economics and career opportunities. Moreover, they use critical thinking skills, Chilcote added, to deeply engage with the curriculum and to further evaluate environmental issues.

Curriculum trainees from Florida and Texas visited the Biofuels Farm.
Curriculum trainees from Florida and Texas visited the Biofuels Farm.

The lessons guide students through hands-on experiments using the same techniques and materials as scientists studying bioenergy. For example, the students get to grow and manipulate algae and duckweed – both potential biofuel sources under varying conditions to see which conditions are best.

The curriculum also helps students “cultivate numerous life skills,” Chilcote said, “including problem solving, communication, record keeping, cooperation and teamwork.”

Students learn such things as renewable energy’s importance, how biofuel can be made and used, and its economic and environmental implications.

Keeping in mind National 4-H Curriculum criteria, Chilcote set up an advisory team to guide curriculum development from the start. “The team forms the backbone of the development process. We included content specialists as well as business and community leaders to ensure that the materials provide a clear picture of bioenergy and how it affects us locally, nationally and globally,” she said.

Forming the advisory team were Hope Lanier of BP America; Liz Driscoll of the College’s Crop Science, Horticultural Science and Soil Science departments; Shawn Reese, formerly with the Biofuels Center of North Carolina; and 4-H agents Mason Lawrence and
Vanessa Spiron.

Dr. Matthew Veal, North Carolina Cooperative Extension specialist with N.C. State University’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, and Helene Cser, an Extension associate with the university’s Forestry and Environmental Resources Extension, serve as content specialists. Dr. Penny Jeffrey, education director with the FREEDM Systems Center on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, served as curriculum writer.

In reviewing national and North Carolina teaching standards, which spell out what students in particular grades should be learning, the team decided to target sixth- through eighth-graders.

Students and instructors gave enthusiastic reviews during the pilot phase of the curriculum.
Students and instructors gave enthusiastic reviews during the pilot phase of the curriculum.

While the team built the curriculum on a science foundation, teachers and leaders can integrate it with language arts, math, social sciences and other subjects, Chilcote said.

After the advisory team reviewed the curriculum, it was time to test it in North Carolina counties. Agents from 12 county Cooperative Extension centers responded within less than 48 hours to an email message Chilcote sent asking for counties willing to pilot the curriculum.

That was double the project plan’s goal of six pilot counties. In response, the Biofuels Center of North Carolina provided additional funding to allow so all 12 counties – Watauga, Guilford, Moore, Pasquotank, Sampson, Wilson, Currituck, Lee, Bertie, Cabarrus, Jones and Craven – could participate.

“Each county decided to implement the pilot in formal or non-formal educational settings, including formal public or private school classrooms, after-school activities and in club settings,” Chilcote said.

Chilcote added that having a range of partners involved helped ensure that the curriculum would be holistic and could be used in diverse educational settings.

Autumn Guin, N.C. 4-H evaluation specialist, said that students and instructors alike gave enthusiastic reviews during the 6-month pilot phase. “They were instrumental in reviewing the curriculum and provided ideas and suggestions that improved the project,” she said.

Because BP America wants the curriculum be used nationally, North Carolina 4-H has reached beyond the state’s borders to see if the curriculum will work elsewhere. In October, Florida and Texas professionals who will be part of a second-phase pilot study came to North Carolina for curriculum training.

The second pilot, which will run through March 2014, is a key step, Chilcote said, in having the curriculum pass review by the National 4-H Curriculum jury, which selects curricula to be offered to 4-H programs nationwide.

Dr. Mitzi Downing, Cooperative Extension’s interim state leader for 4-H and Family and Consumer Sciences programs, said the curriculum is just one example of the way North Carolina leads the way among 4-H programs nationally in getting young people science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – education. About 237,000 students take part 4-H STEM activities in North Carolina, which is more than in any other state.

“Our science programs bring science to life for kids in the classroom,” Downing said. “It’s all hands on, it’s experiential, and it’s a lot of fun.”

— Dee Shore

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