Youth development that works: Positive findings on the 4-H program

On EBL, we’ve talked a lot about research evidence on problems affecting adolescents, from alcohol use, to  video games, to social networking, to sex (I can hear teens who read this starting to hum the tune to “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things”…).

One might ask: Okay, what about the positive side? We’re glad to say that there’s very encouraging news about a program that really works.

One of the most popular and extensive youth programs in the United States is the 4-H program. There are over 6,500,000 members in the U. S. The 4-H program offers activities for kids from 5-19 who are organized in 90,000 4-H clubs. Throughout its history, 4-H has promoted leadership skills, good citizenship, and life skills development. In recent years, it has branched into health promotion programs (like obesity prevention and fostering physical activity) and science, engineering, and technology (“SET”) programming.

All this sounds great, right? But as EBL readers know, we look for the evidence. And now we have it, thanks to the ground-breaking work of Prof. Richard Lerner of Tufts university, one of the country’s leading experts on youth development.  Lerner and colleagues expected that the mentoring from adult leaders and the structured learning that goes on in clubs might lead to number of desireable outcomes for children. This led them to do a longitudinal, controlled evaluation of the impact of being a 4-H member. Beginning in 2002, they have surveyed oaver 6,400 teens across the U. S.

The researchers have issued a major new report, looking at the findings on youth outcomes over nearly a decade. To really dig into the results, you should read the very accessible report. Among the many findings, according to the report summary, is that 4-H participants:

  • Have higher educational achievement and motivation for future education
  • Are more civically active and make more civic contributions to their communities
  • Are less likely to have sexual intercourse by Grade 10
  • Are 56% more likely to spend more hours exercising or being physically active
  • Have had significantly lower drug, alcohol and cigarette use than their peers
  • Report better grades, higher levels of academic competence, and an elevated level of engagement at school,
  • Are nearly two times more likely to plan to go to college
  • Are more likely to pursue future courses or a career in science, engineering, or computer technology

All in all, very impressive findings. So let’s join in the 4-H pledge (can you find the four “H”s?):

I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
my heart to greater loyalty,
my hands to larger service
and my health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.

A pretty good approach to living, and one that seems to work for millions of children and teens!

Canning food at home: The best evidence-based advice

My Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother had an expression: “Eat what you can, and what you can’t – can!”

Okay, take a minute to think about it…

Like many Americans of her generation, she grew up with a kitchen garden, and a major family activity was preserving the summer’s bounty to liven up their diet during the winter. For many people today, canning food is an enjoyable activity and allows them to “eat locally” all winter long. Many people are joining  CSAs (community supported agriculture), buying memberships that allow them weekly “shares” of a local farms produce, and preserving some of that food.

Sounds good, right? But a national survey found that many people who process food at home are doing it in a way that puts them at risk for spoiled food and foodborne illness. What’s an avid canner to do?

In steps the  National Center for Home Food Processing and Preservation! This wonderful site, supported by the national Cooperative Extension system, has plenty of evidence-based advice for anyone interested in canning food that is delicious – and safe.

What will you find there? Just take a look at the Center’s list of “Seasonal Hot Topics”:

  • If you are a home canner, this is the time of year to plan ahead and prepare. Get your equipment and supplies out and inspect them so you are ready when the crops are.
  • Many quick pickle recipes call for small, pickling varieties of cucumbers. If these interest you, be prepared by looking ahead to know what kind of cucumbers are needed for your favorite.
  • Ready to tackle your food cupboards during spring cleaning? Consult a food storage chart to see when it might be time to throw out some staples and start fresh.

Click on the links for more information. The last item is one that we have many arguments about in my household, with me wanting to throw out anything more than a week old. Who knew that you could keep an open box of cereal for 2-3 months?

And who can resist articles (all based firmly in scientific evidence) on topics like:  “Pickling: Not Just for Cucumbers Anymore,” “What to Do if the Freezer Stops,” and “My Banana Chips Don’t Taste Like the Ones in Stores: What Can I do?”

There’s also a multi-media page, with videos of important home food preservation issues and slide shows, too. A tutorial about safe food preservation is a must for the novice, and it is really what this site is all about: preserving delicious food and using the latest scientific evidence to do it safely.

Happy canning!

Fairs and exhibitions: We love them in Cooperative Extension, but is there evidence?

I have always loved the county fair. So much so – yes, I’m going to admit it – that on the day after my wedding many years ago we took the entire gang to the the Lorain County Fair in Ohio. And Cooperative Extension staff and participants also  enjoy county and state fairs – and devote considerable time throughout the year to planning and preparing for them.

So my interest was piqued by the title of a recent article in the Journal of Extension: “Fairs and other Exhibitions: Have We Really Thought this Through?” Author Donald Nicholson points out that the investment of effort and time by staff makes makes fairs the largest single program in Cooperative Extension. As he puts it: “There is no doubt that “The Fair” is deeply woven into the very DNA of Extension.” But that, he argues, keeps us from evaluating what we get from all the investment.

Nicholson asks: What do we actually know about whether participation in fairs actually promotes youth development?The answer, surprisingly, is that there is almost no scientific evidence of any kind on this topic. He notes that the public, and commodity groups. heavily support the fair, and that it is extremely popular among extension staff and program participants. But he poses a set of thought-provoking questions for state and county extension programs to consider:

  • What is the 5-year or 10-year goal of Extension in regard to our role, goals, and mission with the fairs in your local or state Extension program?
  • What is the research agenda and intention regarding fairs in your state?
  • Are the procedures used and the time invested by Extension truly guided by research-based information?
  • Could the same educational content be more effectively delivered in other ways with a similar or lesser investment of time and resources?

What is lacking is any solid research evidence regarding the benefits of fair activities to youth participants. Nicholson was able to identify only two pilot studies that addressed this issue. Given that  fairs are probably the single biggest investment of extension, he argues for the development of a knowledge base on what youth development outcomes are achieved by fairs.

Very thought-provoking – as are the comments that follow the article. Some commenters agree with a closer examination of the effectiveness of fairs in extension, whereas others argue for the economic and public-relations benefits of the fair, regardless of scientifically-assessed outcomes.

Leave us a comment with your thoughts on this topic!

New York continues PROSPER Partnership to prevent substance abuse

We heard some exciting news at EBL this week!  New York families will soon have more access to evidence-based programs that prevent substance abuse among middle school students and their families.

You might remember that we wrote about PROSPER Partnerships – which stands for PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience – as an ideal model for implementing substance abuse prevention programming based on real evidence. The program links Cooperative Extension, public schools, and local communities to choose proven programs that serve the needs of individual communities.

Last month, New York was chosen as one of five states in that will continue the process of forming a PROSPER Partnership, with Cornell serving as the university partner.

The goal is for New York to become a full PROSPER State Partnership by August of this year.

Kim Kopko, Extension Associate in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management and New York State Liaison for PROSPER, is excited to continue with the program.

“This is indeed a very positive development and an exciting opportunity to utilize the Cornell Cooperative Extension System to bring evidence-based programming to families and communities in New York,” she said.
As you might expect, PROSPER uses plenty of evidence to determine if a state is ready to enter a full partnership. PROSPER staff collected and analyzed data from a state survey, in-depth interviews with Cooperative Extension staff and partnering agencies, and information garnered from various activities in New York.

PROSPER has also plenty of evidence to prove that their system yields results. PROSPER Programs typically recruit 17 percent of eligible families in their communities, compared to less than six percent for other community programs.

Students who participate in the program are better at problem solving, more likely to refuse offers of alcohol and other drugs, less likely to believe that substance use has positive effects and more likely to delay initiation of substance use. And each $1 invested in the program yield about $9.60 of savings.

All of that is great news for New York families, who will soon have even greater access to evidence-based programming.

How to convince volunteers to care for trees

The evidence shows that trees are an important part of our landscape – whether here in forested Ithaca, or in densely populated urban areas.

Studies have found that trees help improve focus, promote a sense of community, and deter crime. So it’s no surprise that major cities across the nation are launching initiatives to plant trees. New York City is undertaking one such project.  Called the MillionTreesNYC initiative, it aims to plant one million trees across all five city boroughs by 2017.

But urban forestry projects typically encounter a problem, explained Gretchen Ferenz, a senior extension associate at Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York City.

“Capital project funds will support planting and immediate care of trees for a couple of years, but costs for longer term care to ensure a young tree’s growth often are not included in municipal budgets,” she told the Cornell Chronicle for a story. “As a result, many urban trees do not survive into maturity.”

Ferenz’s office has joined forces with Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources to create the Urban Forestry Community Engagement Model, a program that provides workshops about the importance of trees to community members in two New York City neighborhoods. The goal is to enlist residents and organizations to become stewards of their community’s trees and, ultimately, to develop resources to help groups around the country do the same.

As part of the program, they’re collecting evidence to learn how to get more community members involved in caring for trees in their neighborhoods. They recently published a study that examines motivations and recruitment strategies for urban forestry volunteers.

Through a survey and focus groups, as well as a review of existing literature on the topic, the team found volunteer who plant and care for trees in their communities are motivated by a wide range of factors.  And most have a limited knowledge of the benefits of urban forests.

This type of work is an important first step in helping cities learn how to engage community members to help care for trees in their neighborhoods – and ultimately in making our world a bit greener.

(You can learn more about the Urban Forestry Community Engagement Model by clicking here.)

The beginning of the end: The demise of cooperative extension in Canada

Cooperative Extension in the United States is a flagship program for connecting public “land-grant” universities to the general public. The goal of the Cooperative Extension System is to move knowledge created by researchers to groups who need it. A major audience has historically been agriculture, but other program areas deal with nutrition, child development, families, the environment and a variety of other issues.

I’ve worked as a faculty member in the Cooperative Extension program for 20 years, and I deeply admire the system. Like everyone with Extension responsibilities, I’ve been watching the changes that are going on nationally and at the state level. So I took notice of a very important cautionary note from our neighbors in Canada.

Writing in the Journal of Extension, Lee-Anne Milburn, Susan Mulley, and Carol Kline document the demise of agricultural extension in the province of Ontario. Their article, “The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End: The Decline of Public Agricultural Extension in Ontario,” shows how by the year 2000, “Extension in Ontario was moribund.”

How did this happen? According to Milburn and colleagues, some reasons are:

  • The decline of people involved in farming; fewer than 2% of Canada’s population are now involved in agriculture.
  • The decline in the agricultural sector in turn reduced political support for extension. Population changes “make agriculture less politically relevant and therefore create difficulties in accessing necessary funding for agricultural research and Extension.”
  • A key point: Extension was unable to document economic benefits; without clear “return on investment,” the government was unwilling to fund it.
  • Farmers now have access to many other information sources, making the Extension agent more of a “peer information consultant,” helping the farmer to access information rather than being seen as the source of expertise.
  • Universities focus increasingly on scholarship; in the words of the authors this relegates “Extension to the academic hinterland of ‘service and outreach.’”

It’s clear that these issues confront Cooperative Extension in the United States. Fortunately, the authors have some suggestions for what people involved in Extension should do:

  • Respond to the needs of rural non-farm residents. They point out that there are all kinds of issues in rural life Extension could respond to, like wetland and woodlot management, sustainable economic development, and conservation and stewardship.
  • Recognize that Extension programs have a life cycle and redirect resources away from failing or outdated programs.
  • Make creative use of new information technologies.
  • And a very interesting point: They suggest that reducing Extension field staff can be a mistake, and replacing one-on-one contact with consumers “is a recipe for decline.” They recommend in-person training and discussions rather than fact sheets and web-based information alone.

All food for thought as we enter a new era in Cooperative Extension!



Portable space heaters: Money-savers or energy-wasters?

In Ithaca, it seems that the weather took a sudden dip a few weeks ago.  Temperatures fell below freezing within a few hours, and it doesn’t look like they’ll warm much until spring. That was our cue to turn on the heat for the season.

As much of the northern hemisphere launches into winter, millions of people across the country are firing up their home heating systems – an act that will cost most households hundreds if not thousands of dollars this year. 

With those costs comes the natural inclination to save a little money.  That’s when many – myself included, occasionally – turn to portable electric space heaters. When there’s a chill in the room, it seems so logical to flip a switch to warm a smaller space, instead of cranking up the heating system for the entire house.  But are electric space heaters a good way to reduce your heating costs?  The evidence says no.

Mark Pierce, extension associate at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, is an expert in energy efficiency issues in residential buildings.  He conducted a detailed analysis of heating costs in a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom house to determine if there is a benefit to using portable electric heaters.

Pierce asked the question, which is more expensive: heating the entire house to 70 degrees for three hours, or heating the house to 60 degrees for three hours and using a space heater to raise the temperature of one room to 70 degrees? 

His analysis factored in all sorts of details like the levels of insulation in the floors, walls and ceiling, heat loss through windows and doors, and they type of heating fuel used. He assumed an outside air temperature of 10 degrees.

Using average costs for heating fuels in New York, he found turning down the thermostat from 70 to 60 degrees would reduce heating costs by about 50 to 80 cents, depending on the heating fuel used.  Meanwhile, using a portable heater to heat one room from 60 to 70 degrees over the same time period would cost 52 cents – a meager savings, even when using the most expensive heating fuels.

But why is the cost of heating just one room with a space heater so high?  Because electricity is about twice as expensive as fossil fuels, Pierce explains.

“Electricity is more expensive because it is a secondary form of energy, meaning that a primary form of energy – burning fossil fuels to power a generator for example – must first be consumed to make electricity,” he writes. “By the time electricity gets to your home from a power plant, about 70 percent of the energy consumed to create it has been lost due to generation and distribution system inefficiencies.”

Instead, Pierce recommends other ways to reduce your heating bills, such as adding insulation to your floors, walls and ceilings, installing a more efficient heating system and sealing holes and cracks around doors, windows and electrical outlets.

You can read more evidence-based tips about reducing your home heating bills by clicking here.  Wishing you a warm and cozy winter!

Democracy and higher education: A discussion with Cornell prof Scott Peters

Cornell education professor Scott Peters has dedicated his career to the intersection between academia and community life. His new book, Democracy and Higher Education: Traditions and Stories of Civic Engagement, examines how higher education contributes to a democratic society. Evidence-based Living sat down with Scott to learn about his vision of Cooperative Extension.

What first inspired you to research the topic of the public role for higher education?

“I spent 10 years working for a community-university non-profit that was located on the campus of the University of Illinois.  The experiences I had and people I worked with awakened an interest in exploring the history of American higher education’s public mission and purposes.  I was especially interested in understanding the origins and meaning of the “land-grant mission.”  I often heard people use this phrase like it had some deep profound meaning.  But I couldn’t find anyone who could explain exactly what it meant.  So I would trace the origins of my interest to those experiences.”

Do you feel that academics have a duty to contribute to democracy and civic life more-so than other professionals?

“I don’t think academics have a duty that is greater than other professions.   Professionals in every field and sector of society who want to be what William Sullivan calls “civic professionals” face the same challenge.  They have to learn how, as Sullivan puts it, to deploy their technical expertise and judgment “not only skillfully but also for public-regarding ends and in a public-regarding way.”  There’s no one “correct” way to do this.  But there is a debate about what it can and should look like.  I take that debate up in my new book.”

Do you think there are shortfalls in the current higher education system as a whole – that universities, in general, could do a better job of engaging in public life?

“We can and should do much better, yes.  But my work has been more focused on illuminating, interpreting, and analyzing the many positive roles and contributions academic professionals and institutions are taking up and making despite the challenges and shortfalls.  We give very little attention to faculty members’ civic engagement work.  And we devote very little time and space for serious conversation about it.  By ‘serious,’ I mean research-based, with robust theoretical and historical groundings.”

Do you have a vision of what the world would look like if engaged professors did a better job of reaching out to help communities?

“I have a vision of what it would look like if we invested more time and attention to understanding and learning from stories of the civic work that professors (and students and staff) are already doing.  If we did, there would be a much richer understanding of the public and academic significance of this type of work.  We’d see it as a multidimensional activity that has both academic and civic value.  But we’d also see it as something that can and needs to be improved. “

Is there anything else people should know about your work?

“I’ve been spending a lot of time investigating the ways the public work of the academy helps to strengthen democracy.  That’s helped me to see that things like extension, outreach, and engagement aren’t just “service” activities.  They aren’t just about helping communities and solving problems.  And they’re certainly not just about transferring information and technologies. At their best they are also avenues for pursuing and improving our teaching and our research.  They’re avenues for making better colleges and universities. This isn’t a theoretical hope.  It’s being demonstrated every day by civically-engaged faculty, staff, and students at Cornell and elsewhere, and has been for well over a hundred years.  One of the most important things I’ve been learning in my research is that engagement work absolutely depends on the development of strong public relationships between the academy and its various external publics.  My work is all about helping people to think deeper and better about what it takes to build and sustain these relationships in ways that strengthen democratic processes, principles, and ideals.”

Financial education: Behavior change is possible

One-third of U.S. adults report that they have no savings. More than a quarter of them admit to not paying their bills on time. And more than half of American households don’t have a budget.

Given these figures, it’s not surprising that more than 40 percent of U.S. adults would give themselves a grade of C, D, or F for their personal finance knowledge.  These figures come from the 2009 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey by HarrisInteractive, which surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. adults last year.

Given this dim view of personal finance in our nation, it’s clear that many households would benefit from programs that provide financial education.  But do these programs actually help families improve their financial situations?

A new study reveals the answer is yes. Two researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison pulled together evaluations from 41 financial education and counseling programs in a systematic review. Their article is published in the Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Affairs. They used a research process called a qualitative systematic literature review to summarize evaluations that measured financial education and counseling’s impacts on financial knowledge and behavior.

The majority of studies cited in their review conclude financial education and counseling are beneficial and hold the promise of improving financial knowledge and facilitating behavior change. But the study also notes that many of these evaluations share methodological weaknesses including selection bias and measurement issues.  Many of the programs also do not utilize an explicit theory or framework for behavior change, which would lend precision to both program development and the measurement of program impacts, the authors wrote.

They encourage researchers and educators who run these programs to pay more attention to theory-based evaluations and invest in randomized field experiments may be fruitful.

Here at Cornell Cooperative Extension, we offer classes to help families develop a household spending plan, save energy and reduce their energy bills and use credit wisely through a program called EmPower New York. The free workshops are offered in 46 counties and sponsored by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

EmPower is doing its  part to collect viable data on the programs’ effectiveness.  This year, they’re conducting phone surveys with the Survey Research Institute at Cornell to determine the extent of behavior change for those who’ve participated in the workshop.  They’re expecting results sometime in June.

PROSPER helps prevent substance abuse

Growing numbers of youth are experimenting with alcohol and drugs at younger ages.  Nearly a quarter of teens report having had five or more alcoholic drinks in one day, according to data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control.  More than one-third have used marijuana.

 There are hundreds of programs available across the country to help dissuade teens from going down the path of substance abuse. But what works?

PROSPER Partnerships – which stands for PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience – is a model that links Cooperative Extension, public schools, local communities and university researchers to introduce evidence-based programs that prevent substance abuse among middle school students and their families.

There are already PROSPER networks in Iowa, Pennsylvania and Alabama.  New York is lucky enough to be one of seven additional states in the process of forming a PROSPER Partnership with Cornell serving as the university partner.

That’s an exciting prospect for communities in New York. It means that families will have access to a menu of programs proven to work.

“There are many family and youth programs that are research-based, but that is not the same as having strong evidence behind them that the programs actually work,” explained Kim Kopko, an extension associate at Cornell’s Department of Policy Analysis, who is leading the PROSPER team at Cornell. “The programs on the PROSPER menu are evidence-based.  They are carefully implemented and tested on the ground level. They’re time intensive, and expensive, but they work.”

There are five elements that make the program successful:

  • A state-level partnership based in the land grant university system that is connected to the National PROSPER Network.
  • Strategic community teams lead by a local extension educator, a key school district employee  (typically a guidance counselor), and a variety of representatives from the community.
  • Every community team oversees the implementation of one family and one school program that they choose.
  • Community teams must move through a multi-phased developmental process focusing on long-term sustainability.
  • State partners provide on-going evaluation to ensure the program remains successful.

PROSPER has plenty of evidence to prove that their system yields results. PROSPER Programs typically recruit 17 percent of eligible families in their communities, compared to less than six percent for other community programs. 

Students who participate in the program are better at problem solving, more likely to refuse offers of alcohol and other drugs, less likely to believe that substance use has positive effects and more likely to delay initiation of substance use. And each $1 invested in the program yield about $9.60 of savings.

That’s good evidence-based practice at work, and a model that even more states should try to adopt.

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