COLUMBIA, Mo. - Students poured into a University of Missouri chemistry lab, put on goggles, grabbed aprons and waited for instructions at their lab stations. But on this day, instead of 20-something college students, the lab was filled with MU Extension 4-H members from Boone County.
Ranging in age from 8 to 14, they were ready to complete an experiment about hydrogels, superabsorbent polymers found in products ranging from disposable diapers to potting soil.
"Science isn't something that 4-H is especially known for, but 4-H members have been learning applied sciences for more than a century," said Theresa Shettlesworth, leader of the Fairview Friends 4-H Club. "From cows to cooking to cosmetics, we're affected by science every day, so it's something important that our kids learn."
In the experiment, 4-H members extracted hydrogels from a diaper and observed how they reacted with water. The young people formed a hypothesis about how much water their hydrogels could absorb and tested their prediction.
"Part of the purpose is to have the kids having fun and learning a little bit of science and experiencing that great discovery that happens as the kids are exploring and looking at the different aspects of science," said Bill Pabst, MU Extension 4-H youth specialist.
The learning-by-doing environment gives young people the opportunity to take what they learn in a classroom, integrate it with what they already know and make sense out of it, he said.
"We have done a little bit of research, and we have seen that those kids who are interested in science and work with science outside of the classroom are more likely to continue on in science endeavors," Pabst said.
The National 4-H Science Experiment is part of the 4-H Science, Engineering and Technology initiative, a campaign to encourage young people to attain science and technology skills that are in increasingly high demand.
"When you read the national literature, there are alarm bells going off from government and business, parents and teachers, saying that, as a country, we do not have enough young people going into science, engineering and technology fields," Pabst said.
"If we can encourage those kids and help them understand, participate and like science through the seventh and eighth grades, then we have a good running start on getting them into college and into careers in science, engineering and technology."
Pabst said MU Extension 4-H is collaborating with the Missouri 4-H Foundation and MU to offer more science-based opportunities to the 4-H curriculum. Young people can attend aerospace camp, complete chemical experiments and learn about videography and robotics.
"We're following their interests," Pabst said. "It's important to keep up the excitement."