The coronavirus pandemic has showcased the legacy of innovation that is a hallmark of Oklahoma State University Extension and proved the state agency is instrumental in helping Oklahomans solve issues important to them, their families and their communities.
May 8 is the 106th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act that created the Cooperative Extension Service. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and what was then called Oklahoma A&M College signed an agreement creating the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in July 1914. The organization’s record of overcoming challenges was set early as a fire in Morrill Hall in August that year destroyed all Extension records but failed to slow efforts to help people use research-based information to improve the quality of their lives.
That attitude continues today with the threat of COVID-19, said Damona Doye, OSU Regents professor and associate vice president for Extension.
“Recently, our Extension professionals had to rapidly shift to offering education and assistance through different means while keeping everyone – staff and clients – as safe as possible during the pandemic,” Doye said.
In-person field days, meetings and educational events gave way to virtual versions of the same and an expansion of Extension’s social media platforms. In turn, that enhanced other already-proven methods such as working with local, state and regional news media; producing informative videos; phone calls; newsletters; emails and cooperative efforts with public and private organizations. OSU Extension has remained fully engaged with Oklahomans in need, adapting to obstacles as quickly as possible.
When schools closed this spring, Grady County Extension Director Liz Taylor saw an immediate need to help local educators ensure students continued to learn at home. Taylor contacted county education officials with an idea. School enrichment programs had long been an OSU Extension fixture. Many families depended on school breakfast and lunch programs to provide kids with needed nutrition, and the state mandated that continue. Why not combine the two?
“Interactive and engaging projects and experiments focused on science, technology, engineering and math; personal development, goal-setting exercises, home gardening; I try to provide the direction for an activity and links to videos and additional information,” Taylor said. “We print the lesson materials and deliver them to the schools, which are then included as part of the meal packages. Parents can work with the kids or the youth can work on the activities by themselves, with either method allowing the students to learn at his or her own pace.”
Many of the video links direct students to OSU Extension’s 4-H Virtual Clovers program accessible through Facebook. Approved videos are uploaded weekly, created by Extension educators, State 4-H specialists and 4-H Leadership Council members, 4-H district officers, Oklahoma 4-H Healthy Living Ambassadors, Oklahoma 4-H STEM Innovators and active 4-H members. The 4-H Virtual Clovers had more than 16,000 post reaches between March 23 and April 24. Students might be physically at home, but their virtual learning environment was part of a much larger community. Feedback also pointed out something else: The youngsters were having fun while learning.
A sense of fun also has been a key component of attracting older audiences. For example, the Choctaw County Extension Office started hosting virtual contests on April 15 to promote awareness of best management practices for farmers, ranchers, homeowners, land managers and anyone else who wanted to participate or just follow along. Comments and even outright guesses were encouraged in order to create a learning environment through Facebook. The first topic was pasture weed identification; discourse moved on to cattle forage utilization, tomato disease identification and more. The county office reached 3,393 people the first week.
“People enjoy competing against their friends and others online,” Choctaw County Extension Director Marty Montague said. “It’s also allowed us to send private messages to those who comment and have a more in-depth discussion on a topic, hopefully helping them to use best management practices and possibly take up an activity such as home gardening they might not have otherwise done. We might not be meeting face-to-face but it’s still very personal.”
The personal touch was at the heart of a grassroots campaign by OSU Extension to supply Oklahomans with face masks. Working closely with state Oklahoma Home and Community Education clubs, Extension family and consumer sciences educators helped coordinate volunteers from 47 counties to sew more than 30,000 masks as of April 24. The masks have been donated to Oklahoma hospitals, nursing homes, childcare facilities, doctor’s offices, veteran’s centers, grocery stores, city and county government offices and fire departments.
“We measure our successes by how we help others to succeed,” said Tom Coon, OSU vice president and dean of the university’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. “In the early days, OSU Extension educators traveled the state on trains, stopping in counties to conduct programs. Today, we use technologies that allow us to interact with people in their own homes, if needed. In the process, we find we are reaching people we had not served previously. Whatever it takes to fulfill our state and federally mandated land-grant mission to help Oklahomans live better lives, that is what we do.”
More information about OSU Extension resources, programs and services is available online, from OSU fact sheets detailing research-based best management practices for hundreds of topics to timely and relevant news releases, to award-winning television programs such as Oklahoma Gardening and SUNUP.