Want to bring a hobby to the 4-H fair, but it doesn’t qualify as a traditional project? There’s a project for that.

4-H members like Max Harman bring activities like beekeeping and aquaponics to the fair as self-determined projects.

“It’s good to have a place to show off those unique things at the fair that don’t have a traditional place. I had a display hive where I could take a glass box of bees and honey that I could take to the fair,” Harman said, who will be a senior at Inman High School next year. “Everyone is interested in it when I’d take that display hive to the fair. Once you’re standing there looking at a beehive, it’s hard to tear your eyes away.”

The open format of self-determined projects allows 4-Hers to develop a plan around a hobby or topic of their choice and set their own goals.

Harman started in 4-H with an entomology project, which sparked his interest in beekeeping. He began working with a bee hive of his own in seventh grade, then adapted the hobby into a self-determined project for the next three years.

“When my (entomology project) collection got pretty full, beekeeping became an avenue to expand my project and take it past just a collection,” Harman explained. “I had mentors and people who helped me get started outside of that and they taught me what I needed to know to get going.”

This format of project can quickly grow to much more than just a fair entry. Harman’s experience with beekeeping was one element that contributed to his participation in the Ag Innovators Experience. The 4-H program selects 18 4-Hers from across Kansas to participate with a specific topic, which just happened to be right up Harman’s alley.

“The topic that year was about honey bees and pollination,” Harman laughed. “For the summer, we had a goal of sharing a presentation about bees and pollination to a minimum of 60 to 70 youth. I gave a lot of presentations at summer lunch programs and things like that. I added in my experiences as a beekeeper and it was a really cool, select experience. It gave me a great opportunity to share with a lot of people about beekeeping.”

Young people like Harman also benefit from self-led projects by building up skills that aren’t easily grown in the traditional classroom setting.

“I’ve developed a pretty big passion for public speaking and leadership and the roots of that started in 4-H and have come to fruit through more opportunities in 4-H and FFA,” Harman said. “These soft skills aren’t huge in public schools right now so 4-H and FFA are great places to learn those. I’m able to have a huge impact on my school and community through these projects and I’m not even out of high school.”

Adults working with 4-Hers are also glad to see young people gathering skills that will benefit them in the long run.

“Building youth who have inquiring minds and are willing to try new things is so important,” said Lindsey Friesen, 4-H youth and development coordinator for the McPherson County K-State Research and Extension office. “So many times, we see people who just push something aside if it doesn’t work out. This generation of youth asks ‘What else can we do? How can I adapt or recycle something?’ It’s a skill to learn by doing.”

Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at cderksen@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her on Twitter at @MacSentinel.