Innovative Programs

Innovative Programs

The Hallmark of Extension Education

Written by: J.C. Johnson

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C. M. Ferguson, in the fall 1964 edition of the Journal of Extension wrote:

“Extension’s history has been one of innovation – in methods, in subject matter, in audience. Its birth was an innovation. Its early growth was nourished by innovation. Its success was measured by the innovations it succeeded in getting adopted. What a tragedy it would be if… it was to become the victim of paralysis of the status quo!”

Fortunately, Dr. Ferguson needed not worry about the future of innovation in Extension. After one hundred years of service to the nation, Extension continues to push boundaries and think outside of the box when it comes to teaching methods, programs, and clientele. The educators of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service are often at the forefront when it comes to adoption new ideas or technologies. While we could easily create an entire series on innovative programs alone, this month’s 14 in ’14 focuses on three programs which stand out because of their unique innovation in one way or another.

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Innovation in Subject Matter and Practices

In 2013, fewer than 150 acres of commercial strawberry production took place across Texas. The Texas Strawberry Project Team, headed by Dr. Russ Wallace, a vegetable specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Lubbock, are working to make strawberry production more mainstream.

“Our project emphasis includes expanding sustainable strawberry production throughout the state by introducing high tunnel and plasticulture technology to growers in under-served regions, and increasing the knowledge of strawberry production and consumption to consumers across Texas,” Wallace said.

High tunnels are similar to greenhouses, but without heat or humidity controls. The sides of the structures can be rolled up or down to release or retain heat to allow producers to control harvests to take advantage of optimal markets. Plants are protected from high winds, rainfall, and early frosts.

Plasticulture is a practice in which the strawberries are planted in raised beds covered in black plactic to warm the soil. Dormant plants go into production sooner, moisture is retained, and weed growth is suppressed.

The first phase of this project ends at the end of this month. However, it was recently announced that a second phase has been funded and will sustain the program for an additional year. During this time, new growers will be brought on board to give strawberries a try, as well as to better connect AgriLife Extension horticulture agents to the growers.

“In addition to the strawberry production and marketing training for county agents and growers, we will also follow and survey the growers on their own marketing and sales techniques to help us understand better how to improve strawberry profitability and sustainability in the state,” Wallace said.

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Innovation in Teaching Methods

In early 2000, Riss Miget, a specialist for Texas Sea Grant, began the process of acquiring a 57-foot fiberglass shrimp boat, named Karma. At that time, Texas Sea Grant took marine education to classrooms at schools across the state. With the purchase of Karma, a “floating classroom” was created that enabled students to gain ocean literacy in a hands-on, high-impact manner.

Originally docked in Matagorda, the boat was relocated to Corpus Christi in 2009 to be closer to a larger population center. The boat has traveled to numerous other ports along the Texas Gulf Coast to bring this innovative classroom to students from South Padre Island to Houston.

“Seeing this (coastal environment) in a book is not the same as actually seeing it and going out to learn about it firsthand,” said Logan Respess, formerly of Texas Sea Grant. “We have a lot of equipment on board to show kids through hands-on activities something they may have seen in class but have never seen up close in its native habitat. We go out on the water and reinforce or introduce them to a whole other world. You can tell right away when their faces light up.”

The floating classroom boat trip is only one component of a larger educational program with a comprehensive marine biology primer and classroom demonstration, all of which is aligned with state educational curricula. Students are immersed in hands-on activities throughout the program.

Karma has a passenger capacity of 25, and makes two-hour excursions into the Corpus Christi Bay, sometimes up to three per day. To date, more than 20,000 students from across Texas have been enriched by this innovative educational experience.

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Innovation in Reaching New Audiences

Military lands in Texas include 19 active military installations encompassing almost 500,000 acres with a total boundary perimeter of approximately 470 miles. Through the Sentinel Landscapes Partnership, the Institute of Renewable Natural Resources supports the U.S. Department of Defense in their military readiness endeavors while also promoting land conservation and stewardship.

The institute says that rapid development near these installations has resulted in the loss of agricultural lands and critical wildlife habitats. This loss of rural working lands to development is incompatible with military training needs because the military has operational training requirements that extend beyond its installation borders. Therefore, various stakeholder partnerships have formed to promote sustainable development across regional scales.

According to AgriLife Today, landowners will be rewarded for using their lands in ways that are compatible with the military mission and will be encouraged to continue those land-use practices well into the future.

“The Sentinel Landscape Partnership takes a different approach in applying federal programs to land management challenges, because it promotes working lands, conservation and national defense together,” said Dr. Roel Lopez, the institute’s director. “Too often, federal programs approach land management objectives in isolation when competing demands often require a more collaborative approach. The Partnership is taking that different approach by looking to see how conservation, working lands and national defense can actually be mutually supportive.”

This program brings a new clientele base to Extension programming: those who own land near a military institution. It also creates partnerships with the DOD, Department of the Army, and many other governmental agencies.

In Conclusion

Dr. Ferguson noted that, “Extension’s laurels have been won largely in the field of technology… [and] the easily identified change in the people who became the masters and adopters of technology. While success has often been measured in terms of bushels, pounds, hours saved, and dollars earned, there remains the fact that had it not been for the changes in people, their knowledge, skill, and thinking, none of this would have been possible.”

These three programs, like all innovative programs, are innovative and effective not only because of new horticulture practices, a sturdy boat and an able captain, and land-use expertise, but also because of the partnerships established and the investment in people and relationships. These programs only have impact on the state of Texas because they first had an impact on the individuals involved.

14 in ’14 is a monthly series celebrating the centennial anniversary of the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, the legislation which created the national cooperative extension system. Each month we will feature people, programs, history, and ideas highlighting some of the unique accomplishments of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

14 in ’14 is a joint effort between Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Organizational Development Unit and graduate students from the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications at Texas A&M University, under the direction of Scott Cummings, Jeff Ripley, and Kevin Andrews.

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