Preparing the next generation of water stewards is central to the mission of the North Central Region Water Network. In support of this, the Network is leading an initiative to develop a regional extension internship program that links undergraduate students with extension mentors who are working with watershed management and water quality.
There are numerous opportunities for undergraduate students to learn research skills with the mentorship of faculty members through Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs. However, there are fewer highly visible opportunities for inspirational extension experiences for undergraduates. In addition, undergraduates do not typically get significant exposure and training in extension-related skills and careers. The result is a limited pipeline for future extension professionals, particularly those trained in cross-disciplinary areas such as watershed management and water quality.
To address this need, the Network initiated a pilot program in Summer 2019 with five students at University of Illinois and South Dakota State University (unfortunately, the Summer 2020 iteration was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic). The 2019 students learned many skills and contributed to extension programming in various forms, including a spreadsheet-based nitrate loss calculator for farmers to estimate nitrate loss from tile drains, a survey to assess stakeholders’ views on water quality, and multiple other extension products related to various aspects of water management and water quality. The students also got to participate in various extension activities including field days, water festivals, and trainings.
A full internship program is planned for the future if funding can be secured. The planned program includes a virtual cohort of students across the region to facilitate networking among future professionals and mentors across seven states in the Upper Midwest. To promote camaraderie and the formation of a cohort across the region, students will take part in regular remote meetings where they update other students with current and planned activities. In addition, a peer learning summit will provide additional opportunities to visit field sites, meet participants and mentors in person, and present their summer projects. Along with technical expertise, students will gain skills that will empower them to be successful in future extension and outreach roles.