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Testing the waters

4-H'ers explore watershed science in Minnesota.

Extension 4-H's aquatic robotics project engages youth in math and science, encouraging them to solve scientific questions by designing and carrying out real experiments. First piloted in 2011, the project will expand to reach about 3,350 youth in 67 counties through 4-H after-school programs and camps.

The aquatics robotics project is part of Extension 4-H's effort to develop the next generation of scientists, engineers and technology leaders in Minnesota. A study of positive youth development by Tufts University shows that young people who participate in 4-H excel in school and the sciences. In fact, they are more likely to pursue a career in science, engineering or computer technology than their peers.

"We want kids to learn engineering, but also to have a hands-on experience applying their skills to something they can relate to—keeping Minnesota's lakes, rivers and streams healthy," says Extension educator Joe Courneya. "By providing these learning opportunities for Minnesota youth in science, we're building a foundation that could lead to careers available right in our own backyard."

4-H'ers collect and analyze water samples from Northwest Minnesota's Two Rivers, using aquatic robots they engineered.

4-H'ers learn how to build and program the Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV), and using an engineering approach, they explore how to adapt it to monitor water quality in local bodies of water. Standardized protocols and training methods are used to guide 4-H volunteers and youth in the gathering of water samples.

Megan Nyegaard, a member of Kittson County's 4-H aquatic robotics team, was trained to collect aquatic macroinvertebrate samples. Organisms that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye, macroinvertebrates are good indicators of water quality. But first the team had to figure out how to adapt their ROVs to collect the samples.

"We attached a PVC pipe to the ROV to scrape and stir up the bottom of the river so we could take samples at deep levels," says Megan. "Then we added a net to collect the macroinvertebrates. We did a lot of test runs. We had problems at first getting the ROV to be level and do what we wanted it to do, but we figured it out."

Did you know?

  • Young people who participate in 4-H are more likely to pursue a career in science, engineering or computer technology than their peers.
  • Girls who participate in 4-H are more than twice as likely to participate in science, engineering or computer technology programs than their peers.

Source: Tufts University, 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development

Partnerships make the aquatics robotics project possible in Minnesota. The U.S. Office of Naval Research provided its SeaPerch ROV to teach youth science, engineering and technology skills. Extension educators added the curriculum components related to watershed science.

Kittson County 4-H is also partnering with the Two Rivers Watershed District to guide 4-H'ers in the area's River Watch program. Students take monthly samples to test the water for ph, nitrates, dissolved oxygen and other indicators of the quality of the water and what can live in it. The samples are verified by a certified lab and results are reported to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

"These 4-H'ers are collecting real data that will be distributed for analysis and help us look at what waters are impaired," says Dan Money, Two Rivers Watershed District administrator. "This is very important work that wouldn't happen without Minnesota 4-H."

For more information, visit 4-H Aquatic Robotics.

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