COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sometimes kids have trouble learning from their mistakes. And sometimes, all it takes is a caring adult teaming up with those kids -- perhaps on a project that captures their interest -- that can make all the difference.
That's the premise behind a mentoring project that has taken place in five counties throughout Ohio, thanks to a grant to Ohio 4-H Youth Development from the National 4-H Council and the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The project received $82,000 in funding in 2011 and an additional $123,000 to continue through 2012.
Programs in Adams, Butler, Hardin and Lorain counties have focused their projects on "Tech Wizards," in which 4-H educators and other mentors use Lego Robotics, video production and other technologies to engage youths.
Mahoning County's program is "Youth and Families with Promise," in which mentors work with small groups of kids in community projects and other activities. The youths involved have below-average school performance, weak family bonds or poor social skills.
"It's so good to see kids who have been beat down to be so enthused about something," said Jim Jordan, Ohio State University Extension educator and the project's leader. Ohio 4-H is the youth development arm of OSU Extension.
Jordan led the Tech Wizards program at the Butler County Juvenile Detention Center until July 2012, when he accepted a position with 4-H in Williams County. Many of the 14- to 17-year-olds that Jordan and technology teacher David Valentine worked with blossomed during the weekly hour-long sessions.
"These were kids who generally didn't like math or science," Jordan said.
But the 4-H model of "learn by doing" got them engaged and focused on using the project's Notebook computers to program Lego Robots to follow basic commands, he said.
Sometimes the robot moved perfectly. But sometimes, if the robot didn't do what it was supposed to do, the kids went back to their desk and their Notebook, double-checked their programming and tried again.
"It was spectacular to see this project unfold," Jordan said. "They grew to understand that failing is not the end.
“If you go back and try something different, you might have success."
Educators have seen similar successes in the other counties involved:
In Adams County, adult and teen mentors work with about 30 fifth and sixth graders in after-school programs once a week.
"We've done everything from robotics to making solar-powered ovens, to filmmaking to learning about Newton's laws of motion and launching bottle rockets,” said educator Carolyn Belczyk. “We also took a field trip to Ohio State, something most of the kids in Adams County have never done.
"Our hope is that they have an increased interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and increased interest in pursuing careers in those areas."
Participating in the project allowed 4-H to provide opportunities it otherwise wouldn't have been able to provide, she said.
"It allowed us to purchase the equipment we need and the manpower to coordinate the program."
In Hardin County, college students mentored 16 to 20 youths from fourth through sixth grade in the Ada School District at a community center's after-school program once a week.
"The college students major in a science-related field such as engineering, pharmacy or biology, for example," said educator Mark Light.
“The goal was for the kids to understand that there are careers in science, so they might see themselves having a career in science as well."
The consistency in the relationship between the youth and mentors really makes a difference, he said.
"I could go into a classroom with the same equipment and do the same project, but it's not a continual relationship. It's the mentoring relationship that makes students want to keep coming back, and it has more of an impact on their behavior."
Lorain County joined the project in 2012. To get up to speed quickly, the staff partnered with existing 4-H programs, broadening student involvement with the help of the Tech Wizards project.
For example, during the annual Lorain County 4-H CarTeens Underage Drinking Awareness Campaign, students produced a film documenting a mock car crash, with interviews of community safety officers and live commentary during the event. And, at Longfellow Middle School, students are creating and producing public service announcements that will be shown throughout the Lorain City School District.
Minnie Taylor, the county 4-H educator, said recruitment efforts are aimed at increasing participation of teens from military families, and other underserved teens who struggle with math and science.
"The Tech Wizards program is making a huge difference for middle and high school students," she said. "It offers participants a variety of new ways to approach math and science, and opens their minds to future careers that they once thought were out of reach."
The Youth and Families with Promise program in Mahoning County is focused on helping youths ages 10 to 14 at risk due to economics or family structure. Eighteen mentors work with 112 youths on community projects and other activities, such as pick-up basketball games. There's no playground in the area where the project is focused on, so one of the mentors put a basketball hoop in his driveway; another formed a community football team.
"I'm seeing the kids are more apt to come together as a group and work for the benefit of the community rather than just wander around the streets," said 4-H educator Janice Hanna. "They're coming together as teams, as groups of kids, learning to play together.
“In Youngstown we have a lot of violence among teenagers that stems from not knowing how to work together, so this is a big thing."