By Chris Branam
A group of kids sat at picnic tables under the shelter at a park while Diana Camacho-Figueroa held up an activity booklet about weather.
“This one’s pretty simple,” Camacho-Figueroa said, as she used a pencil to point at the page. “You’re going to keep track of whether it’s cloudy or sunny. It has to be at the same time every day, and you’re going to do this for 22 days. Once you have it filled out, you can cut it out and put it in your journal.”
Camacho-Figueroa wore a black T-shirt with the words “Oregon State University Extension Service” printed on the front. She’s an education program assistant who serves Benton and Linn counties in Extension’s Family and Community Health Program. In 2021, she teamed with Jody Einerson, who oversees Extension 4-H natural science programs in the mid-Willamette Valley, on a pilot project in Monroe called 4-H Investigators at Home.
The program engaged Monroe Elementary School families in science, technology, engineering art and math (STEAM) activities. It also encouraged active outdoor learning. Twenty-four students from 15 families participated in the project. Students received a monthly box designed for third- through fifth-grade students with six to seven activities, instructions and all the needed materials to explore hands-on STEAM activities.
4-H Investigators at Home returned this year, shifting to the east to Lebanon. It’s drawn 15 students in the third through sixth grades. Camacho-Figueroa and Einerson meet the kids so that they can go over what’s in the boxes before they take them home. This activity box focused on sky and aviation.
Camacho-Figueroa showed the kids how to learn about the phases of the moon, and how they could learn about weather patterns. Einerson taught them how to make “helicopters” out of green paper, and the children spent several minutes tossing them into the air and watching them spin to the ground. Then they made paper airplanes and took turns seeing whose plane would go the farthest.
The origins of 4-H Investigators at Home go back to the 2020-21 school year, when most Oregon students were participating in school through distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although online learning is an important means to continue education, it often lacks opportunities to engage in hands-on learning at home. This is especially true for families that have difficulty accessing local resources because they are English language learners, the parents work outside the home, or they lack reliable transportation to participate in learning opportunities in the community, according to Camacho-Figueroa and Einerson.
The instructions for all the materials were in English and Spanish. As in the Monroe pilot project, nearly all of the participating families in Lebanon speak Spanish at home.
“We’re trying to bring more STEAM activities to underserved communities,” said Camacho-Figueroa, who’s been with Extension for 2½ years and is bilingual in English and Spanish. “I’ve been wanting to do more work in Lebanon, where it can be hard to reach Latino families. This program has been great. We’ve made some good connections.”