This week, for the first time in 170 years, it’s not Fair Week in Carroll County, Ohio.

Anyone who cares about education should be concerned.

County fairs—and the tremendous organizations they represent—are crucial to youth learning. The learning lost this year must have been immense.

To the casual fair-goer, it may not quite seem so, on your hurried visit with your nine- and seven-year-olds, as you get them in the gate, on to just enough rides, fed with steak-on-a-stick and cotton candy, and carefully navigated past the carnival games and their hawkers, all while spending something under a hundred dollars and yet not appearing completely penurious.

Still, look first, seventy miles east of here, at an epicenter of the AI, driverless vehicle, machine learning, and robotics future. Look at the practices of a university—Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh—that searches the entire world for promising youth. At one of millions of stories showing the role county fairs play in youth development.

When Raj Reddy, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, offered me a college internship, it was definitely not for my academics. He needed the experience I’d gained creating projects for the Junior Fair competition. His robotic-arm research would help transform Ford and GM’s assembly lines. To test it, he needed the experience I’d gained—and the language I’d learned—as a member of 4-H.

County junior fairs are summative events of a year of learning for several youth programs, including 4-H, Scouts and FFA—the teen agricultural sciences organization whose initials stand for Future Farmers of America but that now welcomes those bound for other careers. FFA’s 8600 school-based chapters serve 700,000 high school students. FFA instructors are typically licensed district or vocational teachers. Often, FFA is the main path for “shop” and other vocational learning in mainstream district schools.

4-H today provides more than 6 million youth with curriculum-based learning, mentorship, small-group peer interaction, experience-based projects, and hands-on civics practice.

More than one in five U.S. children have been part of 4-H at some point. A year-round program, 4-H’s project components see the most activity when school lets out for summer. The county fair deadline pushes kids to complete their projects.

Where their parents may have done home-wiring circuits, model airplanes, and bread-making, today’s teens may gravitate toward coding, rockets, environmental analysis, yogurt dishes, and feta cheese dip projects. More than five million of the projects completed each year are science-based.

4-H clubs are usually run by parents. More than 500,000 volunteers make the program work. As an organization, 4-H is run through the nation’s land-grant universities and their cooperative extension services, which are agencies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Local 4-H county coordinators long held the position of professor at a land grant university. Because of this structure, 4-H says it is active in every county (or parish) in the U.S.

4-H was “personalized learning” and a “connected learning ecosystem” a hundred years before those terms became cool.

Education professionals should not doubt the academic nature of 4-H learning. The past decade has above all else shown us the importance of background knowledge in all school learning.

The 4-H and other fair-oriented programs build vocabulary and develop language in ways that can set youth on the path to productive careers, giving them advantages over other students or job applicants who don’t know the specialized terminology.

Just as formal high school classes do, 4-H’s carefully vetted curricula builds language in teens. Youth can choose from over 350 curriculum objects in eight main fields: Business & Citizenship, Creative Arts, Environment & Outdoor Science, Food & Healthy Living, Practical Living, Professional Development, STEM, and of course, Animal & Agricultural Science.

Entomology, mentor training, theatre arts, career readiness, woodworking, water conservation, and veterinary science are a few specific year-long projects.

The 4-H language development arc took me, way back in 1985, to significant work with the chief engineer at the Defense Advance Research Project Agency. Similar learning will boost today’s youth to an abundance of opportunities and global and local contributions.

Teens learn business, as testified by numerous local news articles this year lamenting the substantial loss of youth income from market animals and other projects (a pie might gain a youngster $500; a steer several thousand), normally auctioned at county and state fairs.

Even history is well represented in 4-H. As young people become more and more distant from the basics that sustain us, 4-H asks youth to not just read about those basics, but to directly engage them. Agriculture—raising food—is the obvious case, but consider this: One of the great intellectual achievements of history was Nikola Tesla’s introduction of the AC motor. Winding a motor coil and learning its language was one of many 4-H electric projects.

4-H has also instilled civics learning for generations. The civics and peer-networking components are not just fundamental to the 4-H educational mission; they are woven into its structure.

At monthly 4-H meetings, the language of parliamentary procedure is mastered at a young age. Robert’s rules of order and terms like “motion”, “second”, and “lay on the table” are all familiar ground to any 7th grader who’s been in 4-H. When as an adult, I served on a county board of commissioners, the language of “how to conduct public meetings” was already an ingrained-in-youth non-issue.

Habits of community involvement, too, come early to 4-H’ers. As young as eight they learn that old cemeteries, parks, the county fairgrounds, food distribution sites, and historic structures may all require care by citizen-volunteers. Visits to nursing homes, special needs youth facilities, and adult homes for the developmentally disabled are part of the learning.

For teens, curricular options include explicit study of principals of leadership. Older youth take leadership positions at the county level.

And at each meeting, members youngest to oldest recite the 4-H (head, heart, hands, health) pledge:

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.

If county fairs return next year, as I hope they will, they’ll once again epitomize the future of education.

Ed Jones designs high school for 2020 and beyond.

Last updated July 23, 2020