OSU Extension’s online help center answers 2,600 questions in first nine months

December 8, 2011
Ask an Expert logo
Look for the Ask an Expert logo on your local OSU Extension website. (Design by Erik Simmons.)

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Since its launch in late March, the Oregon State University Extension Service's online help center has answered more than 2,600 questions about everything from how to sanitize birdhouses to how to make compost with manure.

The online service, called Ask an Expert, allows people to email questions and photos relating to any of OSU Extension's subject areas. These include gardening, food, agriculture, forestry, coastal and watershed issues, parenting, nutrition, community development and 4-H youth programs. The service can be accessed from the Ask an Expert website.

The questions, in general, have reflected seasonal concerns, said Jeff Hino, the coordinator for Ask an Expert. Food safety questions were frequent during the summer and early fall as home cooks asked about recipes, pressure canners and pH levels. As winter closes in, more people have been asking about lawn care and pruning.

The system works like this: Nine people sort the queries by topic and forward them to the appropriate expert. These experts, 130 of them, come from a pool of people comprised of OSU faculty and a few Extension-trained Master Gardener volunteers. They respond via email, usually within two business days.

The following are some of the questions Ask an Expert has answered:

  • I have black moths flying all over my house. What are they?
  • We are in farm forest area near Mt. Hood and would like to remove some trees on our property. How do we find a reputable logger to help us?
  • I am looking for information on aging after 65.
  • I made too much pumpkin pie filling with raw eggs. Can I freeze it to use later?
  • How can I get rid of moles in my backyard?
  • I am looking for a 4-H program for my daughter and her dog. Do you have a show dog group around Beaverton?

One of the more urgent questions concerned a person who was feeling ill after eating unidentified wild berries from a yard. The person had not called a poison control center, which was the expert's first piece of advice. The expert also provided a guide to common poisonous berries, to not only help identify what plant was to blame but to help avoid other bad berries in the future.

This kind of experience demonstrates how the help center can be more useful than a search engine, Hino said. "If you go to a search engine, you get a bunch of links," he said. "If you go to Ask an Expert, you get an answer."

Because of the popularity of Ask an Expert, OSU Extension's website now highlights a specific query and answer on its homepage each week, featuring questions that are timely and of interest to a broad audience. For example, a recent one from Washington County asked, "Do oak leaves make good mulch? I have heard they are too high in acid or something."

"The OSU Extension Service has always been about answering questions," Hino said. "This new system is a powerful and effective way for us to provide science-based information. It's really opening the door to a broader use of Extension."

Author: Rachel Beck
Source: Jeff Hino