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Tuskegee University EXERTs its Influence on Alabama Youth Development

Tuskegee University has a long tradition of offering Youth Development programs in the Black Belt of Alabama that has prepared students for jobs, careers and leadership in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture, and Mathematics) related disciplines and in areas of service and leadership as well.  Three years ago, Tuskegee University Cooperative Extension (TUCE) began to make some significant personnel and programming shifts. 

As staff began to reimagine TUCE's role in the surrounding communities, the focus was on youth first, because of its role in shaping the future of the region. Many of the staff were able to draw on past experiences growing up in Tuskegee Youth Development and delivering Tuskegee Youth Development programs over the past decades. The result of this ideating is what has been dubbed as EXERT or Extension Education and Research Track. A program designed specifically to orient students to innovation and service associated opportunities for their personal and professional development. 

Family, Home and Youth Coordinator, Millicent Braxton explains, "We were focused on getting back to some of the substantive programs that we participated in growing up while closing a generational and cultural gap that we have seen lately." Ms. Braxton, a native of Lowndes County, Alabama and 4H participant growing up further states, "Agriculture is changing, and so is the world. We want to make sure that we are well ahead of that change and empowering our youth to be leading change in Alabama, the region, and the globe."

The program includes agent and educator engagement in the schools weekly, meeting with students to discuss character development and present topics in STEM, nutrition and obesity, as well as community development and personal finances.

One of the new pearls of EXERT is the yearly EXERT competition, a one-day event culminating in the application of STEM skills that some have gained through TUCE educators throughout the year. Extension educators/agents, and students (undergraduate and graduate) provide help and guidance when needed throughout the year to prepare students for the competition. At the competition (held during the Annual Farmers Conference), participants engage with scientists, extension professionals, and USDA professionals who act as judges. The competition has involved over 500 students and 11 schools in the past two years, and we anticipate its continued growth following the pandemic.

Another pearl activity is EXERT Camp. The EXERT Camp has been held each summer for the past three years and further establishes the hallmarks of character development, citizenship, and STEAM through team-building activities, agricultural/planting activities, hiking & tree identification, art, reading, writing and reflection, swimming, fishing and other recreational activities. Youth spend one week at this overnight camp in Hargis, AL with controlled exposure to screen time and virtual distractions while allowing time to build relationships and be physically active. The camp is delivered in two cohorts (rising 5-6 graders in week 1 and rising 7-8 graders in week 2) of roughly 50 youth per cohort.

Ms. Nyesa Gordon, a TUCE intern has been co-leading many programming efforts for the past two years while gaining her Master’s degree in Agricultural Education. Her contributions go back to her early days as an undergraduate at Tuskegee University, working with extension specialists and educators at schools and summer camps. She imagines that EXERT will help "create the next generation of change makers as they gain valuable skill sets that will allow them to shift the narrative in a changing world." 

As TUCE continues to stabilize its personnel and recruit young talent, the program continues to grow. Other traditional and new activities include a school gardening program in 4 of our 12 core counties, youth livestock shows, science fairs, and STEAM day camps for teachers that continue to be hallmarks of TUCE programming. Tuskegee looks forward to growing its relationship with National and Alabama 4H to continue to serve the next generation of leaders.

Special thanks are given to the leadership of Danielle Smith, Catrina Hoffman, Jasmine Ratliff, Terence Jackson, Janet Sullen, Marquess James, John Myers, George Hunter, Nyesa Gordon, and Millicent Braxton.