4-H youth become 'Disease Detectives' in statewide epidemiology project

Sep 16, 2020

What do 4-Hers do during a pandemic? California 4-H youth members decided to learn about disease outbreaks and transmission, public health investigations, personal practices to stay healthy, and much more. 

With the emergence of the coronavirus, 4-H in-person meetings had to be canceled, along with schools, sports and other youth development programs. Emerging research shows this gap of in-person socializing, disruption to routines, fear of the virus, and the loss of a sense of personal autonomy has led to an increase in social, emotional and mental health issues for teens. Over half of teens in a National 4-H Council/ Harris Poll stated that the pandemic has increased their feelings of loneliness, and 7 in 10 teens report struggling with their mental health. 

Additionally, the team witnessed that Californians were navigating confusing information about the best way to reduce the spread of the disease, with much misinformation being circulated. So the University of California 4-H Healthy Living Team decided to address these issues the best way they knew how, through education. 

Anne Iaccopucci, California 4-H Healthy Living coordinator; Dorina Espinoza, UC Cooperative Extension youth, families and communities advisor in Humboldt and Del Norte counties; and Marcel Horowitz,UCCE healthy youth, families and communities advisor inYolo County, adapted the CDC/4-H Junior Disease Detective: Operation Outbreak project for remote instruction.

The project focused on concepts of epidemiology and included eight sessions covering public health professions, disease investigation, virus transmission, disease outbreaks, vaccines, immunity, prevention (such as how protective actions like handwashing and wearing masks reduce spread) and education. Project sessions were adapted to be as interactive as possible using virtual delivery. 

Eighty-nine youth indicated an interest in participating, with more than 45 4-H members from 15 counties across the state enrolling and completing the Virtual UC 4-H Epidemiology Project. Project meeting materials were coordinated online at https://ucanr.edu/sites/DiseaseDetectives

True to the 4-H experiential learning framework, and to address the research showing that teens are currently experiencing high levels of loneliness, the Project Leaders intentionally created a learning environment that included interactive, fun, challenging and social activities to foster a sense of connection. At the beginning of each project session, youth worked on team-building activities. For example, youth participated in a mapping activity where they “pinned” their desired vacation destination and attempted to guess each other's location with a selected prop as a hint. This activity culminated with a discussion on how we serve as potential vectors of disease transmission. Also, youth learned about the benefits of wearing face masks with an activity where youth were challenged to blow a rolled up tissue from one to six feet away without a mask and then while wearing a mask. Their giggles did not mask the direct learning of how well a mask can contain one's breath.

When youth were asked “What part of this project was fun and engaging?” several responded, “When we did the activities in breakout rooms,” and “The activities at the beginning of the meetings.” This indicates that this dedicated time for talking with peers was a motivator and benefit of continued participation.

To foster healthy youth, families and communities, this project contributed to the UC ANR Condition Change of improved health for all. Specifically, youth adopted healthy lifestyles and decision-making practices and changed attitudes toward, and gained knowledge about, healthy practices.

After completing the UC 4-H Epidemiology Project, youth reported that they were more likely to wash their hands before food preparation (78.1%), after sneezing or coughing (56.2%), and after shopping in a public space (87.5%). The majority (84.4%) of youth also reported that they were more likely to wear a face mask when out in public, compared to before the project. When youth were asked what they learned from the project, one youth stated, “I learned why masks work, I learned how hand sanitizer works, and I learned how I can help my community.” 

Youth reported not only improved health behaviors for themselves, but also reported being leaders in the health of their communities. Many of the young participants (62.5%) reported that they can definitely help control the spread of diseases and 71.9% could envision themselves getting involved in their local community to help slow the spread of disease. Following project participation, over half of all participants picture themselves choosing a career in medicine, public health, veterinary sciences or epidemiology.

Participants of the UC 4-H Epidemiology Project have become advocates for health, with 75% reporting that they are discussing disease transmission and prevention with others. When asked what the best part of the project was, a participant stated, “The best part of the project was learning about how to protect myself and keep my family safe in these troubled times." Other youth stated that their favorite parts were “the interactive activities” and “making new friends.” Others responded to the question “What part of this project was fun and engaging?” with, “I enjoyed interacting with others and getting to collaborate on the final project,” and “discussing ideas with the group.” These indicate that learning reached beyond knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors and into youth development domains as well.

Interested in leading this project for youth 12 years and older in your community? Sixty leaders from throughout America have already been trained and 93% reported they would recommend it. 

Contact Anne Iaccopucci at amiaccopucci@ucanr.edu for information on how to get started. 




By Anne Iaccopucci
Author - 4-H Healthy Living Academic Coordinator II
By Marcel Horowitz
Author - Community Nutrition and Health Advisor
By Dorina M Espinoza
Author - Youth, Families and Communities Advisor