Growing Life Skills and an Engineering Mindset

March 8, 2024

By Margo Bowerman

Extension Educator with University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development

Margo holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of Albany, NY and a master of science in wildlife ecology from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY, but her passion is working with youth through the 4-H program. Her work provides many different opportunities for youth to reach their full potential.

When you think back to your childhood, can you remember an adult that had an impact on you?  Was it someone who was your cheerleader?  Was it someone that encouraged your dreams?  Was it someone who believed in you and helped you find opportunities to grow and develop? 

Youth development professionals know the importance of having those caring adults in the lives of children.  And when we in Minnesota 4-H create opportunities for youth to gain knowledge and skills in engineering, we are intentional about including and supporting those caring adults.  Here we touch on some of the programmatic supports we provide so that adults can be successful in sparking or building an interest in engineering in youth they work with.   

In our MN 4-H Engineering Design Challenge, teams of youth work with caring adults to build a Rube GoldbergTM– inspired machine that solves a problem.  These adults are recruited from local communities and provided with materials to help them guide their youth team through the Engineering Design Challenge.   

The materials include specifications for the Challenge; activities to help youth develop engineering design, content knowledge and skills; and resources to help youth develop teamwork and problem-solving skills.  Additionally, we offer webinars, phone calls and email support to help these adults create conditions for youth to grow life skills and an engineering mindset. 

The caring adults (we refer to them as coaches in our Engineering Design Challenge program) that are recruited have a variety of backgrounds, from parents who want to provide experiences for their child to explore different interests, to engineers who want to share their passion, to adults who want to provide opportunities for the youth in their community.  We require a minimum of two screened adults to be present when working with youth, but we’ve found that having two adults present allows for a division of the workload.  Having two adults is often a better experience for youth as it provides additional caring adults that have different skills and perspectives to support each youth’s unique talents and interests in a team environment. 

Using the materials we provide, coaches create conditions for youth to explore engineering in a hands-on, team environment.  Coaches help youth navigate the many struggles faced in completing the challenge; they help youth work together to solve problems systematically, and they celebrate the successes alongside youth.  Coaches articulate their own personal satisfaction from being involved in the program:

“Seeing the kids learn about simple machines, energy transfer and engineering principles was great. It was especially rewarding when they put it into practice and you could see they really understood it now.” 

“I enjoyed watching the kids work to achieve their goals and sharing in their joy with each success.” 

“Working with the team over a longer project helped us see growth in the youth. That was rewarding to me. So many 4-H projects are solo opportunities, and for my son it was a good experience to have him work together, over time, to create the finished product. This was rewarding as a 4-H parent.” 

We also engage caring adults to help youth measure their own understanding of what they have learned through the program.  We provide public showcases where youth can demonstrate their Rube Goldberg inspired machine and discuss what they have learned and the skills they have developed while working in the machine.  We recruit engineering faculty and professionals to work alongside a youth development professional to provide an evaluation using a conference judging process.  We provide a detailed orientation to the judging team, discussing not only the specifications their machine must meet but also how to ask questions to probe the learning and skills each team and individual have attained. 

Caring adults are a key element of the MN 4-H Engineering Design Challenge program.  With our support, adults provide a fun and engaging learning environment for youth to explore engineering and develop life skills.