4-H Teens Teaching Digital Literacy to Help Close the Digital Divide, With Dr. Daniel Collins
4-H State Extension Specialist Dr. Daniel Collins joined the show to discuss how 4-H is training teenagers in Tennessee to help close the digital divide by teaching computer skills to adults. The teenagers will co-teach with other teenagers or 4-H agents to teach adults basic computer skills, such as internet safety, shopping online, or video calling.
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Intro: The following program is brought to you by the Tennessee Broadband Association. Lead Tennessee Radio – conversations with the leaders moving our state forward. We look at the issues shaping Tennessee’s future: rural development, public policy, broadband, healthcare and other topics impacting our communities.
Carrie Huckeby: Hello, I’m Carrie Huckeby, the executive director of the Tennessee Broadband Association. And in this episode of Lead Tennessee Radio, we’re talking to Dr. Daniel Collins, who is the state extension specialist in UT’s extension department at the University of Tennessee. Daniel’s specialties are STEM, 4-H camping and performing arts. Three areas that I know require creativity and some hard work, but sounds like a little bit of fun might be involved too. Daniel, I know your summer has been crazy busy as school is back in session, so I really appreciate you taking some time to join me this morning.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Absolutely. I appreciate the opportunity.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, tell us about your background, your history with 4-H and how long you’ve been the state extension specialist.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Well, I’ll tell you, I have a long history. I am a lifer. I started 4-H when I was five with my mom, who was a 4-H volunteer and a 4-H teacher in one of her schools. And so I’ve been going through the 4-H program. I went from being a participant to being a teen counselor to being an adult volunteer to then go on to college trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I had a life plan kind of figured out. But then my 4-H agent, who was a second mom to me, really pulled me in and took me to lunch and was like, “I need to talk to you about an opportunity that I think that you need to look at.” So I finished my bachelor’s at Emory & Henry College in Virginia, and then I pursued a master’s at Virginia Tech in extension, career and extension. And so then I moved into a role of being a 4-H agent for many years. I was in Grayson County, Virginia, for five years, in Smith County, Virginia for three. Then I went moved to North Carolina in Sampson County, North Carolina, where I was a 4-H agent there. And then I got the opportunity to go back to school, and then had the opportunity to work in the state 4-H office and work with the International Exchange Program through North Carolina 4-H, while I was working on my doctoral degree. So I most recently graduated in May with my doctoral degree in agriculture and leadership education, focusing on training and development. And now we’re here. I’ve been working at University of Tennessee now for about a year and a half. I’m about to cross that threshold. So it’s been very interesting and very exciting in the things that we’ve got going on in STEM, camping and performing arts.
Carrie Huckeby: Wow. That’s a really deep rooted history in 4-H, since you were five. I have found that it seems in many cases once you’re a 4-H’er, you’re always a 4-H’er. So you’re definitely proof of that. And you said you’ve been involved since you were five, but officially in the school system, do I remember correctly that students can get involved in 4-H around the fourth grade?
Dr. Daniel Collins: That’s correct. In Tennessee, we do fourth grade and up. In Virginia, we did a Clover Bud program, which was five to eight year olds. So that’s how I got to be involved a little bit with some after school opportunities that my mom had kind of started with another teacher at the school, and then we kind of move forward after that.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, I don’t remember a lot about school, but I do remember making that dairy poster for the 4-H project. And I remember making cornbread with my mom in the kitchen, you know, as part of another project. And, you know, those are really good memories. Once the students are in the program, what kind of experience do you work to provide to them in those early years, and what keeps them involved through their entire education?
Dr. Daniel Collins: Well, some of the focus that I have is, as we’ve mentioned a couple of times, the STEM and camp and performing arts, of course. But project work is really what keeps our kids involved. They get the opportunities to do public speaking. They get the opportunity to do a portfolio, an e-portfolio that’s submitted. So it’s actually a compilation of what they’ve done throughout the year, their experiences, their project work, and then they get the opportunity to send that in to be judged and to kind of. There’s monetary awards in some instances as well. So it just keeps, we just keep adding some things, and we keep adding more experiences that keeps them involved. You know, education is a very, very diverse thing now because we’ve got all sorts of competition out there for us. But we’re trying to keep it where we, you know, we’re research based, so we keep everything kind of pushed forward in that instance where everything’s aligned to Tennessee education standards and national standards as well.
Carrie Huckeby: Great. Well, the National 4-H Council, 4-H, the TNBA, we certainly have some things in common as we work to close the digital divide. And you also focus on broadband adoption, digital literacy. The 4-H Tech Changemakers and the STEM Ambassadors is one of the programs that does just that, focuses on those areas. Tell us about how that started and what the mission of the group is.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Well, one of the things that I was approached by a couple of different people, Sreedhar Upendram is a specialist within the institute at UT, and he actually is one of our national program leaders on this program. And so he kind of approached my boss, Mr. Justin Crowe, and kind of looked in my direction of, you know, he’s a STEM specialist. So let’s look at, you know, let’s look at some opportunities. And one of the big things that, I’ve been working in rural populations for a long time. And even when I went to North Carolina, it was very rural. And one of the big things that I feel growing up in a very Appalachian, very rural area myself, that there were opportunities that some people got that – well, I felt this way, we’ll say it that way. I felt this way that there were opportunities that others got by having that digital access, and by having that opportunity to have a computer that was not ten years old and was able to connect without dial up. So growing up in that aspect there, it was one of those that I struggled with because I was like, “All these people get to see all these things and have all these opportunities.” And it actually became a passion of mine to make sure that the kids that I was working with and the kids and the parents and the families that I was working with were able to be connected and see the things that we’re doing. So I had to do some extra steps. Working in Grayson County, Virginia, as a 4-H agent is actually making some phone calls. Even though they didn’t have the Internet, I was making phone calls. I was sending letters, which that was something that we did in the nineties when I was as a 4-H member, we got our letter, and we were like, “Oh yeah, we’re going to have a meeting.”
Dr. Daniel Collins: We’d have all these things. But now today’s age is really moved in that direction of people don’t have time to really sit down and make a phone call to individual families or to be able to do that when they’re trying to get the information out. Now, we do have some agents out there in our state that are still kind of doing the things that they need to do because of the limited access and the digital divide, as you had mentioned. But we also just kind of, I look around the fact that we still have a lot of Tennesseans that do not have that access. So being able to provide that through a 4-H program was a key goal for us. And so being able to show that youth can teach adults and youth can model the opportunities that they have. And I think one of the other things, too, is that the safety that goes along with the Internet and digital access is something that even my parents will call me. And we’ve had Internet there since I graduated college, but they’ll call me and say, “What? What is this? Why does this keep coming up?” Or, “What is this information?” So I became the technology guru of our family. So that’s really how that kind of played out there, too. But the passion really, it really shows through. And our agents and our teens, we’ve had a few [people] very interested in this information because of the fact that it is rural access plus urban areas as well.
Carrie Huckeby: Yes. And I think, you know, we all knew broadband was important, or broadband access was important before. But then the pandemic came along and just, you know, drove that point home.
Dr. Daniel Collins: That’s correct.
Carrie Huckeby: And so, I think all of us are working really hard in our state to make sure that everyone has access. And you hit on a point about being in Virginia, not having that access, and you felt like you were missing those opportunities to be connected out beyond your community or in your community. And last year, the National 4-H Council and the Harris Poll, they did put together a digital impact survey to look at those economic and social effects of broadband access on teens and the communities that they live in. And as I read through the survey, as I said, it supported what we’re all saying anyway, that broadband is a necessity for so many reasons. But what really jumped out at me is something you just said. Teens with no broadband or unreliable broadband connection are likely to stay within their community to look for work. And we’ve talked a lot about students that have broadband access, get to look at all these opportunities or they get to work from home. They get to find a job and find something that they can do at home and stay in the community they love but have access to other careers. So I was a little taken aback by this because I hadn’t realized that not having a broadband connection, that you feel like you’re very limited, that you maybe just have to stay in your community to look for work. So, touch on that a little bit.
Dr. Daniel Collins: So, I’ll just give you a personal example of the fact that my ambition was to go to a local college. I was going to be a teacher. I was going to be a coach at my home high school, just because it was one of those, at that time, I had never really experienced outside of southwestern Virginia. And it was one of those that because I didn’t even have a cell phone at that time. So imagine people are like, “Oh, my gosh, cell phones.” I didn’t have one until it was almost college. And I was going to be going away and doing some different things and traveling quite a bit. So my parents decided that it was time for me to have one. And I’ve had one since with the same phone number, which most people are like, “you have the same phone number that you had the very beginning?” I said, “Yes, I have.”
Carrie Huckeby: Hey, me too.
Dr. Daniel Collins: See, it’s one of those, but it’s a rarity, I guess, because some people are like, “Oh my gosh, how do you, you know, maybe you needed to get like..” If people need to get a hold of me, there’s no excuse of that. They have my cell phone number.
Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, me too.
Dr. Daniel Collins: But that whole part there of speaking to the limited access. So I just finished my dissertation, and it was focused in rural Appalachia. And one of the biggest things that came from that research was the outmigration of, you know, like, they call the term “brain drain” is what they call it. And when we send our brightest and smartest and things of that nature who are traits, who have knowledge in those trades, and they found out that there are more opportunities outside of there to make money, to start a family, to get more type of assistance if they need it. It’s outside of the region. And that was one of the big things that when I started working in the region, because I had already experienced travel and being able to go to other places at that time in college. And I was like, you know, I want to show these kids that, yes, we do live in a great area of Virginia, but there are also some opportunities out there as well. So I started doing some some teen programing where I would take them on trips and expose them to other cultures and to give them an idea of what our nation’s capital looked like, you know. So there were a lot of things that kind of motivated me with that. And it really boils down to that digital access, I believe.
Carrie Huckeby: I think you’re right, too, because whether they choose to stay in their community or they choose to go, we want them to have the tools that they need to make that decision.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Absolutely.
Carrie Huckeby: Yeah. You don’t want them to be forced to make a decision because they’re doing without that knowledge. Was were there any other “aha moments” from that survey findings that you were surprised by, or anything that just confirmed what you believed?
Dr. Daniel Collins: Everything, to be very honest, because I read through that as well and looking into the information of that because people are like, you do know that they did this. And I was like, obviously, I did not know that because it was something that I kind of had gotten word about but didn’t know completely about. But once I did look at it, and focus on the fact that. We are hitting a very big opportunity for our 4-H’ers right now and for our volunteers and our agents as well for this program. But that really just kind of justified it for me. When I was looking through this survey, it was just like, yes, I grew up that way. I know exactly what you’re talking about. And it was just one of those things that I kept talking through my head as I was reading through those is, “Wow, this is amazing that they actually have some empirical evidence to be able to prove that.”
Carrie Huckeby: Yes, I read through it. And I think, as we’ve said before, there were things in there we knew, and it just reaffirmed what we believe. But I sent it over to Pioneer, my account manager, and I said, this is fantastic data. You know, we should use this to educate everyone and in our social media post and get it out there. You know, it may be a best kept secret, but it’s great information.
Dr. Daniel Collins: I love that.
Carrie Huckeby: The TNBA Marketing Committee had the opportunity to visit UT and to be there. And we also, a couple of years – well I guess it’s been three years ago, pre-COVID – that we attended Round Up that event.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Oh yeah.
Carrie Huckeby: Yeah we had a great time. But the last time we were up there, you shared some great news about the National 4-H Council and a grant that you will be receiving for the digital literacy. Tell us about that: how you plan to use that and what good that will do.
Dr. Daniel Collins: So the grant is a one year grant. It’s called the 4-H Tech Changemakers Grant. And it is the availability of funds for us to train and develop teenagers, our training teams of teens, to go out into their communities and train adults. Now, it can be a range from 18 to 99 and training them. But training them in STEM concepts to kind of break that digital divide is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to build that digital access. So we’ve also got some funding to be able to purchase some materials and some training opportunities to be able to give out to our offices and our trainers to go out into their communities and actually show individuals how to use digital concepts. And that could range from netiquette to just basic computer skills. We have a lot, and I know this for a fact, we have a lot in Knox County, and Knox County is one of the… And I live in Knox County now, but I know that there is quite a bit of urban parts of Knox County, but there are really a lot of rural parts of Knox County that still have populations that do not use Internet very well or very much because one out of fear, two out of access, because there’s still some limited access around the area.
Dr. Daniel Collins: And three, most of them just think, you know, I read my newspaper. I read the things that I have to have to get my news. I don’t really need to need the Internet, but we’re hoping to build on some horizons of you’ve got opportunities to check out things at the grocery store before you even make a trip to the grocery store. You can check out things at a department store that kind of even shop online and be safe about that. And so we’re trying to open those opportunities for those individuals, and I use Knox County as an example. But we’re trying to do that in all 95 counties throughout the state. So we’re opening this up to, we started it out with 20 trainers, but I feel like we’re going to have a few more than that when it comes to our teen opportunities, because we pay to train them. We pay for them to get out there and do those lessons and do those opportunities to get out there and really hopefully close that STEM gap and close that digital divide.
Carrie Huckeby: So you did say that you hope to have it in all 95 counties.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Yes. It’s an opportunity. I mean. It’s an opportunity for everybody in all 95 counties. We’ll say it that way. Now will we have all 95 counties the first year, probably not. But our attempt is to have as big as a spread as we can when it comes to this opportunity.
Carrie Huckeby: Okay. So you’ve got 20 trainers. Will those trainers go into each county and train 4-H students to go out and work with anyone for between 18 and 99? Or how is that going to work in each county?
Dr. Daniel Collins: That’s a great question. So the trainers are actually the teens. So the teens will take, we’ll put them. We have a curriculum that we do with training and development. I’m working with a couple of other of our state specialists to get this training done. But we’re going to train these trainers who are the teens, and it’s kind of a train the trainer type thing. They’re going to go out, and they’re then going to either teach individually with their agent or team teach with their agent, or team teach with another team, and go out and do some of these digital access curricula. So what we’re working with is, we’re working with another part of a grant through Sreedhar, which Sreedhar has been very instrumental in a few things for us and developing some very great digital access curriculum, and it’s focused toward adults. So what we have to do is, we have to train these teens because normally teens are really, they’re focused on working with younger 4-H members.
Carrie Huckeby: Right.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Now, we’re going the other direction. So we’re having to train them how to work with adults. And so that’s one thing that as a teen, I worked with adults very well because I had adult volunteers. We had a very big adult volunteer base in my home county. And so I learned that difference. You know, fourth graders is a lot different than 37 year olds. So we’re working on getting that information together to put a great training together so they can go out and be those STEM ambassadors for this program.
Carrie Huckeby: So I live here in Warren County. And our extension office is here. And so how will you find those adults for the teens to work with? How will you, will you go to the local senior center? Will you advertise it, market it and have people sign up? Or how will you find those students?
Dr. Daniel Collins: It’s a great question. So what we’re going to be doing is we’re going to be working on community action plans. So the way that we’re going to be working with that is, you know, we may take them by a region. We may take them by an area. We’re not really sure exactly because we’re still working out some of those kinks. But in developing, you know, who can you ask? Can you go to the library? Can you go to churches? Can you go to Ruritan or Kiwanis? Can you go to certain things and be able to say, “Hey, we have this opportunity. We would love to bring it and share it with you.” And that’s another thing that I think as a teen I would have appreciated to be able to learn how to identify who to reach out to and how to reach out to them. And so we’re hopefully going to be able to teach them how to identify those individuals, our groups, and how to work with them to get something planned, where to go to, those type things. Because I wish that I had been told earlier before I became a 4-H agent that, you know, the worst somebody can say is no. I mean, really. So that’s one of those things that, you know, most of the time when you attach a 4-H name to something, people are like, oh, yeah, I would really love to know more about that. But the impact, I think, is going to be the biggest difference there too, because we’ve got some really exciting lessons for them to work with.
Carrie Huckeby: Yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity. I know that I’m in between that 18 and 99 age group, and last night I’m trying to clear my browsing history or clean out the cookies and things on my computer. And I was struggling with it. So, you know, I know the training’s more basic with virus protection and just how to use FaceTime or Zoom or things like that, but what a great opportunity for the students to work with that demographic of the community. And, you know, just such a great learning experience for both.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Well, I think it’s going to be an opportunity for them to understand that technology for that older crowd has completely evolved for this younger crowd. And that’s how, I mean, just looking at the opportunities, like when I first had a cell phone. It didn’t have Internet capability. It was just a cell phone. And then text messaging came along, and then the Internet kind of connected to it. And now we have apps that do a lot of stuff for us. So that’s the whole thing that I’m excited about. For them to see and understand that this has evolved a lot. Like I think that they see that it’s evolved, but actually experiencing it is going to be a total different experience though too.
Carrie Huckeby: Right. They’ve been raised with technology where someone like myself remembers back in the early nineties when we were saying, “What’s this Internet thing again?”
Dr. Daniel Collins: Yes.
Carrie Huckeby: You know, and then we’ve just had to keep up – and try to keep up – with the technology as it’s gone along. Where it just comes natural to them.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Yeah, it’s unreal how the difference of that, too.
Carrie Huckeby: Yes. Fantastic. So after the year, this grant is for one year?
Dr. Daniel Collins: That’s correct.
Carrie Huckeby: Will the program go on after that one year or will you be trying to find other ways to finance the program?
Dr. Daniel Collins: It’s a great question. So this is a grant available every year.
Carrie Huckeby: Okay.
Dr. Daniel Collins: And so now, funding changes and funders change. But this is something that they feel is very important for National 4-H Council, and we feel it’s very important in Tennessee 4-H. So we’re going to continue, our plans are to continue this program for many, many years.
Carrie Huckeby: That’s great. It sounds like too good of a thing to let it end after one year.
Dr. Daniel Collins: I agree with you.
Carrie Huckeby: Fantastic.
Dr. Daniel Collins: I definitely agree with you on that.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, I think we’ve said this to you before too. Many of the TNBA members, you know, we cover about a little over 30% of the state. And so if there’s anything that we can do to be of help with this program, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask. We love to…
Dr. Daniel Collins: I will definitely be doing an ask. I’m just going to let you know that right now.
Carrie Huckeby: All right. Fantastic. I mean, we’re all after the same thing is, you know, doing better for our communities and reaching those people that that need broadband access, for sure.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Absolutely.
Carrie Huckeby: So, Daniel, as we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to add about the 4-H program, or just what you love about what you do every day?
Dr. Daniel Collins: I tell you what I love about what I do every day is the “aha moments” that kids and volunteers and even our agents get, especially when it comes to a concept of what we’re talking about. And I’ll just use, for example, this. We have a STEM Steering Committee, 4-H STEM Steering Committee, made of agents and regional program leaders now and a couple of specialists. But this is. We are in a very technology driven era right now. And to be able to hand something or to share something with a kid with a professional, whatever, and them say, “Oh, wow.” That’s what I get up out of the bed every day for. And so I love being able to share that as a specialist. Camp is the same way. Performing arts is the same way, but STEM is really one of those that there’s a lot of impact out there right now, and we are really gaining some leeway when it comes to our STEM programing. I’m hoping to grow this program statewide even more. Digital access is very important, but there’s other parts of STEM that I want to really focus on as well. We’ve developed a partnership with the College of Engineering on UT’s campus, and we’re doing some outreach and grant writing with them. We’re doing some other work with some other departments right now to hopefully get some more collaboration going on as well. So we’ve got some exciting things coming down the pipe for us in STEM. And I’m hoping that we can keep moving forward and not get set back in it.
Carrie Huckeby: Well, you’re certainly doing some great things that matter and make a difference for sure. So I thank you for all you do Daniel.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Well, thank you so much. I love this opportunity. Hopefully, we can do this again after, and I can have some kids and some agents be a part of this after we get kind of started. But I would love to be able to highlight what they’re doing as well.
Carrie Huckeby: That’s a great idea. I love that.
Dr. Daniel Collins: Yes.
Carrie Huckeby: So my guest has been Dr. Daniel Collins, who is the state extension specialist with the University of Tennessee. And you’ve been listening to Lee Tennessee Radio, produced by the Tennessee Broadband Association, cooperative and independent companies connecting our state’s rural communities and beyond with world class broadband.