Two student interns discussing bioreactors.

Network team is working to lay the foundation for a future extension workforce

A newly funded Network team is working to create an undergraduate internship program focused on multidisciplinary learning in an applied water resource management context. While the team has dreams of a North Central Region 12-state, 32-institution program, this year they are piloting the program in four states in the hopes that this program will grow in years to come.

Through the pilot program, the Extension Directors of South Dakota State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are supporting and in some cases funding five undergraduate interns this summer.  The students are focusing on different areas of water resource management – from reducing nutrients to green infrastructure – and are getting work experience, learning new skills and discovering what the field of water resource management has to offer along the way.

Two of the 2019 summer interns, Gabe Harper-Hagen and Rhae Bridgeland, are working with Lisa Merrifield at the University of Illinois Extension on a pilot green infrastructure program. Harper-Hagen and Bridgeland designed and are distributing a survey to better gauge public interest in and acceptance of rain gardens on city right-of-way property (If you are open to lending your opinion, you can take the survey here). They are also working on green infrastructure and stormwater management case studies and building a website to help communities learn about innovative stormwater management practices.

“[M]y time as an Extension intern has been immensely engaging. I have met many people within fields that I would like to pursue myself, and learned of new paths that broaden my view of environmental and community connections,” notes Bridgeland.

Illinois Extension intern Jasmine Rodriguez getting reacdy to survey at the 2019 Illini Fest.

Illinois Extension intern Jasmine Rodriguez getting ready to survey community members at the 2019 Illini Fest.

Many of the student interns have the opportunity to engage with local communities through their roles. Jazmine Rodriguez is working with Laura Christianson at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this summer and recently traveled to Chicago to present information on bioreactors to Chicago residents at the Illini Fest.  Similarly, Blake Wolters who is working with John McMaine of South Dakota State University – the project director – recently traveled to Baltic, South Dakota for the Ag PhD Field Day. At the field day, which averages close to 10,000 individuals, Blake spoke with producers from across the state about nutrient reduction.

Much of Wolter’s work this summer consists of building the mathematical framework for a new tool SDSU Extension is developing – the Nitrate Loss Calculator. The tool will allow producers to easily measure the amount of nitrate leaving their farms so they can explore how precipitation patterns and practice changes are impacting the amount of nutrients leaving their fields.  According to McMaine, Wolter’s work this summer will eventually be used to create a nitrate loss mobile-friendly web application for producers.

SDSU Extension intern Blake Wolters at the Ag PhD Field Day

SDSU Extension intern Blake Wolters at the 2019 Ag PhD Field Day

To help support the interns, the team is hosting a peer learning summit in August for students and mentors to share what they have done during their internship, reflect on their experiences, identify additional training needs for themselves, and recommend improvements to the program.

In the fall, the team plans to review and evaluate this summer’s pilot program and catalog existing state-based extension internship programs in order to adapt and grow the program in future years.  Nevertheless, one thing is for sure – for this year’s interns the program is already having an impact.

For example, for Harper-Hagen, the experience has helped him determine his future career path. “Throughout my time working at the University of Illinois Extension, I discovered how much I enjoy working with the community to solve problems through design and I have considered exploring future jobs in the field for my occupation.”

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