The sky’s the limit at 4-H camp where kids learn about life, the universe, and everything in between

A teenager launches a homemade rocket.

These days, 4-H’ers are learning about STEM activities such as rocket science in this class at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center.

By Amy Loeffler

Rocket science requires lots of high-tech instruments, but when you’re a young 4-H’er, there’s one thing that is essential to your airborne creation’s design.

“We’ve got stickers over here to decorate your rocket,” said Spencer Gee, 20, from Tazewell, Virginia, a camp counselor at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center outside of Front Royal.

Gee is teaching a Create, Innovate, Solve class where the kids are using nothing but PVC pipe, construction paper, Scotch tape, a 2-liter soda bottle, and, most importantly, their imaginations to make rockets and study the principles of physics.

“I love teaching this class,” said Gee. “I give open-ended directions, and the campers take the initiative to construct the rocket the way they want.”

One camper, who was decked out with stickers on her cheeks, decorated her purple construction paper fuselage with black and white checkerboard stickers. Another tempted the laws of physics by opting for fins made of triangular-shaped pipe cleaners in lieu of the more popular paper additions.

The rocket stomper class is based on the Maker Program, which encourages young people to learn about science, technology, engineering, and math through building activities.

The camp class is about more than building rockets out of construction paper though. It’s about building confidence while teaching life skills and allowing the kids who attend 4-H camp to make their own choices.

The classes taught here are indicative of the evolving face of 4-H that maintains its tradition of agriculture-based learning systems while fostering many aspects of knowledge and team building in classes that teach everything from tie-dye to yoga to STEM during overnight camps. About 17,000 Virginia youth attended a 4-H camp a year. Across the state, more than 103,000 participated in STEM activities at camps or in their home communities in 2015-16.

“Young people involved in 4-H are twice as likely to participate in science programs during out-of-school time. This is proof that investing in youth has a direct payoff for generations,” said Cathy Sutphin, associate director of 4-H youth development. “That’s the strength of 4-H.”

One camper, Kristopher Scott, 14, from Manassas, Virginia, has discovered a new passion for science.

“Yesterday we learned about the difference in density between oil and water when we made lava lamps,” he said. “I’ve always liked science. I never really thought I was that interested in it until I came to 4-H camp.”