Iowa State Ag Ed Graduate Creates Resources for Youth Leadership, Entrepreneurship

August 10th, 2020

by Ann Y. Robinson

Who knew playing with blocks could help build leadership skills?

That concept is the foundation of a new resource, created by Haley Jones, Iowa 4-H Youth Development Specialist. Jones saw the need for additional youth leadership programming when she was a 4-H county youth coordinator in Union County, Iowa.

‘Yes, you can’

Jones says she loved working with high schoolers, but “saw many kids who lacked confidence in themselves and their abilities. They just didn’t think of themselves as leaders. I was always encouraging them, saying, ‘Yes, you can.’”

Leadership, defined as activities that improve the skills, abilities and confidence of leaders, has long been a national priority of 4-H. “Even so,” Jones said, “I saw the need for more focused skill-building in that area that would be engaging and easy for staff and leaders to present.”

She also saw the need for ways to encourage youth to stay involved longer in 4-H, to take better advantage of organizational leadership opportunities that come with more advanced involvement, such as participating in State 4-H Council or a national conference to Washington, D.C.

She points to 4-H data that show approximately 100,000 youth took part in some type of Iowa 4-H programming in 2018. However, only one-third participated in traditional, year-round 4-H clubs. Most were involved through one-time events or short-term experiences like day camps where they may miss out on leadership programs.

This was part of the picture Jones took with her as she pursued a master’s degree in Agricultural Education and Studies at Iowa State University.

While there, she decided to focus on creating a new leadership resource. In the process, she researched experiential learning models and leadership development models. She also surveyed 4-H field and county staff across the state to ask what tools they thought would be most helpful to integrate leadership into their programs. They told her they needed easy, active lessons that could be used as a series or as stand-alone projects for workshops or other settings.

“The ideas came out of experience, and the research and surveys backed it up and helped me flesh out the details,” Jones says.

Blocks, a brainstorm

Haley Jones, Iowa 4-H youth development specialist, talks to a young fair-goer checking out an activity idea from the new Building Blocks of Leadership 4-H resource. (Photo taken at the Iowa State Fair, 2019.) 

Her brainstorm was to create the lessons around blocks. The idea came from several years coaching LEGO League to 4-H’ers from kindergarten through eighth grade.

“Both the kids and volunteer coaches enjoyed learning with blocks, no matter their age or ability level,” she says. “It was eye-opening to me to see just how creative the youth could get while solving and accomplishing very diverse types of assignments.”  

Using building blocks as the focus had practical benefits too, Jones says. They work well as a flexible “package” for leaders that is low-cost, easy to transport and maintain, and easily adapted to group work. Also, colorful blocks, which many people played with during childhood, hint at creativity and fun.

Thus, the concept of “Building Blocks of Leadership” was born, incorporating the 4-H experiential model of “Do, Reflect, Apply.” For each lesson, participants break into small teams to tackle challenges like collaborating to create an animal or building different types of structures. All the activities require problem-solving and communication, and come with handouts that encourage discussion.  

The lessons have since been piloted with middle and high school students and 4-H groups across Iowa. Jones says she made sure the lessons also align with Iowa Core Standards for educators.

The first version was released in fall 2019. The final version of the facilitator’s guide for the program has just been published on the Iowa State University Extension Store website  as a free download, with five short, activity-based lessons:

  • What is a leader?
  • Learning your strengths,
  • Communication is key,
  • Advocating for your ideas, and
  • Thinking outside the box.

Jennifer Zamora, Latino Outreach Coordinator for 4-H in Muscatine County, Iowa, has tried out the lessons. “Many of the young people I work with struggle to list their strengths,” Zamora says. “I found that these activities empowered our students, helping them identify their strengths in different areas and encouraging them to continue to work on their skills.”

“Leadership plays a role in everything we do,” Jones says. “There are so many benefits to nurturing these skills in our youth, including boosting their self-confidence and helping them become more competent citizens ready to contribute to their workplaces and communities. One program is just a small part in this, but I think it can help.”   

“Haley’s new 4-H project is a great example of how research and experience can come together with positive results,” says Michael Retallick, professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural Education and Studies, and one of Jones’ advisors for her master’s program. “This type of practical outcome and its impact on youth development really models the goals we have for our students.”

Building Blocks sequel

The Building Blocks curriculum will soon become a series, with entrepreneurship as its next focus. Jones is already at work on a new set of five mini-lessons that will support 4-Hers through the steps of planning, financing and marketing their creative ideas. The last lesson encourages them to find their mentors, to provide support and encouragement.

“The goal is to help youth develop and use these skills at school, at home and in their communities. Who knows, their ideas might turn into careers and new businesses,” Jones said. “But there are many ways to use these concepts.”

“Iowa 4-H could use more resources in this area, where there is a lot of interest right now” she said. “Like the Building Blocks of Leadership, this new project is meant to be fun for members while also helping them develop practical skills and self-confidence that can contribute to their long-term success in school and in life.”


Haley Jones grew up Spencer, Iowa, and lives in Ames. She tries to model the leadership she encourages in others through activities like serving as an advisor to Iowa State’s Collegiate 4-H Club and Dairy Science Club and as this year’s special events chair for the Iowa Young Professionals in Agriculture. She has a master's degree ('18, agricultural education) and a bachelor's degree ('12, dairy science, minor in journalism and communication) from Iowa State University.