Master Gardener Blog

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OSU Master Gardener volunteers utilize objective, research-based information to diagnose plant problems and offer sustainable solutions. This blog will highlight scientific studies that may be of interest to OSU Master Gardeners (and others) who would like to know more about the art and science of home horticulture. Any opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of Oregon State University.
Updated: 15 hours 48 min ago

A Reply to Jeff Gillman's 'Some Thoughts on Extension'

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 4:25pm
Recently, Jeff Gillman penned a blog post entitled 'Some Thoughts on Extension', where he worked his way through three points.  These were:

  1. Extension is important.
  2. Extension is dying.
  3. Extension cannot be saved unless administrators make fundamental changes in the way things are done.
I have immense respect for Dr. Gillman.  He's a respected scholar, teacher, author and blogger.  He is, in many ways, the type of professional I aspire to be.  That being said, I do disagree with some parts of his post ~ something that he welcomed and invited in the original post.
To provide a context for my perspective, I wanted to briefly go over my professional experience and background.  I came to Extension as an outsider.  I accepted the position as the Statewide Coordinator of the Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener Program in 2007, without truly understanding what Extension was or what the Master Gardener Program was about.  From 2002-2007, I was an Assistant Professor of Biology at Fordham University in New York City, where I studied the ecology of insects in urban and suburban gardens. 
To this day, it amazes me that I was able to land the position at OSU.  I was not a gardener.  I thought that the term 'Master Gardener' was a term used to describe a journeyman union worker ~ like 'Master Electrician' or 'Master Plumber'.  I didn't know what I was walking into.
Perhaps that is why, as a relative outsider with only 8 years of experience in Extension, I view Extension as vital, thriving and innovative.  A cynic by nature, I don't believe that my view is tainted by rose colored glasses.
That being said, I wanted to take on points #2 and #3 from Jeff's post, and provide an alternative view.
Jeff's Point #2:  Extension is dying.  
  • Extension has failed to keep up with current communication trends.  You won't easily find us with internet searches.  Top 'hits' are reserved for retail big box stores and magazines.
  • Extension faculty aren't given credit for gathering and distributing research-based information.  Credit is primarily given for research papers and grant dollars.
My reply:  My position is in urban and community horticulture.  I am under constant pressure to reach as many people as possible and to utilize innovative methods to deliver educational content.   I work hard to make sure that our work in urban and community horticulture, and that our work via the Master Gardener Program, is accessible and apparent online.  I manage 4 websites and 2 social media accounts for the Program.
I don't have a marketing budget.  I don't have experience in marketing.  Heck ~ I don't even have help.  At the Statewide level, I'm a one-woman show.  And, I'm losing the marketing and media game.  The Facebook page I maintain for OSU Extension's Master Gardener Program has 2,932 'likes'.  The Facebook page for Scott's Lawn Care has 319,567 'likes'.
But, what I lack in quantity of interactions, I try my best to make up for with high quality educational exchanges.
On an annual basis, I teach about 30 classes to about 1,000 people.  Small numbers, in the large scheme of things.  But the outcomes of those classes are anything but trivial.  Those who take Master Gardener classes report that they have taken steps to attract beneficial insects into their garden (64%), are more tolerant of spiders in the garden (58%), planted a pest-resistant cultivar (71%), decreased or eliminated pesticide use (68%), disposed of a pesticide at a community hazardous waste removal event (54%), and are more tolerant of insect pests (58%) as a direct result of what they have learned in our classes.  Take that, search engine optimization winners!
Extension changes attitudes and behavior, while stores and companies make sales.  In this way, I don't think that I am competing with commercial retail operations for customers.  So I'm not the most popular kid on the internet (thank goodness!).  The internet will not kill Extension (despite repeated warnings to the contrary), in the same way that the internet has not killed the public library.
That being said, I do want to note that we have worked to reinvent ourselves.  In Oregon, we offer an online Master Gardener training option, as well as many other gardening courses, online.  We work directly with local and regional news outlets to reach the masses with research-based gardening tips. OSU Extension faculty experts have monthly gardening spots on local morning shows.  We blog.  We tweet.  We try to cover as much ground as possible, with the limited resources that we have.  And, I'm pretty proud say that we directly reach over 200,000 people each year, and conservatively estimate that we reach another 550,000 through our online and media outreach efforts.  Small potatoes ~ I'm sure ~ compared to some commercial firms . . . . but our numbers are focused on making a difference, rather than a sale.
Jeff's Point #3:  Extension cannot be saved unless administrators make fundamental changes in the way things are done.
Here, Jeff makes an argument that I hear all too often ~ administrators need to give credit, make promotions, and grant raises based upon the comprehensive portfolio of work done by Extension professionals.  Incentives need to place less weight on research and more weight on outreach.
At Oregon State, I feel that the work I do in the field (public outreach and education) is recognized and valued.  But, there is also the expectation that I will do more than teach the same three general topics, year after year.  I'm expected to innovate, grow and learn ~ and to pass on the information that I acquire to the general public.

And I've really tried to do this.  This word cloud was generated from my public talk titles.  Even though I'm an entomologist who has expertise in IPM, I've aggressively sought out information on pesticides, GMOs, invasive pests and weed control ~ because folks kept asking for more information on these topics.  I've acquired expertise in these areas by reading the scientific literature, participating in research projects, and talking to experts in the field.  
If you're still with me at this point, I know you're dying to know more about my expertise in insect sex.  I give a public lecture on just this very topic, in Portland, in March of 2015.  Catch it if you can.
My experience has been that efforts in public outreach and education are recognized by administrators ~ if you don't rest on your laurels, and continually work to learn and improve.
And, where research is sometimes characterized as a distraction in Extension ~ my experience has been that staying engaged in the research community (by writing grant proposals and research papers, attending and presenting at professional society conferences, taking the time to read the latest research in the scientific journals) makes me better as an Extension professional.  I LOVE it when I learn something new ~ through research or through the literature ~ that I can pass onto Master Gardeners and the general public.  
I 'live tweeted' my way through the Entomological Society of America Meetings  (#EntSoc14), where I also took pages worth of notes.  These latest research findings make their way into my public outreach and education events.
I spent the last two months working on two separate NSF grant proposals (that have a slim chance of getting funded).  But, the time I spent putting the proposals together have been fantastic.  I've had engaging conversations with potential collaborators ~ some of the top experts in urban land use, biodiversity, waste management, life cycle analysis ~ and I've been immersed in the literature on urban ecology and agriculture.  Once again, what I've gained through this time ~ even if the proposals are not funded ~ will make its way into my public outreach and education events.
So yes, my administrators will probably be a lot happier if I land big grants and write heavily cited research papers.  But they also understand what it is that I do, and they do their best to support my efforts.  And for that, I feel very blessed.
Just my two cents.
Categories: OSU Extension Blogs