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Dr. Gary LemmeMay 8, 2014 marks the signing of the Smith Lever Act of 1914, considered by many to be one of the most far-reaching educational reforms in human history. It established a national network of grassroots educators, known as the Cooperative Extension System, which was charged with extending the resources of our nation’s land-grant universities to people where they live and work. For the past century, Alabama Extension educators have used this grassroots approach to engage their fellow Alabamians in an ongoing conversation not only about the challenges they face but also about the positive changes they can make in how they think, work and function in their daily lives.The digital demands of the 21st century are challenging us to rethink the way we engage the people we serve. We are being called on to make greater use of digital technologies — everything from apps, iBooks and ePublications to Google Glass to ensure that we serve our clients as relevantly and effectively as possible.Our outreach methods are changing. But the guiding principle of Cooperative Extension work remains the same: to provide our diverse audiences with practical knowledge to make lasting, meaningful improvements in all facets of their lives.Three defining values —our strong emphasis on research-based knowledge, building positive relationships with our clients and delivering relevant programs —have also guided our work from the beginning.’Values First Affirmed by Seaman KnappThe values were first affirmed by Seaman Knapp, the father of Extension, renowned for establishing farm demonstration in Louisiana — an effort that not only emphasized relevant, research-based knowledge transfer but also reflected Knapp’s belief that educators had as much to learn from the farmers’ experiences as farmers did from educators.Knapp’s work foreshadowed the sorts of open-sourced, shared knowledge that is being adopted all over the world today.We’ve contributed our share of innovation too. One notable example is the Extension-sponsored boll weevil eradication effort in the South, which led to many other advances — crop entomology, crop dusting and crop scouting, to name only a few.The Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, soil conservation and community resource development also grew out of our efforts.We Are Human Infrastructure.We hear a lot now days about how infrastructure — roads, railways and airport terminals — has contributed to our material progress. We even seeing renewed emphasis on building more infrastructure to keep pace with the mounting challenges of the global economy.The human infrastructure that Cooperative Extension has provided for decades through its network of grassroots educators will be more important than ever in the 21st century as farming gears up to feed a projected 9.5 billion people by mid-century. These challenges are daunting: farmers are being called to meet these new demands even as they are challenged to develop safer, greener production systems with more emphasis on organically and locally grown foods.Meanwhile, Extension educators are working to address one of the most serious health epidemics of the 21st century — rising levels of obesity among Americans of all ages and the chronic disease that typically accompany it. Meanwhile, Extension food safety experts are educating Americans about the risks of eating from an international table comprised of some foods that are neither produced nor processed in accordance with the hygienic practices commonly taken for granted in the United States.Forestry educators are equipping landowners with the tools to deal with the increasing threats posed by invasive plant species to forestland understories and, ultimately, to trees.Collaborative Knowledge and Our Role in ItWe bring another critically needed asset to the table. We provide our diverse audiences with knowledge in deep, enriched contexts in an era when some people are feeling almost overwhelmed by the knowledge available at the fingertips. And we show our audiences with how to use this knowledge to enhance their lives in lasting, meaningful ways — back to that core principle: practical knowledge.The earliest generation of Extension educators strove to be knowledge enablers — agents of change who added value to knowledge by demonstrating how practical, meaningful and lasting use could be derived from it.Our success in the 21st century will be measured by how closely we adhere to that visionDr. Gary Lemme is director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System
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