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Stay Curious

A few weeks ago Lyn Brodersen, our assistant vice president for Organizational Development, welcomed junior high and high school students who’d come to campus for the State Science and Technology Fair of Iowa. Here’s an excerpt from her remarks.

Continue exploring science as you prepare for your career. The basic principles of scientific investigation — experimentation, shaping hypotheses, testing theories — are the foundation for formal education and the world of work. When I was your age, I was fascinated by botany, biology, math, and languages. Those topics encouraged me, as a college student, to engage in history and education, and to share the knowledge I had found with those around me. I explored literature, philosophy, and political science as well. Ultimately, the thing that bound these differing interests together was curiosity.

What changed for me along the way? The complexity of the problems with which I grappled. The culture and habits of the people around whom I lived. The context with which I approached issues and problems. What never changed? The fact that I was curious. I never wanted to stop hypothesizing, experimenting, proving, learning, and sharing. Because the one thing that no one can ever take away from you is your education. The ability to think, share, create, imagine, talk with other people, and solve problems for the benefit of all is a gift of infinite value.

Take advantage of your interest in science. Make it apply to other interests as well. Don’t stop experimenting, learning, and creating. Don’t stop sharing your dreams and approaches with others. And, above all, maintain your curiosity about our world for the rest of your life.

Lyn’s advice is appropriate for all of us. We should always believe in our ability to learn – and stay curious. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Remember to use #STRONGIOWA and share your stories on Twitter.

What We Really Cultivate

Spring field work can turn an extension professional’s thoughts to cultivation – and I’m not just talking about our agriculture and natural resources specialists. Though some of us in ISU Extension and Outreach regularly focus on tillage and planting, all of us should be centered on a much bigger and more important crop – the people of Iowa. Our real job is to cultivate an educated and informed citizenry.

Upon signing the Morrill Act, President Abraham Lincoln 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.” Ever since the first students arrived on the Iowa State campus in 1869, ever since the extension idea took shape in Sioux County in 1903, and ever since counties began organizing for extension work in 1912, Iowans have looked to the land-grant mission to guide their education and partnerships.

We can provide technical training and increase competency – that’s the easy part. (Iowa State’s motto is “science with practice” after all.) But while training and competency are important, they are not enough. Likewise, we can spur scientific and technological innovations, which also are important, but still not enough. We need people who can make wise decisions about how to use these innovations and knowledge in ways that grow our economy, enhance our world, and enrich our lives. When we cultivate educated and informed Iowans, we are building a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Because We’re People

Those who know me know that I read a lot – books, blogs, cereal boxes – you name it, I’ll read it. You never know where the next good idea will come from – particularly if it has something to do with education. (It’s hard to stop being an education professor). In one of the blogs I follow, I read about Joan Murphy and her school’s use of the “Responsive Classroom.” Murphy, a K-5 school counselor, explained that this research-based approach to teaching is based on the idea that the social side of education is as important as the academic side. Murphy shared the example of a new student who asked, “Why is everyone so nice here?” The teacher answered, “Who we learn with is as important as what we learn. It’s important to show that we care about each other.” In a responsive classroom, the greatest cognitive growth occurs through social interaction.

As I read through the guiding principles, I thought about how they could apply in extension and engagement work. When I replaced the word children with people, and the reference to teachers with extension professionals, they seemed a pretty good fit.

  • How people learn is as important as what they learn.
  • To be successful academically and socially, people need to learn and practice a specific set of social skills: cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.
  • Knowing the people we teach individually, culturally, and developmentally is as important as knowing the content we teach.
  • Knowing the families of the people we teach is as important as knowing the people we teach.
  • How we, extension professionals, work together is as important as our individual competence.

I’ve said many times that our work isn’t just about creating access to education, our work is about people. Because we’re people and our clients and partners are people. The education and experiences we provide and the interactions we share work together to build a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can read Joan Murphy’s article, “The Responsive Classroom: ‘Why Is Everyone So Nice Here?’” in Edutopia.  You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

The “Doing” Matters

Right before Thanksgiving, I attended the national meeting of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. It’s a stellar crowd with presidents, provosts, and other education leaders, and the discussions usually are interesting and thought-provoking. One of our keynotes was provided by Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California, and former Secretary of Homeland Security and Governor of Arizona.

President Napolitano talked about how students – and others seeking education – don’t just want information. They are seeking skills to turn education into opportunities to make a difference in the world. She challenged us as educators to think about how to prepare those we educate for the “giving back that makes life meaningful.” She encouraged us to consider ways to make our educational classes and programs living labs to test ideas within communities.

Napolitano suggested we regularly ask, “What do we want our society to be and how can the university help us meet our aspirations?” It’s a good question and clearly involves ISU Extension and Outreach. Napolitano believes that the greatest hope for a resilient and dynamic society is the full engagement of the public university with its communities.

She ended her speech by quoting Kurt Vonnegut, “To be is to do.” She also pointed out that the “doing” matters. She said we needed to realize that not all cost is waste at public universities; we’re making investments in opportunity. She urged us to keep our universities strongly connected to our communities. Then she ended with a powerful thought: “Hope is the future we deliver.” See you there.

— Cathann

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

Defining and Designing Experience

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 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/experience 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.

Law of Least Effort

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.

Strength to Your Sword Arms

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

Our DNA

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

A Few Essential Ingredients

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

Just the Facts

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.