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Innovation the focus of Delaware Cooperative Extension’s annual conference

Innovative ideas rarely begin as an “Aha” lightbulb-over the-head-moment, but rather come to life as part of a deliberate process – a navigation with twists and turns which embrace working differently, taking risks, and carving out free time for contemplation. This was the takeaway message at Delaware Cooperative Extension’s First State Innovate event held on Oct. 19 at Delaware State University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Dover.

Delaware Cooperative Extension is a partnership of the First State’s two Land-Grant universities – University of Delaware and Delaware State University. Each fall, extension faculty, specialists, agents and staff convene for a day of networking and professional development. This year, innovation was the focus, empowered by a $10,000 grant from eXtension.org, a national organization dedicated to providing tools, services and enhancing the impact of Land-Grant institutions across the U.S.

The road towards innovation

Approximately 100 extension professionals were introduced to several innovation concepts throughout the conference, starting with the keynote address.

Jamie Seger, director of the Ohio State University’s Extension Educational Technology Unit, and Paul Hill, associate professor at Utah State University in 4-H and Community Development program areas, served as co-keynote speakers.

As active collaborators with eXtension in piloting innovation in extension offices across the country, Hill and Seger champion working differently, most notably with their Educational Technology Learning Network or #EdTechLN, a bi-weekly national conversation on Twitter.

“Popular culture has romanticized how innovation happens,” Seger said in her keynote, adding that tools and technology aren’t always the go-to solutions to foster innovative practices.

“All we need in Extension in order to innovate is to simply work differently,” Seger said. “It’s not about the stuff – it is about a new way of thinking and a new process for working.”

Changing the culture and working differently in extension means understanding the nature of innovation as a process, Seger said. Both defined innovation as a journey.

“It’s a long winding road that goes through peaks and valleys and sometimes turns around on itself, all while existing perilously on the edge,” Seger said.

A culture of innovation must exist within an organization if widespread innovation is to be realized, Seger said.

“Fear of failure leads organizations like extension toward a culture of efficiency,” Hill added. “If failure isn’t an option, then innovation isn’t going to take place. Success cannot happen without failure.”

Hill and Seger emphasized that innovative change needs to come from all levels, from leadership and from within each extension professional.

“We all have the power to create the culture we want in our system.” Seger said.

In the presentation, Hill contrasted the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset.

“A fixed mindset avoids the new and manages risk through analysis and seeks to understand the data. A growth mindset seeks the new, manages risk through action and develops empathy,” Hill said.

“People with fixed mindsets are great at getting pre-determined projects done, but not new projects and programs. They are implementers, but not necessarily innovators,” Hill said.

Innovation ideas

“Creating a culture of innovation begins with the extension professional and with leadership,” said Michelle Rodgers, associate dean and director of UD Cooperative Extension who along with an endowment from former UD extension director Jan Seitz, offered five teams up to $15,000 in support to put winning ideas in place.

Innovation the focus of Delaware Cooperative Extension’s annual conference
Making Change-Solutions placed first among eight teams and won a $5,000 grant to launch a 4-H Maker Library. From L-R, Jan Seitz, Carol Scott, Beverly Banks, Rene Diaz, Sequoia Rent and team coach from North Dakota State University, Bob Bertsch. Seitz, former UD Director of Delaware Extension funded the first place team through an endowment to UD Cooperative Extension

Earlier this spring, Rodgers and Donna Brown, interim director of DSU Cooperative Extension, invited their staff to form teams to compete for start-up funds to launch their innovation initiatives. Teams were encouraged to form across both institutions and utilize Adobe Kickbox, a tool for creating and deliberating about ideas created by Adobe for their employees and adapted for extension use.

Eight teams accepted the challenge and delivered three-minute pitches on stage and were judged by a panel of six with input from electronic peer voting. The top three teams were:

  • 4-H Afterschool Makers. Team: Bev Banks, DSU, Rene Diaz, UD, Sequoia Rent, UD and Carol Scott, UD. $5,000 to create maker spaces and a maker library for 4-H afterschool youth and for areas where materials and space to create are at a minimum.
  • Aerial Agents. Team: Troy Darden, DSU; Dennis McIntosh, DSU; Michele Walfred, UD; and Cory Whaley, UD. $4,000 for the purchase of two drones for communication and marketing purposes and to create and stock an online library of footage for use by and promotion of extension events and programs.
  • Soil Surfers: Team: John Clendaniel, DSU; Natasha Lamadieu, DSU; and Jenn Volk, UD. $3,000 to deliver integrated extension programming to take a community through assessing a garden site for environmental risks and impacts, growing the produce, and producing safe and healthy meals. Sessions will be recorded and turned into short videos for future communities to use.
  • Other winning teams were Lights, Camera, Extension awarded $2,000 and Wealth and Wellness Warriors with an award of $1,000.

All eight teams were assisted by a creative coach, three of whom were brought to Delaware via the eXtension grant: Bradd Anderson from the University of Missouri, Bob Bertsch from North Dakota State University, and Daphne Richards from Texas A & M University. Joining as coaches from UD were Cyndi Connelly, Christy Mannering and Adam Thomas. Throughout the summer and fall, creative coaches met with teams via technology for consultation.

“Donna, Jan, and I are very excited about the ideas we have heard today,” Rodgers said. “Today’s innovate event is an important first step in working differently and making an impact that will positively affect our extension staff and our communities in Delaware.”

During the conference, several opportunities to explore innovation practices took place including a panel discussion webcasted through eXtension’s online learn platform, a “Steal My Idea Showcase” featuring a circuit of 12 innovator mini-presentations.

Friends of Extension Awards

Brown and Rodgers also presented the Friend of Extension Award recognitions for UD and DSU.

“The Friend of Extension Award is the highest recognition presented to a non-extension person, business or organization and is designed to recognize truly outstanding support and personal involvement in extension efforts,” Rodgers said.

University of Delaware

  • Hetty Francke. A volunteer with extension for 30-plus years, Francke became a Master Gardener in 1987 and a Master Composter in 1989 and she served as volunteer compost education coordinator for Delaware 4-H.
  • Lazy Boy Farm. This family farm operation in Middletown has produced fresh cabbage, potatoes, soybean, corn and wheat since 1956. Brothers Ken and Chris Wicks, and their respective children Anna Wicks, a UD Alumna, and Michael, comprise the three-generation farm.
  • Karen Sommers.  A Master Food Educator (MFE) since 2011 with the Family and Consumer Science program, Sommers is valued for her tireless wisdom and volunteer efforts, with 175 hours served in the first half of 2017 alone.
  • Pat and Alex Bohinski and their staff at Southern States provide advanced training to Delaware Master Gardeners by participating in numerous meetings covering a variety of topics to keep Master Gardeners informed with new lawn and garden products, trends and problems.

Delaware State University

  • Pastor William Grimes. Under his leadership at the Solid Rock Baptist Church in Dover, Grimes opened his 4,200 square foot outreach center and collaborates with Delaware Cooperative Extension, helping to promote a healthy lifestyle through community dinners and Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).
  • Kesha Braunskill works for the Delaware Forest Service and serves on the state’s Urban and Community Forest Council. Braunskill offers training on tree diseases and diagnosis, tree management, tree plantings and jobsite safety.
  • New Hope Recreation and Development Center, Inc. This organization led by Kendal and Delores Tyre bring STEM education to youth they serve during afterschool and summer camp programs. The Tyre’s center and volunteer staff provide a safe place for youth where students can learn and improve their academic and social skills.

Article by Michele Walfred

Photo by Jackie Arpie

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