MSUE Consumer Hort Team wins eXtension award

With reduced budgets and staff and increased programmatic responsibilities, Michigan State University Extension staff must maximize limited time and resources to meet growing demands. With those challenges in mind, the MSUE Consumer Horticulture Team faced the daunting task of delivering science-based, environmentally sound information to more than 8 million gardeners. With a firm grasp of the importance of technology and a collaborative spirit, they not only met their responsibilities but also won an award for their efforts.

The consumer hort team along with Bindu Bhakta will receive the eXtension Working Differently in Extension Award Oct. 2 at the National eXtension Conference in Oklahoma City. The team consists of Bob Bricault, Rebecca Finneran, Gary Heilig, Hal Hudson, Gretchen Voyle, Linda Whitlock and Mary Wilson.

Senior Extension specialist Lela Vandenberg nominated the team for the award, which recognizes the team’s engagement with clientele, co-workers and others in new and different ways and the demonstrable impacts made. It provides an opportunity to show how the team works online and within a learning network.

In 2010, the team launched the “Gardening in Michigan”website as a platform to offer a variety of online classes and resources. The website now serves thousands of people. In early 2011, the team decided to add an Ask an Expert (AaE) widget to the website’s front page. But before they put up the widget, they would need experts to answer the questions. The team worked with the MSUE eXtension Institutional Team to develop an AaE training process suited for advanced Master Gardeners. Fifteen Master Gardener volunteers were recruited and trained online in Adobe Connect, allowing the launch of the AaE widget in June 2011. Through the widget, the team answered more than 700 questions in 13 months.

But the team did not stop with the widget. Thinking a statewide hotline to answer gardeners’ questions a good idea, they used technology to link existing county hotlines together under one toll free number to provide the service 24/7 to all counties. Having the hotline required more training for more volunteers. The training established uniformity and quality control. Within one year, calls increased by one thousand, and the hotline has served clients from 80 percent of Michigan’s 84 counties. I wrote about the hotline in a previous Spotlight.

You’ve also heard me talk about the new soil test self-mailers in a previous Spotlight. The team created the kits provided with a postage-paid return mailer consumers can purchase online from the MSU Extension Bookstore. The consumer mails the soil sample in to the MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Lab. Once the folks at the lab analyze the sample, the consumer receives an email with results and access to an interactive website, which provides customized fertilizer calculations, instructions on correct application and links to AaE and additional resources on the Gardening in Michigan website.

Additionally, the team redesigned the Master Gardener program to reduce volunteer management time and create a statewide, easy-to-replicate program integrating a hybrid in-person and electronic delivery method. These efforts will lead to greater focus upon the educational products, which translate to more trained Master Gardeners and increased involvement of those volunteers in local community development projects.

 When asked about the team, Lela said, “MSUE’s Consumer Horticulture Team is an inspiration to all of the MSUE work teams and a model for working smarter with reduced resources. They have risen to the challenge when faced with cuts in budget and personnel, and creatively implemented transformational change in the way we satisfy the educational and informational needs of Michigan gardeners. The team deserves this award!” I couldn’t agree more. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for their leadership in helping to transform MSU Extension.

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