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Clay County 4-H'ers build robots and STEM skills to combat aquatic invasive species

Each spring the Minnesota 4-H Foundation distributes grants to 4-H clubs who want to make a difference in their community. We will be featuring one grantee every month this year to celebrate all the wonderful ways Minnesota 4-H'ers are living out the 4-H Pledge. Our May featured grantee wanted to explore aquatic invasive species in their own backyards. We hope you enjoy their story.

Five years ago, Clay County, Minnesota gained an invaluable resource: the Clay County Aquatic Robotics 4-H group, supported by a generous donation from Glyndon Farms Co. This 4-H club began as a STEM-focused group setting out to learn about local environmental issues. In 2015, they were awarded a Helping Hands Grant to research aquatic invasive species in their local bodies of water.

Aquatic invasive species, or AIS, are prevalent statewide. These species include animals and plants, such as the zebra mussel or brittle naiad, and compete with native species for space and resources in Minnesota waters. Detection of these species makes it possible to begin combating them, but can be difficult. Up for the challenge are the Clay County Aquatic Robotics 4-H’ers, who have built remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to investigate waters and detect these dangerous species.

Last year, the Clay County Aquatic Robotics team had members with as many as four years of experience on the project as well as new members for the season. Adult partners helped to facilitate, but the youth directed the ever-evolving project, and were involved in the entire process from brainstorming ideas to hands-on construction of the ROVs to the field work of data collection. 

With funding from the Helping Hands Grant, the group was able further their ROV designs, even fitting them with cameras to improve their data collection. Connected to the camera systems were a DVR for recording footage and a GPS unit for location of found species.  By setting out at various lakes, the 4-H’ers were able to successfully detect zebra mussels using the underwater cameras. 

Away from the water, the Clay County Aquatic Robotics 4-H Club got a chance to present at the 2015 Minnesota State Fair regarding their project. They have also presented to the Clay County Commissioners and to a national convention of educators at the Sea Life Aquarium at the Mall of America. The club has goals to increase membership for the next year, when then plan to equip the ROVs to pull plankton nets in order to get samples of zebra mussel larvae.

Enjoying their outdoor learning environment and a growing awareness about the importance of conservation are only parts of the good this 4-H club brings to its county, state, and world. The Clay County Aquatic Robotics 4-H Club is part of creating a solution to a real-world problem in their home county and throughout Minnesota.

Interested in what else 4-H’ers can create to shape their world? The Minnesota 4-H Foundation provides Helping Hands Grants to diverse 4-H projects that youth design to make an impact on their communities. To learn more about these grants, please visit

By Madeleine Miller
Minnesota 4-H Foundation

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