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At 100 years old, WVU Extension still puts knowledge in practice

 (Exclusive to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, October 26, 2014.)

In 1914, Charlie Chaplin made his film debut. Babe Ruth entered the major leagues. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination plunged the world into war. And, on May 8, the United States Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act.

U.S. Senators Hoke Smith and Asbury Lever may not be household names on par with Chaplin and Ruth, but their legislation made an impact on our nation more widespread and lasting than any other event in 1914. The Smith-Lever Act created a unique system called the National Cooperative Extension Service. Through federal, state and county partnerships, this innovative system took research from America’s land-grant universities into communities to improve people’s lives.

For 100 years, Extension has been helping land-grant universities keep pace with change, while finding new ways to serve citizens.

As someone who has spent 20 years leading land-grant universities, I believe that the way West Virginia University is redefining engagement for the 21st century can serve as a national model for connecting universities and their constituents.

While many of the nation’s Cooperative Extension offices still reside in university agricultural programs, West Virginia University Extension is an autonomous unit, and its experts have the freedom to collaborate with educators from across all university disciplines.

West Virginia University Extension also is unique in supporting faculty in each of the state’s 55 counties. Budget cuts have caused many land-grant

universities to change to a regional, rather than county-based, Extension model.

These two distinctive qualities — a university-wide scope and a local focus — have made West Virginia University Extension one of the most powerful forces for progress and opportunity in our state.

For many, the word Extension conjures visions of cows and plows. Indeed, Extension still provides vital help to America’s farmers, and its men and women also provide the latest research-based knowledge about science, technology, health, education and economic development to citizens and help them use that knowledge to improve their lives.

The Smith-Lever Act has stood the test of time, and it has incredible potential to help America solve its most pressing problems, from producing a safe food supply, to promoting responsible energy use, to training first responders to igniting children’s interest in science and math.

For example, as the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom reached West Virginia, so did the need for landowner education and worker safety programs. WVU Extension experts in agriculture, natural resources and workplace safety responded to citizen and industry needs.

Our Natural Gas Education Program team developed a series of nonbiased, research-based regional educational programs in which industry experts addressed current topics. More than 1,000 concerned citizens attended the sessions.

Industry experts also reached out to WVU Extension for assistance in training specialized workers. More than 2,400 industrial workers and first responders were trained last year.

Extension also helps to feed bodies and minds in a state where more than 1 in 4 children live in poverty. WVU Extension’s Energy Express summer literacy program has been delivering reading skills and nutritious meals to children in low-income communities for more than 20 years. Summer is usually a time when reading skills decline, but Energy Express reverses that trend for 3,000 students each summer. Energy Express, AmeriCorps mentors and local community partners welcome elementary school students into a six-week print-rich, hands-on program that increases students’ reading scores. On my travels to all 55 counties of our great state over the past few months, I found this program to be one of the most rewarding of all.

Extension has a long history of helping children thrive. In West Virginia, 1 in 4 children participates in 4-H, which teaches leadership skills in agriculture and beyond. Across the state, more than 25,000 West Virginia youth participated in more than 200 weeks of day and residential camps this summer. Many of the camps were targeted to specific interests, such as global education, art, health and fitness, STEM education and civic engagement. As a former 4-H’er, I know well the transformational power of these type of experiences, especially for low income and rural youth.

Extension also promotes economic development in West Virginia, a state that has suffered in the transition from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. Several WVU Extension programs have helped West Virginia communities develop local governments, create business expansion and retention programs and revitalize downtowns.

Even within Extension’s traditional focus on agriculture, WVU Extension is reaching out in innovative ways to help farmers succeed. It is preparing to host its first Women in Agriculture conference to teach West Virginia’s 9,000 female farmers how to network, grow their sustainable agribusiness, and learn leadership and marketing skills. I met some of these women farmers in Hinton this summer and rest assured they are extremely business savvy.

On my travels, I also had the privilege of meeting many of our Extension faculty members and adult volunteers on their home turf, as they showed me how Extension is improving lives.

The great Russian author, playwright and physician Anton Chekhov once said, “knowledge is of no value until you put it into practice.”

In its second century, I believe Cooperative Extension is putting that knowledge into practice in West Virginia — and all across America — while improving countless lives along the way.

I can’t wait to see what big ideas await.

Gee, president of West Virginia University, is also former president of The Ohio State University, another large land-grant school, and he serves on the Board of Trustees of the National 4-H Council.