Extension and Outreach: Takin’ it to the streets and fields

Amy Kohmetscher
Newsletter Issue: 
January 2017

Master Gardner class participants working in garden
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners were recognized for their citizen science project studying biochar as a soil amendment.

On the streets, in the fields, and online, CenUSA Bioenergy’s extension and outreach collaborators delivered programming and educational materials critical to the CenUSA Bioenergy mission.

According to Jill Euken, Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute Deputy Director and CenUSA Co-Project Director, “The mission of the extension team was to help farmers and others learn about growing and supplying perennial grasses for the biofuels/bioproducts industry and about potential markets that may develop for the grasses. Our educational efforts helped farmers evaluate whether grasses might work in their operations once a market develops.”

Accomplishing this mission required efforts from 33 collaborators from seven universities. 

Citizen Science, the practice of scientific work conducted by interested volunteers under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions, comprised a large portion of the hands-on learning experiences provided through extension and outreach. Using this model amplified impact by combining the need for on-farm demonstrations, biochar garden research plots and other hands-on learning opportunities for producers and Extension Master Gardeners.

Extension and outreach professionals and farmers in Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska established 9 on-farm demonstration sites. Farmers participating in these programs established plots, collected data, and shared information with others at field days. Extension agents organized the field days, tours of plots, and informational meetings which eventually reached over 2,250 agricultural producers, consultants, and agricultural industry leaders.

University of Minnesota Extension and outreach professionals and Extension Master Gardener volunteers established five Biochar Research and Demonstration Garden sites studying biochar (a co-product of pyrolyzing biomass for energy production) as a soil amendment. Over 7,000 people visited these sites through tours, educational programs, and exhibits. The citizen science project was honored with a Search for Excellence Award at the 2015 International Master Gardener Conference.  In addition, University of Minnesota Extension plans to submit a report to the Journal of Extension containing both technical data collected from the biochar research gardens, and impact data from Citizen Science and outreach activities hosted.

To further leverage impact from face to face events and Citizen Science programs, an online extension team developed a portfolio of online educational materials. The team produced more than 50 publications, including decision support tools, fact sheets, research summaries, and videos. These materials are available at eXtension.org, the CenUSA web site, and CenUSA’s video sites (https://vimeo.com/cenusabioenergy and https://www.youtube.com/user/CenusaBioenergy). These educational materials will help industry leaders, and Extension and outreach professionals move rapidly to produce perennial grasses as a market for them becomes more widely available.

Two groups of extension collaborators focused specifically on youth outreach programming. Purdue University Extension and Outreach professionals created interactive electronic lessons and established demonstration plots of perennial grasses for STEM career events, reaching over 900 high school students. 

Faculty and student interns at Iowa State University combined forces to create an app titled C6BioFarm. In addition to the app, the C6 team developed supporting curricula and an iBook to form a robust suite of STEM materials targeted at a middle school aged youth audience. These materials are currently available online to teachers, and other youth mentors such as 4-H and FFA leaders at http://www.extension.iastate.edu/4h/content/c6-biofarm. C6BioFarm underwent two pilot tests reaching 350 and 330 youth/adults respectively.

“The main purpose of C6BioFarm is to help connect the idea that fuels can be made from renewables and to help increase options for agriculture,” said Jay Staker, Director of Extension Science, Engineering and Technology at Iowa State University and a member of CenUSA’s Outreach and Extension team. “The sub purpose is to help people better understand agriculture production with STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] careers and the economy.”

Education efforts by extension and outreach were not without challenges. Euken said, “The greatest challenge faced by the CenUSA extension and outreach team was the lack of an established market for perennial grasses. Without this, it was not possible (in fact, unethical) for team members to encourage farmers to transition acres to production of perennial grasses.”

The extension team overcame this challenge by focusing on creating interest for a potential market, and creating awareness, knowledge, and skills that can be deployed as soon as the market develops. The easily accessible educational materials generated will help industry leaders, and Extension and outreach professionals move rapidly to produce perennial grasses once a market for them becomes available.

The entire set of resources developed throughout the grant can be found at cenusa.iastate.edu and at eXtension