Posts Tagged ‘education’

Defining and Designing Experience

February 26th, 2015

We often say we want people to not only gain information from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, but also have an“experience.” When someone makes this comment in a meeting, we all nod our heads in agreement. As I was driving back from eastern Iowa last week, I did what I often do, and started wondering about the stuff we all nod our heads about.

What do we mean when we say we want people to have an experience? What kind? Who gets to have it?  Who is defining the experience? Do we all mean the same thing when we say experience? I looked it up, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation. (See for starters.) So I did a little reading. Brian Solis, an expert in branding, says we are in a new era of marketing and service, “in which your brand is defined by those who experience it.” Solis argues that no one engages with a company or organization hoping for ordinary. Everyone is seeking a remarkable experience.

I think the future of our organization lies in shared experiences. However, do we have a responsibility to plan those experiences, or is whatever our clients experience by default good enough? We have to consider what these experiences involve, because our clients will tell their friends not only about what they learn, but also about what they actually experience. Do their experiences align with expectations of the ISU Extension and Outreach brand or are there gaps? How do we create and deliver meaningful and shareable experiences to ensure that more Iowans engage with us? What are we asking people to align with if we haven’t defined the experience? What do we want them to be part of?

When Iowans are having an experience with Extension and Outreach, it should be clear to them that they are engaging with Iowa State University. There should be no question that they are receiving research-based education. They should readily understand that we are their lifelong partner as they seek personal and professional satisfaction and success for their communities.  We provide education and deliver experiences; both are equally important. We need to define and design the experiences with as much thought and effort as we define and design the education so Iowans will engage with ISU Extension and Outreach as lifelong partners. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Partnerships , , ,

Law of Least Effort

November 20th, 2014

This week, I was considering some of our programs and I found myself wondering: When we need to get new information, how do we find it? A whole bunch of ideas came to me (after all, I do work in education). However, I decided to spend a day noting how I, as well as the people around me, sought and obtained new information. Here’s what I discovered. Most of the time, we ask whoever is handy. I’m serious. Take my daughter for example, who is in physics this semester. She asked me for clarification on a problem she was working on with her homework. Was it my reputation for being a physics wiz that compelled her to seek my help? Nope. I happened to be in the kitchen at the moment she had a question.

According to Daniel Kahneman, and a slew of other brain scientists, a general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.

This law or principle is a broad theory that covers fields from biology to Web page design. We are like water; we choose the path of least resistance. Research has shown that information-seeking clients will tend to use the most convenient search method, in the least exacting mode available. Information seeking stops as soon as MINIMALLY ACCEPTABLE results are found, in most cases. In other words, seekers will use tools that are most familiar and easiest to use to find results, even if the results only meet the minimum of what they need. Or like my daughter demonstrated, humans are more likely to ask the person sitting next to them – who may know very little – than to consult a specialist a block away as long as the person sitting next to them gives an answer within a basic threshold of acceptability. Hmmm. This has implications for our work.

Much of this research has been used in library science to redesign search tools, but it’s also shaped Web design and educational methodology. That got me wondering if in Extension and Outreach we have kept up with how information seekers want to access information. How have we adapted to make it easy, convenient, and handy to get information from us? Fifty years ago, “convenient and handy” was a physical location; how about today? Clearly, we believe we provide both information and an experience for our citizens, but if we don’t modify systems to address how humans seek information, will they seek us out for the experience? Essentially, how do we ensure we’re “handy” when our citizens are seeking information? See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Communication ,

Strength to Your Sword Arms

September 18th, 2014

Earlier in my career, I had the good fortune to work with a mentor who had a long and distinguished extension career. He frequently reminded me that our work is a social enterprise, meaning we seek to achieve our educational goals through social, cultural, community, economic, or environmental outcomes. An equally important component of social enterprise is the involvement of the marginalized, thus creating capacity and self-sufficiency for individuals, and impacting their communities.

I was reminded of this the other night, as our north central region leadership gathered in Fargo, ND, and heard a recounting of our history leading up to the passage of the Smith-Lever Act. I was struck by the energetic personalities and the passion of ideas that shaped our early history. I’m also impressed that they persisted and didn’t get mired in the “what” and “how” and forget to turn it into action. As part of our discussions, there was some reflection on the role Extension has had in supporting our democracy. I perked up at that point, and I hope you do as well, because as we’ve rolled along for 100 and some years, we may sometimes get comfortable and forget that our work isn’t just for those who already know us and love our programs — it’s about trying to be in the shoes of any of our citizens and trying to engage them with the resources of our university.

This is where leadership comes into play; not just any leadership, but transformational leadership – the kind of stuff that moves a collection of ideas to significance. This type of leadership is hard. It is partly fueled by the “what” and “how,” but there’s the ingredient that kicks leadership up, that goes beyond its single components: and that’s the “why.”

My mentor used to remind me of this concept and would point out that the why was truly our strength in Extension – our sword arm, if you will. The why is what unites all of us. It’s what we all found so easy to agree upon at our Leadership Summit and again at this year’s annual conference.  (Take another look at the annual conference report.) There is ample evidence demonstrating that all it takes is the joint effort of a group of passionate people to create momentum for the future. Strength to your sword arms. See you there.

— Cathann

Leadership , , ,


November 22nd, 2013

DNA is a double helix, two strands that curve beautifully around each other. Both strands are essential to determining an individual’s genetic makeup. Organizations have DNA too, in a sense — basic building blocks that determine what they will be and how they will operate.  In my view, education is central to our Extension and Outreach DNA. Iowans believe in education as a way to solve today’s problems and build toward the future. It’s why there’s a school house on our state quarter: our state is committed to education. Not every state shares this commitment, but it is central to the character of Iowa.

Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter calls it Iowa’s shared responsibility. In his recent Des Moines Register opinion piece he said our universities have the responsibility to provide world-class education. State government has a responsibility to financially support the universities. Students and parents have to plan for higher education and the financial obligations that come with it. The Board of Regents has to make sure our public universities remain accessible and affordable for future generations. (And ISU recently was ranked #1 on the A-List.)

In Extension and Outreach, providing access to education is our responsibility. This strand of our DNA connects to an equally important second strand: the belief that we do our work through our diverse and meaningful partnerships. We work in communities, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder with the people who live there, dealing with issues confronting our partners at the local level.  President Rastetter said that we all have to “assume our responsibilities and embrace all efforts to make our good programs great and our great universities exceptional.” But it won’t happen unless we’re willing to make tough decisions and implement change.

When I need to make a decision about allocating resources or strategic planning, or when I’m trying to figure out what’s the best direction for Extension and Outreach going forward, the components of our DNA are always driving decisions. Does a particular program help us work in the local community more effectively? Does it help us deliver high quality educational opportunities to our citizens? I encourage you to ask these questions as you make decisions in your particular role. If you understand the two parts of our DNA, you understand a whole lot about Extension and Outreach and sharing responsibility for education in Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

change, Partnerships , , ,

A Few Essential Ingredients

May 9th, 2013

If you are on a campus this time of year, you start thinking about graduation — all the ceremonies, the pomp, the proud and happy parents. In sitting through commencement ceremonies, I’ve noticed that a lot of advice is freely dispensed. The advice usually is about being bold, accepting change, and going forth to do good things. I always like hearing that advice. It’s a fitting message, because I believe education is all about helping us to take risks and succeed.

Part of the objective of education is to impart facts and knowledge. But our world is changing so rapidly that the set of facts we can learn today will not be enough. Our greatest challenge is to develop skills to enlarge upon that small set of facts; to learn how to think and reason so that in the future we can easily add to our knowledge base. All of us will encounter situations that our knowledge may not directly prepare us to handle. Without the ability to find the answers, to think through to a unique and different solution, it will be difficult to succeed.

A wonderful quote by Eric Hoffer speaks to this: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

I believe Extension and Outreach creates capacity and opportunity for citizens to be learners. I believe we attempt to cultivate a few essential ingredients in ourselves and those around us: an open mind and a lifelong desire to learn and grow, a thirst for accomplishment that is not fueled by greed or ego, a curiosity about the world, and a desire to make a difference. See you there.

— Cathann

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Just the Facts

September 13th, 2012

My daughter, Wren, enjoys the fun facts found on the inside of drink lids or on some of her favorite websites. She loves to regale me with such nuggets as, “On average, wherever you are, there is a spider within eight feet of you,”[1] and “Kangaroos cannot walk backwards.”[2] While mostly useless, some of them are rather intriguing. On occasion, she has read a fact that I have found bizarre: “Slugs have four noses,”[3] or “Horseshoe crab blood has probably saved your life.”[4]  We’ll be in the car, heading to some activity, and she’ll throw one out. We’ll mull it over and then move on to our activity. An hour later, I typically won’t remember whatever the fun fact was, except maybe that spider one. The reason?  Context. Without context or some framework to help make them meaningful, facts can’t translate into knowledge; they remain data.

Saunya Peterson, who identifies herself as a professional communicator, argues that story often gets lost when you present facts without context. Her example: “Young girl is mysteriously transported to a strange land where she kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” Peterson summarizes that while these are the facts of the Wizard of Oz, it is decidedly not the story.

John Kotter, a Harvard Business School Professor agrees. He argues that having more data often is less persuasive. It’s easy to get into a recitation of facts. It’s getting easier and easier to find them, like on drink lids. But it’s not just facts our constituents want — they are swimming in them. They want usable information or education within a meaningful context. Let’s not forget that in Extension and Outreach, we pull together the content derived from research, accumulated field experiences, and relevant principles to provide citizens with independent, impartial information, and through partnerships, the useful context. See you there.

— Cathann

[1] While it is debatable, from a mathematical perspective it’s possible unless you are floating in the middle of the ocean — at which point, you probably have other issues to worry about more than spiders.
[2] True. They cannot walk or hop backwards. But why would they want to?
[3] True. Although, calling them “noses” may be stretching it, they do have four pneumostomes, which are holes they breathe through (and which they can close).
[4] True. Horseshoe crab blood is used to test drugs from endotoxins. If you have ever had a tetanus shot, a flu shot, or any kind of shot, it was likely tested with horseshoe crab blood.

Public value, Quality , , , , ,

In the Trenches – The Very Hot, Dry Trenches

July 26th, 2012

This summer has not necessarily gone the way most of us might have envisioned it back in the spring.  You remember spring?  When temperatures hovered in the 70’s?  Craig Hill, President of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, says they planned this past week’s Agriculture Economic Summit with the idea that we’d be talking about a bumper crop of corn and managing prices.  As Harrison, Clinton, and Muscatine counties planned their 100th anniversary celebrations, I’m guessing they weren’t expecting the temperature to match or surpass the number of years of county extension work being celebrated.  And on a personal note, I can tell you that I had other plans for the funds I’m now paying for repairing my old AC unit and keeping up with my electric bills.

As Sherry Glenn and I traveled across the state in the last couple of weeks, we heard a lot about the impact of the summer’s weather on our friends and neighbors.  All of us in Extension and Outreach are attempting to respond as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Extension and Outreach has been steadily assisting Iowans as they deal with this year’s drought conditions.

•    Joel DeJong reported that more than 250 people attended an emergency meeting that ISU Extension and Outreach organized in Le Mars on July 19 to receive updates on crop production, livestock feeding, and crop insurance from extension specialists and government crop programs from Farm Service Agency personnel. That same day in Davis County more than 60 people came to another emergency meeting, bringing their questions on chopping corn, baling soybeans, grazing cover crops, and more. Mark Carlton noted that the meeting had not even been advertised – clients heard through word of mouth. Extension field specialists are holding additional local meetings in stressed areas throughout the state. This year’s farmland leasing meetings are covering drought issues as well.

•    At least 11 locations hosted the July 20 webinar covering fruit, vegetable, lawn, and tree issues. The archived sessions are linked from the Dealing with Drought Web page, Thirty-six sites hosted the crop and livestock issues webinar on July 25. The archived segments from that webinar also are linked from the drought Web page.

•    Questions and answers from the webinars as well as answers to other frequently asked questions received from clients will be added to the Dealing with Drought Web page. Check the page frequently for resources to help Iowans deal with drought and other natural disasters. Iowans will find materials related to crops, livestock, dealing with stress, home and yard, financial concerns, and tips for businesses.

•    Lee County Extension Council member Steve Newberry and his wife, Linda Newberry, hosted U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack and FSA Executive Director John Whitaker on Saturday, July 21, for a tour of parched fields. See for a story from The Hawk Eye.

ANR Extension hotlines, Families Answer Line and Iowa Concern hotline are responding to calls and emails on drought related issues.  The Iowa Concern Hotline is available 24/7 to provide assistance.

Our Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) is scanning communities to determine water rationing policies and potential impacts on manufacturers.

We’re reaching out to Georgia Tech and Texas A&M, both partner institutions and requesting materials which were useful during their droughts and which may have utility in Iowa.

Faced with a situation that demands leadership, Extension and Outreach faculty and staff are ready.  We bring our mission to educate and our unwavering belief that education best prepares our citizens to recognize change is inevitable and that there will always be challenges.  An educational perspective allows us to see the opportunities and benefits in taking risks and learning from past mistakes.  It encourages us to constantly reflect on our actions and beliefs and think about the results and consequences of each and it best prepares us to make good decisions for the future.  See you there.


P.S. You can share your comments about this message on the blog, at

Attitude, Public value ,

Facing House Rock

June 7th, 2012

Last fall, Doug Steele, director of extension at Montana State University, shared this story during the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) annual meeting.  I thought it was relevant for our work and asked Doug if I could share it.

If you have ever had the pleasure of rafting the Gallatin River in Montana, then you know that there is a bend in the river that is the location of “House Rock.”  House Rock is appropriately named, because it is bigger than a house, and is great peril for rafters. Right before the curve in which House Rock resides, there is a calming straight of water that requires little paddling where one can enjoy the passing scenery. It is during this brief intermission that the rafting guide will warn you and your boating companions that House Rock is just around the corner.  The guide will tell your group that you have three choices:

1. You can operate independently of each other and surely hit the rock, which may send some of your party overboard.

2. You can paddle with all your strength and might, but not work together, and end up in the internal vortex that swirls around House Rock, waiting for someone to rescue you.

3. You can work together as a team, paddling together, following directions, and striving for the same goal — to successfully navigate around House Rock.

In terms of ISU Extension and Outreach, let’s choose to work together to face upcoming challenges, realizing that we all have a vested interest in our mutual success. Let’s welcome opportunities to carry forth research, educational programming, and engagement with Iowa State in all the counties. Let’s ensure that ISU Extension and Outreach will be relevant, viable, and necessary for years to come. Let’s face our House Rock together. See you there.

 — Cathann

Attitude , , , , ,

The House that Abe Built

May 17th, 2012

“This is the horse and the hound and the horn
That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn
That woke the priest all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.”
— Excerpt from “The House that Jack Built,” at

I don’t know if you read this nursery rhyme as a child, but I always liked it.  The rhythm is fun to read aloud and somewhere in the middle, it becomes clear that the house that Jack built involves a lot more than just Jack. Instead, it’s about all the connections in the house.

One hundred fifty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation to create the U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 15, 1862. Our nation was at war, but Congress and our President realized the need to transform American agriculture and, barely two months later on July 2, to transform American education — when the Morrill Act became law, establishing the land-grant university system.

In his speech to Congress, President Lincoln said USDA was created “for the immediate benefit of our most valuable citizens” and that the department would become “the fruitful source of advantage to all our people.” Upon signing the Morrill Act, he said, “The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people, who have invested in these public universities their hopes, their support, and their confidence.”

Together USDA and land-grant institutions across the country provide a firm foundation for educating our people and putting research into action. You might call it the house that Abe built — but as with Jack, this house really isn’t about Abe either. It’s about the connections, the partnerships that have flourished because of these two actions set in motion 150 years ago. From People’s Gardens to MyPlate, from conservation to biopreferred, our partnerships today continue to have far-reaching impacts on quality of life.

This summer the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the national Mall in Washington, D.C., will celebrate USDA’s heritage as well as our land-grant legacy. Demonstrations, discussions, and hands-on activities — including an exhibit from Iowa State featuring a partnership between Extension and Outreach and the College of Design— will show how we provide access to education and put research into action for agriculture and food, health care, sustainable living, and urban and rural revitalization.  The exhibit will also travel back from D.C. and be featured at the Iowa State Fair.

About that house that Abe built: We owe it to Abe and the rest of the congressional construction crew to take good care of the partnership they entrusted to us. But it takes more than light maintenance — it takes a lot of time, planning and hard work. It takes envisioning what our citizens will need in the next 150 years to ensure the result will last far into the future. See you there.

— Cathann

Land-grant mission, Partnerships , , , ,

High Quality Programs

April 13th, 2012

For years, those of us working in Extension and Outreach have hung our hats on being able to tout our programs as “high quality.” We’ve typically defined that as research-based, unbiased, and relevant. Essentially, our programs do what they are supposed to do: provide research-based education and extend the resources of Iowa State University to our state.

What we haven’t kept up with is the proliferation of quality. Think about the last time your car broke down. It happens so seldom to most of us that we find it surprising, which is a lot different than my first car, a Chevy Vega that habitually left me stranded on the side of the road.

Why does this matter? Because the proliferation of quality across educational organizations, across private or nonprofit companies, across even the Internet means that our claim to quality is not so unique anymore. If I can get quality knowledge from here or there, how do I choose? Most of us would go with convenience, and let’s not forget — cheapest.

What this means is that we no longer get to sail along on quality, but have to dig deeper to understand what other criteria our constituents want and will seek out. We have to talk about convenience, cost, responsiveness, connectedness, and new — all while maintaining quality.

Our streamlining of Extension and Outreach Administration includes a functional unit for Program Leadership. This unit will guide our efforts in educational program development. A team, with John Lawrence as temporary lead, is developing plans to carry out what we began during our leadership summit. We’re going to be digging deeper.

This functional unit will

  • Clarify and lead a system-wide program development process, including a system to identify emerging and current needs. 
  • Focus citizens’ advisory efforts at the programmatic level.
  • Create guidelines and criteria for successful program partnerships.
  • Strengthen connections to campus units and departments to enhance the outreach function of ISU colleges.
  • Increase cross-program interaction and coordination.
  • Improve connections between researchers and ISU Extension and Outreach faculty and staff.
  • Create and implement a professional development plan for ISU and county personnel on content and research associated with ISU Extension and Outreach educational programs. 
  • Identify and monitor the impacts and quality of programs.

We have to spend some time reconsidering the components of our high quality programs and recognizing that the components might be different, depending on the program or the audience. In other words, we have to redefine quality. See you there.

— Cathann

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