UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At the recent 4-H STEM Symposium in Pittsburgh, more than 100 STEM youth educators and volunteers from across the nation gathered to collaborate, learn and generate new ideas for teaching science, technology, engineering and math. Ronak Suchindra, a 4-H STEM ambassador for Pennsylvania and native of Chester County, took the stage to share his perspective on 4-H and STEM.
Suchindra became involved in 4-H at age 8 through a robotics summer camp taught by 4-H educators with Penn State Extension. Now 15, Suchindra said 4-H helped him find an outlet for his passions. In addition to his position as a 4-H STEM ambassador, he serves as a 4-H computer science ambassador, participates in robotics competitions, mentors his sister’s robotics team and acts as treasurer of the Chester County 4-H teen council.
Suchindra’s presentation to the 4-H STEM Symposium took the form of a fireside chat. A moderator asked Suchindra about his 4-H story, his experience with STEM and how he thinks more kids can get involved. Suchindra discussed a nonprofit organization he founded during the pandemic called Kids Connect.
“When schools shut down and kids were without education and enrichment, I wanted to find a solution,” he said.
Using Zoom, Kids Connect allows older kids to teach younger children various STEM skills through coding, crafting, origami and other activities. Since its inception in March 2020, the learning platform has racked up more than 8,000 interaction hours with 3,000 students joining from around the world. An expansion into schools, libraries and other organizations is underway.
“This initiative not only engages youth in educational activities but also connects them with others who have similar passions, forming friendships,” Suchindra said. “If anyone is interested in participating in our workshops or volunteering to teach, we would love to have them on board.”
Toni Stuetz, 4-H extension educator in Chester County, has known Suchindra and his family for five years. “I’m proud of him,” she said. “He’s a freshman in high school — the things he does are unbelievable. And he’s very genuine. I wish we could clone him into a million kids.”
At the conference, Suchindra participated in workshops and met with 4-H educators from around the country. “Seeing their curriculum and ideas was really enlightening,” he said. “And it’s always great to be able to share my perspective on youth helping other youth in STEM.”
Suchindra attended a workshop about the use of digital technology in art. Another workshop looked at the role of drones in automating tasks. Suchindra was fascinated by how STEM can engage kids of many different interests — art, engineering, medicine. “All these different fields tie back to STEM,” he said.
Stuetz pointed out that 4-H encompasses more than the animal science element that often jumps to mind. “We’re more than raising and showing an animal,” she said.
4-H’ers can learn about computer coding, robotics, outer space, rockets and many other STEM topics. In Stuetz’s after-school 4-H STEM club, kids learn about kitchen chemistry and the science behind recipes.
“When we were cooking, they thought they were getting a day away from science, technology and math,” Stuetz said. “And I said, ‘Oh no, it’s all here!’”
Patty Anderson, area 4-H youth development educator, emphasized the importance of STEM to future careers. “These technologies are not going away,” she said. “Supporting these efforts are going to be very important in the big picture for all of us.”
The 4-H STEM ambassadorship is aimed at growing STEM opportunities around the state. Ambassadors promote STEM and share ideas for workshops.
“I saw the application for the STEM ambassadorship, and it aligned with what I believed in, which was empowering youth with STEM skills and giving them the tools and resources that they need to create their own future-ready workforce,” Suchindra said.
Currently, STEM ambassadors are preparing for this year’s National Science Challenge and working to develop programs around the state to help kids take on the challenge. When the topic is released in July, Anderson encourages students to reach out to the 4-H extension educators in their counties for more information and to start planning their projects.
“STEM really connects to everything,” Suchindra said. “You can connect STEM to the medical field. You can connect it to agriculture. You can connect it to aerospace. STEM is the future, so it’s important that we teach kids now.”
Administered in Pennsylvania by Penn State Extension, 4-H is a community of more than 6 million young people across America learning leadership, citizenship and life skills. Penn State Extension 4-H youth development educators in all 67 counties administer local 4-H programs through nonformal education and outreach. More information about Pennsylvania 4-H and local county programs is available on the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/
–Alexandra McLaughlin, Penn State University