Wanna check out the real sweet stuff at the Minnesota State Fair? Then forgo that deep-fried Snickers bar and head for the 4-H Building.

Sprawled throughout the ancient edifice's walls are hundreds of handmade posters crafted by thoughtful teens. They cover a vast array of topics: Dachau and deer-hunting stands, bullies and Bullwinkle, famine and family trees. Some are timely (hydraulic fracturing, concussions), others timeless (equality in America, a tooth-decay experiment involving chicken bones). Some are poignant, others plucky, almost all of them personal.

"They are as varied as kids are," said 4-H communications manager Wendy Huckaby. "God love 'em, this is science, and science is not supposed to be tidy."

This being the State Fair, the 4-H youngsters are competing for ribbons being awarded this week. But the program's primary point is to have students concoct and create a themed tri-fold poster; if it edifies and perhaps entertains the hordes at Minnesota's Great Get-Together, all the better.

Displays created by 4-H kids have been part of the fair since 1902. Brad Rugg, superintendant of the fair's 4-H program, said the posters and three-dimensional displays "merge some of the new ways of learning with the old ways of learning. So we have a new power go-kart in the entryway and all the oldies but goodies around the walls.

"We've always brought in something visual, like food prep and gardens," he added. "But the way kids learn is by using their minds."

Since many of these youngsters grow up on farms, it's no surprise that animals are a particularly popular topic. The headlines on livestock diseases alone are worth the trip: "Scrapie the Silent Killer," "Hemorrhagic Bowel Syndrome," "Wry Neck aka Torticollis" and "Bloat in Goats."

Having a blast with the past

Adults and educators provide some guidance on these yearlong projects, but they primarily are self-directed. Occasionally they will emanate from a school project, like Justice Erickson's striking "Family Tree" poster depicting dozens of forebears on leaves in several shades of green, plus the life story of her great-grandmother Pearl Clarice Bjerk.

"Pearl was 18 when she married Emil Ormquist in 1925. She didn't mind getting married when she was 18 because that's just how it was back then," Erickson writes. "She had a good long life and was very pleased in herself. She touched people's hearts throughout her life."

Erickson, 14, of Marshall County, started her research for a U.S. history class assignment, "and I just made it all fancy and did extra work." She got to connect with distant relatives and found a booklet Bjerk had written on her life. Above all, she learned to appreciate her own life.

"I'm glad I live in this day and time," she said. "It's easier to get around and you get a little more freedom to do what you want, instead of all the girls do this work and all the men do that work."

Keeping it in the family

Austin Moe's work also brought a strong kinship connection to "Agriculture: It's What Makes Our World Go 'Round." The spirited defense of his family's livelihood was prompted by encounters with negative comments about farming.

"Sometimes you'll hear kids saying bad things," said Moe, of Crow Wing, "or see YouTube videos saying agriculture is bad and mistreats animals. I want to teach the public that we care about what we do and about our animals."

Most of Moe's previous 4-H projects had been centered around dairy or beef cattle -- his family has 80 head and owns 200 acres of farmland -- so this was a natural progression as the 17-year-old approaches adulthood.

When asked what single idea he hoped to convey, Moe said "that we are 100 percent committed to bring people good, wholesome, nutritional products, and that we do care about the environment and that we're good stewards of the land."

Equally ardent, but with a touch more levity, is Jessie Juene- mann's look at northeast Minnesota's declining moose population. The 14-year-old Two Harbors High student combined her own observations, her parents' profession (both are biologists) and her love for both the animals ("watching them swim is just cool") and a certain venerable cartoon to come up with "How Will Bullwinkle Survive?"

"When I was a little kid and we went camping, they would come up to the tent," Jeune-mann said. "Now you don't see them as often." The reasons, her groundwork showed, include "people are putting in more cabins, and the deer come in and give them brain worms and liver flukes. And also climate change."

She still spots the occasional moose as well as its famous animated companion. "We have flying squirrels come in and hit our bird feeders."

Helping others and ourselves

Sometimes the personal ties are even stronger than enjoying the wild kingdom around us. Indeed, animalistic behavior by classmates prompted Sevilla Good, of Mora, to tackle the topic of bullying.

"I've been bullied since I was in seventh grade," said Good, 15, "so I wanted to let everyone know what it's like to be bullied. I've switched two schools because of bullying. They usually walk by and scream out something, and I've been bullied on Facebook."

Putting together the poster was cathartic, said Good, who has handed out pamphlets at the Kanabec County Fair and shared her own defense mechanisms. "I've learned just to not freak out and to not saying anything, 'cause when you say something, it makes everything worse," she said.

Now Good's 4-H project speaks for her.

Raquel Crow's labor of love speaks for Meeli, a friend with cerebral palsy. Crow, 12, of Burtrum, often babysits Meeli and became very interested in "how everything works" for someone with the disease. Her poster combines research with a personal writing touch: Meeli's leg braces "correct her legs so she doesn't walk on her tippy-toes."

Crow said that tackling such a topic was inspiring in many ways, to do something for Meeli and "to show myself that I can actually do it."

And that inspiration apparently will be long-lived. When asked what she wanted to be when she grows up, she quickly said, "I want to be a pediatric physical therapist. I enjoy seeing how I can help people like her."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643