As a Panhandle native with a family background of educators, Nathan Rice became the extension educator in 4-H Youth Development for the Nebraska Extension based out of Scottsbluff three years ago.
Rice considered being a math teacher but was encouraged by his teachers to follow a college path in engineering at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Eventually, he narrowed his focus in math and science down to the vague field of biological systems engineering and was surprised to discover he excelled. After completing his bachelor’s degree, Rice said he wasn’t quite ready to enter the workforce and he found an opportunity to be a part of a unique master’s degree thesis program.
“I had the opportunity to take part in a million-dollar NSF (National Science Foundation) grant to develop an agricultural video game,” Rice said. “That’s what my master’s project option was. So that was a blast and pretty cool since I had always loved video games.”
He said being part of the design team for the project allowed him to delve back into his initial plans for becoming a teacher and to get back to his roots in agriculture since that was the purpose for the video game. Rice said the project was also a way for him to merge his engineering skills with teaching and he found himself being the team member who did education outreach with advisers within the Nebraska Extension program.
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“It was just kind of random the way advisers had half their appointments in engineering and half appointments with extension,” Rice said. “And so, I got introduced into the world of extension through them.”
Once his master’s degree in biological systems engineering was complete, it was fortuitous for Rice when three extension educator roles were opening in the Panhandle. His adviser team recognized his talent and guided Rice through a hiring freeze that would ultimately lead to opportunities in western Nebraska.
“I interviewed for all three actually and never thought I would have a chance (at the Scottsbluff position),” he said. “But it turns out I did, so I was super excited to come back to my home county.”
He said he was excited to take a role as an extension educator because of the vast amount of teaching opportunities the 4-H program offers. Rice explained that through 4-H, there are traditional programs that are the same across all locations, yet there is another aspect that continues during the school year that educators get to choose what they want to emphasize. The 4-H program aims to educate youth on six fronts: healthy living; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); agricultural literacy; leadership development; entrepreneurship; and career and college readiness.
“The thing I love about extension education is the flexibility,” Rice said. “They’re not expecting us to teach and become experts on all six of those areas. We can hit on topic needs for our community, but we can emphasize one area and really become a leader in that one across the state.”
It comes as no surprise that Rice focuses on highlighting STEM education throughout the Panhandle and virtually across Nebraska. His first STEM Club was at Geil Elementary School in Gering, which is still active, and he also hosts a STEM Mentors program that allows teaching via Zoom across Nebraska as well as STEM World that reaches the accountability counties in the Panhandle. Rice is also an integral part of Inventure Day, area science fairs and robotics clubs, to name just a very few of his many projects.
He described the position: “It’s kind of limitless what we can do, but you can’t unless you know what the options are and gain the trust of the educators that are out there.”
Rice said he is excited when he gets to teach youth, and the level of enthusiasm he brings to groups of kids is infectious. To avoid going a little stir crazy behind the desk, he tries to get out of the office to teach at least three to four times a week in different locations.
“The more engaging of a project I can create for them, the more excited I get,” Rice said. “I love challenges, I have always been a competitor and so I love developing projects where they can actually compete.”
One successful program that fosters his competitive nature is the robotics club’s participation in FIRST LEGO League contests, which has been successful both on the competition front and also with the number of youth involved in the program.
“Nathan engages the kids in a way that a lot of people can’t, about material that a lot of people don’t get excited about,” fellow robotics club coach Pam DeVos said. “He’s got this ability to get kids really excited about coding and programing. He engages them in a way that a lot of people cannot and he just does a really great job.”
Rice said that through the many extension education programs active throughout the year, on average in Scotts Bluff County, the 4-H education program will reach 3,000 youth every year which is roughly half of the youth in the county.
Nicole Heldt is a reporter with the Star-Herald, covering agriculture. She can be reached at 308-632-9044 or by email at [email protected].