Adult 4-H volunteers use tech to make sure COVID doesn’t cancel competitions

When word came that the Kansas State Fair was canceled because of COVID-19 pandemic precautions, 4-H youth and their families across the state were heartbroken. What would this mean for their 4-H projects they’d worked on over the past year?

In a matter of days, though, an answer came from a dedicated group of 4-H alumni, adult volunteers and leaders—the competitions would go on, but in a slightly different manner.

Randy Doerksen, Hutchinson, and Tony Foster, Salina, Kansas, are two adult 4-H alumni who have worked for decades with the Kansas State 4-H Program. Doerksen, a music teacher and retired principal, can usually be found at the judge’s table at the fair each September. He said he judges men’s buymanship and the public speaking and demonstration competitions because it’s a way he can give back to a program that shaped him as a youth.

Foster, meanwhile, uses his skills in STEM to serve as a fair superintendent for the STEM projects, such as rocketry and computers. He said he works with Kansas 4-H because passing along knowledge to the next generation is really how he can help young people go further in life, much like others did for him when he was a member.

Both men knew that COVID-19 precautions would bring challenges to the Kansas State Fair competitions, from the livestock to the static exhibits, but neither could imagine just how big those challenges would be.

Foster said fortunately in 2019, the Kansas State Fair and the state 4-H program had actually been working on implementing changes that would make it easier for static exhibits to be judged.

“Things like requiring video for most of the project areas,” he explained. “We did that not knowing that we would have a COVID crisis on our hands.” It was that preparation that allowed the program to pivot to virtual judging relatively easily with the Fair Entry computer program. But there were still hurdles like making sure that the technology requirements for entry weren’t out of reach of many 4-Hers and their families, simplifying the process as best as possible, and re-evaluating judging criteria for the new virtual judging platform.

Each division at the Kansas State Fair made its own requirements, so Foster could only speak to the STEM categories, but he said that the goal was to go with the lowest common denominator for technology and access for all.

“We used PDFs for everything because everyone has some access to Adobe Acrobat on some device,” he said. Entrants then added photos of their projects and typed up descriptions for judges to evaluate.

Over in the demonstrations competition, Doerksen said he saw 4-Hers take to the new video format for entries with gusto.

“In some ways, the technology evened the playing field,” he said. The demonstrations and public speaking stage is located in a very busy part of the fairgrounds and that sort of buzzing traffic can distract some youth, he explained. The video presentations gave them a much more controlled atmosphere. And some were using the technology with added creativity.

“We had a young man who did his cooking demonstration in the kitchen,” Doerksen said. “Cooking in his kitchen made so much sense. I just thought ‘this is so cool!’”

Both men saw that there’s room for improvement on the entry and judging process for 2021’s Kansas State Fair, which both said they hope will be able to be back to an in-person format. But still, the new virtual entry platform has provided opportunities to broaden 4-H’s messaging beyond the State Fair grounds in Hutchinson, Kansas, and as close to home as a laptop device. Foster said the virtual aspect of 4-H project entries can possibly be harnessed in the future to expand the audience who can’t come to Hutchinson.

“I suspect when we return to a physical fair, we’ll still see exhibit pictures and descriptions loaded into the Fair Entry system, so grandparents and others who are out of state can look at them,” Foster said.

Doerksen said he misses the in-person judging because feedback can really help youth improve. And yet, he sees how this new format might allow 4-Hers living 4 hours or more away from Hutchinson participate in the Kansas State Fair and receive feedback on their projects that they might not otherwise receive.

“There’s a quote that I try to live my life by, and it’s ‘you never know quite the moment in a child’s life when you’ll make a difference for a lifetime,’” Doerksen said. As a judge and an adult 4-H volunteer, he said he thinks about those moments that shaped him when he was in 4-H and that’s why he volunteers with the program to this day.

COVID may have canceled the Kansas State Fair, but in the end, it couldn’t stop the 4-H program and its volunteers from providing opportunity for all.

Hear more from our interview with Doerksen and Foster in the HPJ Talk 10.12.20 episode below.

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Jennifer M. Latzke and Kylene Scott can be reached [email protected].