Pioneers and AnswerLine

John Lawrence’s message from July 31, 2017

We talk a lot about Perry Holden’s seed corn work with Iowa farmers beginning in 1903, but he’s not our only extension pioneer. Mary B. Welch was developing home economics at Iowa State as early as 1870. As part of that development, she attended a school for cookery in New York City and the London School of Cookery for Chefs. Iowa State’s 1882-83 college report indicated that she was giving presentations around the state, including a course of six lectures to 60 women in Des Moines. She was a pioneer in developing off-campus education. Her work paved the way for Home Economics Extension – which in the 1990s became Extension to Families and now is Human Sciences Extension and Outreach.

Another pioneering Mary – Mary Jo Williams – created AnswerLine as part of her graduate thesis. She had an idea to help consumers get their questions answered quickly by phone, while saving time for extension specialists. AnswerLine began in March 1975 as a toll-free hotline, and after a six-month pilot in several counties, the service expanded statewide. Did you know?

  • In FY16 AnswerLine responded to 17,064 calls.
  • Each year roughly two-thirds of the calls are related to food (food and nutrition, food preservation and food safety).
  • However, the hotline gets asked about a little of everything. In FY16, AnswerLine also fielded calls related to horticulture, cleaning, entomology, child development, consumer management, housing and household equipment, textiles and clothing, art and design, agriculture, wildlife and miscellaneous (that’s how they categorize everything else). If they can’t answer a question with research-based information, they find a source who can.
  • AnswerLine also responds to questions in the face of natural disasters such as flooding or drought, storms resulting in power outages or product recalls.
  • Since 2003, ISU Extension and Outreach has partnered with University of Minnesota Extension to provide services to Minnesotans, and South Dakota came on board in 2011.

AnswerLine staffing has changed many times over the years, but qualifications remain the same: a degree in family consumer sciences (food related degrees are preferred) and two years of relevant work experience. They still answer the phone, but they’re always looking for new ways to connect with Iowans. Staff members Liz Meimann, Beth Marrs, Marcia Steed and Marlene Geiger maintain a Facebook page, Twitter account, Pinterest account and a blog. They squeeze in time between the phone calls to write all the entries. AnswerLine carries on ISU Extension and Outreach’s pioneer tradition, providing Iowa State education and resources to Iowans.

One more thing: Please join me in thanking Jessica Stolee for stepping up for Iowa State. She has completed her term as Iowa State’s interim ombuds officer, and is back fulltime as human resources coordinator for ISU Extension and Outreach, working alongside Kaela Black. Employees with human resources questions may contact Jessica at or 515-294-1444.

— John D. Lawrence
Iowa State University Interim Vice President for Extension and Outreach

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