BALTIMORE, MD -- While many students spent their summer vacations at the beach or playing video games, Baltimore City 4-H youth were teaching senior citizens in their community computer and internet skills.
Partnering with the Baltimore Department of Aging and the Department of Economic and Workforce Development (DEWD), Vernelle Mitchell-Hawkins, University of Maryland Extension 4-H educator in Baltimore County led eight 14-year-old freshmen through the Cyber-Seniors training and certification program, assisting them in becoming Certified Cyber-Senior Mentors.
“Cyber-Seniors is a standalone organization out of Canada that has turned into an international experience,” said Mitchell-Hawkins. “Our teen leaders decided they wanted to teach technology to seniors as a summer project to earn their service learning hours,” a requirement of Maryland schools to graduate.
The 4-H teens worked with the Department of Aging to conduct a needs assessment and determine the most useful topics to teach over the six-week course. They identified areas like internet security, online shopping, and navigating social media, and then created a curriculum to teach new users how to manage their information online.
“Older folks can be rooted into routines and may even fear participating in online activities like online banking and video calling,” Mitchell-Hawkins said. “But because of the pandemic, the Department of Aging found that many elderly people needed to learn these things because of travel limitations -- things they may have said they’d never do.”
The 4-H students created the full lesson plans, handout materials and cheat sheets, and were trained to assist seniors and answer their questions about online access and virtual information. “These kids are so patient and will answer every question, no matter how silly it seems,” Mitchell-Hawkins said. “Usually when we train teens to teach, they’re working with an even younger audience, so this is a novel dynamic with the teens teaching an older generation.”
The student endeavor was also supported through funding by the Department of Economic and Workforce Development (DEWD) Summer Youth Employment Program. “Overall, the Summer Youth Employment Program gives youth a substantial work-based learning experience,” said Kevin Armstrong, Youth Services Manager for DEWD. “Youth get to explore the top industries in Baltimore County, learn workplace standards, and begin to create networks that can help in future career goals.”
Indeed, the students will not only get service learning credit from this experience, they also retain their certification status and can continue teaching on their own through the Cyber-Seniors Program, allowing them to connect with other mentors and monitors internationally, and maintain their intergenerational work experience.
“Cyber-Seniors was such a valuable experience for youth because they gained an appreciation for individuals in another generation,” Armstrong said. “They learned how to communicate across generational gaps, gained experience with public speaking, learned to present to a group of customers, and gained valuable experience in virtual platforms -- all while earning a wage.”
To learn more about the Cyber-Seniors program, go to https://cyberseniors.org/. To learn more about how to get involved with Maryland 4-H, go to https://extension.umd.edu/programs/4-h-youth-development.