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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.

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.

Listening with Purpose

One of my favorite family events is coming soon. To kick off our holidays, members of my family gather and light candles, bake a Buche de Noel, and then proceed to eat and talk until most of the candles go out. Stories are told, and retold, often embellished. Sometimes myths are corrected or new stories emerge. My favorite part of the event is watching everyone’s faces in the candlelight and listening — really listening to our family lore from the silly to the sublime and hearing it told from different perspectives. It’s been fun to hear about the escapades of my elderly uncles as young rapscallions, to hear younger members tell a new story, or remember with fondness tales of those we’ve lost. I always gain strength from listening and it broadens my understanding of my family.

Sometimes we just need to get someone else’s point of view, to gather different perceptions, to see issues from other angles. To limit the future to only what we know shrinks our capacity. It’s easy to fall into patterns of preserving our view over all else — but this is how important listening is — it is the beginning of learning.

That’s why in 2014 we called upon potential constituents and long-time partners to listen to their perspectives firsthand about how to best serve the needs of Iowans. We heard from Iowa Millennials and Gen X’ers during our Young Iowans Speak forum. It was the first in a series of “Extension Reconsidered” forums held throughout the nation to mark the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act. The young Iowans, ages 18 to 35, were from both urban and rural places. Some had prior experience with us, while others knew nothing about our work. We asked the young Iowans to share their views and visions of the future and Iowa State’s role in that future.

From May through November, West Pottawattamie, Kossuth, Warren, Dubuque and Linn county extension councils hosted town meetings. Participants in these sessions included rural economic development groups; community college presidents; Councils of Governments; representatives from K-12 schools, public health, and local nonprofit organizations; and other community leaders. We asked our partners about why they engage with ISU Extension and Outreach, how we can improve our relationship, and ways we can further collaborate.

Then we listened. Intentionally. Respectfully. With purpose.  Because here’s the thing: listening makes us stronger and it broadens our understanding of our work.  See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. Watch the video, get the story, and print the report to learn more about Young Iowans Speak and Partner Perspectives. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Full Brains on Continuous Beta

One of my favorite Gary Larson Far Side cartoons features a classroom full of adult students. A student with a rather small head raises his hand and asks the teacher, “May I be excused? My brain is full.”  (Just Google “gary larson brain is full images” to see the cartoon.)

Perhaps you felt like that student after reviewing the learning objects, meeting with your team, and participating in the synchronous part of our annual conference. I’m guessing Extension IT had a headache from the technical difficulties we encountered with Ann Adrian’s keynote. (Her recorded presentation, script, and slides can now be found on the conference website.)

In her keynote, Ann asks us if we are ready to perform, produce, learn, connect, communicate, and make a difference in a “continuous beta environment.” The term comes from software development. Beta software is usable, but not completely tested and finalized. All the bugs or kinks haven’t been figured out yet. The advantage of operating in continuous beta is that you can change quickly, allowing for continued development.

Ann acknowledges that continuous beta isn’t appropriate for mission critical systems. However, it may make sense for some of our work in Extension and Outreach. We’re trying to make a difference while working in a complex environment — with information coming at us quickly and profusely from almost limitless sources. A system that operates in continuous beta is agile and better able to listen and assess needs in new ways, delve into multifaceted problems, and try solutions to discover what works.

As our very full brains absorb all the information presented during annual conference, how will we use what we’ve learned? When we think in terms of continuous beta, improving our ability to anticipate and adapt to change isn’t as overwhelming. We can try new applications of technology to improve communication and programming, and to enhance how we address our signature issues. We can learn together to improve ourselves, our teams, and our organization. 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

Touring Gas Stations

“Money is like gasoline during a road trip. You don’t want to run out of gas on your trip, but you’re not doing a tour of gas stations. You have to pay attention to money, but it shouldn’t be about the money.”

— Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO, O’Reilly Media

According to his blog, Tim O’Reilly spends much of his time “encouraging people to work on stuff that matters.” That sounds like good advice for ISU Extension and Outreach. Funding streams change, percentages fluctuate, fiscal cliffs come and go. But when it comes to our work, we’re not doing a tour of gas stations.

This was well illustrated last summer, when campers at the Iowa 4-H Center experienced an Immersion in Wellness. This Iowa State research study is targeted toward lowering childhood obesity. According to extension nutrition specialist Ruth Litchfield, the kids really did immerse themselves in wellness — from gardening to learning how to cook to eating what they’ve actually grown in the garden and being physically active. They learned that being healthy is fun.

Youth program specialist Brenda Welch leads Mad Scientist Day Camps to get young people excited about STEM learning. When they conduct research-based experiments, such as extracting DNA from bananas, Brenda says, “Their excitement, and the smiles, and the laughter when they actually extract DNA and they can see it in the test tube — it’s incredible.”

During the slowly unfolding crisis of the drought last summer and fall, more than 6,000 Iowans participated in our meetings and webinars and called our hotlines and specialists for updates on crop, livestock, and horticulture issues. As beef specialist Denise Schwab says, “We’re not here for the cattle or for the crops, but we’re here for the farmers that we work with. That’s what makes this job fun and exciting and a challenge to go to work very morning.”

As we begin another year with a new Congress and the Iowa Legislature back in session, remember this: No matter what financial challenges we might face, we will pay attention to the funds, but ISU Extension and Outreach is not about the money. Instead, we’re focused on making sure Iowa State becomes the university that best serves its state. That’s our story. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. Watch the videos about these Extension and Outreach efforts and review our annual report at the Our Story website.