4H participants take part in an educational event at UT Knoxville.

Each summer, sixth, seventh and eighth graders eagerly travel to UT Knoxville, attend classes, learn about their projects, visit Dollywood, make lifelong friends and much more. But this summer, that was no longer possible to do in person. But with the creativity of 4-H state staff, specialists and volunteers, Academic Unconference was born and pulled off successfully.

“By the time these 4-H’ers are in middle school, they are learning heavy project content,” says Lori Gallimore, extension specialist with 4-H Youth Development. “Academic Conference has always been about 4-H’ers learning in-depth lessons about their project. We focused on capturing that learning component, just virtually.”

To track involvement, a points system called the “Bingo Card” was created for students to complete during and after the event. They could choose to do a demonstration on their project, join their local Honor Club, complete exercises taught in their project classes and much more.

“Each project group kept the key components of the conference, but they all varied,” Gallimore says. “Some started earlier in the day, some had more in-depth activities, some received demonstrations – it all varied. However, they all had meetings and assignments to complete each day.”

Normally, students complete part of the portfolio to qualify as one of the 160 total students to attend. But this year, that was no longer part of the application process. If a student wanted to go, there was no financial or physical barriers. This year, 372 4-H members attended and participated in the event.

Of the 372 students, 85 project leadership activities were completed, 90 4-H’ers applied to be in their local Honor Club, and 90 young people completed project-related citizenship and service learning activities.

Staff and leaders hope that the experience of Academic Unconference and the exposure to 4-H left students with a brighter time during the pandemic. There is no easy way to tell, but it is hoped that more students are brought to 4-H because of it.

“Every one of our leaders, experts, and donors was very supportive and heavily promoted Tennessee 4-H,” Gallimore says. “I think it will be a couple of years before we see the whole outcome of how this event went and impacted everything as a whole, but we are certainly counting it as a success.”

– By Hannah Nave Lewis