December 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA5

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Integrating Extension In Natural Resources Graduate Education

Traditionally graduate education is defined by a research project and is often complemented by classroom or laboratory teaching experience. Too infrequently, graduate educators do not capitalize on promising opportunities associated with the university's Extension mission. The nature of informal education often draws Extension faculty to contentious and timely issues that are characterized by either technology voids or awareness/knowledge shortfalls. Using case studies the article characterizes the research that is appropriate, describes the type of graduate students who may be attracted to this kind of project, and suggests a strategy for partnering and grantsmanship.

Stephen B. Jones, Director
Alabama Cooperative Extension System
Auburn University
Auburn, Alabama
Internet Address:

James C. Finley
Assistant Professor
School of Forest Resources
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
Internet Address:


Historically and presently, the typical tenure track university faculty member carries a split research/teaching appointment, assuring that research-based scholarly endeavor undergirds classroom activities. The traditional model also holds these same faculty responsible for graduate education and research. Until recently, Extension faculty often held 100% outreach appointments. Their linkage to research was limited to the literature and access to work of their institutional colleagues. Few were part of their university's graduate faculty.

However, since the early 1980s, a joint research/Extension, tenure track appointment (25:75 is a common split) has become the norm, with most Extension specialist positions requiring a Ph.D. Performance and evaluation criteria include refereed publications, grantsmanship, graduate student advising, and other scholarly activities. Unlike their predecessors, today's Extension faculty are, to the fullest extent of the term, 'professors.' Trained as scientists, they are serving the university (and its students) and society.

Extension education does not occur in the university classroom, and several subtleties distinguish Extension faculty from their teaching colleagues. The subtleties arise from the obvious distinction.

First, a classroom that extends across an entire state enriches the Extension educator's understanding of the state, its natural resources, and the issues drawing from their use and management. Second, Extension 'students' bring a wealth of practice and experiential knowledge to the workshops, seminars, and tours that comprise natural resources Extension. Third, the community of natural resources opinion leaders (e.g., landowners, industry, agency, etc.) grow to know Extension faculty members, gaining confidence in their abilities and appreciating the advantages of cooperative ventures. These circumstances position the Extension faculty well for opportunistic grantsmanship and collaborative applied research. Graduate students working with Extension educators are key benefactors of this productive synergy.

Examples Of Effective Integration

The elements necessary for creating the productive synergy that culminates in a graduate education opportunity are:

  • Presence/timing -- By virtue of outreach activities the faculty member should already be involved in an issue.
  • Need -- The issue involves a need for information or service.
  • Key Players -- The right people are engaged in dealing with the issue.
  • Funding -- The need is pressing enough that key players are willing to fund its resolution.
  • Entrepreneurial Faculty -- The Extension professor embodies a spirit of selective opportunism, standing ready to address issues within a defined disciplinary territory.
  • The Right Student -- Fortuity and customized graduate recruitment are requisite to successful integration of Extension and natural resources graduate education.

Several case examples of how these elements converged to create an opportunity that led to a graduate degree are illustrative.

Since 1988, we've had several opportunities to develop outreach-based graduate projects for graduate students at Pennsylvania State. The three examples below present these efforts toward Extension-based graduate education.

*Presence/timing -- Promoting sustainable forestry on Pennsylvania's non-industrial private forests (NIPFs) has been the mainstay of our Extension efforts. This ownership class (513,000 properties) accounts for 72 percent of the state's forest land and supplies 80 percent of the raw material to a wood products industry that employs 100,000. The question among many resource professionals was whether timber harvesting incorporates science-based forestry and meets the minimum criteria for timber resource sustainability. By virtue of our ongoing involvement with the issue, we learned in 1994 of New York's plans to conduct a statewide timber harvesting assessment. University faculty, state agencies, and forest industry worked collaboratively on New York's project, suggesting that the timing there, and by inference here, was favorable.

*Need -- We had little empirical data from which to evaluate harvesting relative to timber sustainability. Our Extension program addresses forest stewardship and concerns about resource sustainability. Therefore we recognized the need for evidence that our Extension programs addressing harvesting practices are not simply a cry of "WOLF!" as some detractors suggested. Many others shared our desire to conduct a Pennsylvania version of New York's assessment. The newly established Forest Industry Committee on Sustaining Pennsylvania's Forests viewed the Assessment as a means to establish baseline data and demonstrate progress towards realizing sustainable forestry across the state.

*Key Players -- We convened an ad hoc Timber Harvesting Assessment Task Force to explore the possibility of conducting a Pennsylvania assessment. Several factors, including our university base, generally high credibility across the state, and active ongoing involvement on this and other issues, gave us 'license' to create the task force. We involved key players from industry and agencies, including the State Forester, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Hardwood Lumber Manufacturers Association, and representatives of several major wood industry firms.

*Funding -- With guidance and support from the Task Force, we secured partial funding from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a branch of the State Assembly, with leveraged funding from the Pennsylvania Hardwoods Development Council, as well as cash support from seven individual wood products firms. Combined, the funding supported a graduate assistantship, wages for three summer field crew members, and travel and office expenses associated with data collection and analysis.

*Entrepreneurial Faculty -- The Timber Harvesting Assessment is a model project, bridging research and Extension. Deciding to lead the research project required little deliberation. Our Extension program in sustainable forestry needed the information that the research would provide. The entire sequence of events leading to project implementation exemplifies the spirit of selective opportunism.

*The Right Student -- Josh Pell, a 1994 West Virginia forestry graduate began a Masters program in the Fall semester of 1994. Part of the attraction for Josh was the possibility that the Assessment would be funded. We discussed the possibility and our efforts to bring the project to fruition openly with Josh, along with several other possibilities. Josh brought field experience, an excellent work ethic, and a strong quantitative/analytical acumen to the project. We are not expecting Josh to develop the Extension spin-off for the project; his work ends with the data analysis and recommendations. Josh will complete the requirements for his Masters during Summer semester, 1997.

The circumstances surrounding the evolution of the Assessment project fit the theme of integrating Extension in graduate education, even though the project itself does not require the student to extend the research beyond analysis. Josh's project not only serves our Extension outreach effort in sustainable forestry, but it also strengthened the relationship that we are nurturing with industry across the state. Over the course of the project, the forestry community, especially the industry, closely monitored activities, including field work. Josh performed well under the scrutiny of this sometimes skeptical audit. He has also presented preliminary and final results to our Timber Harvesting Assessment Advisory Team. Again, he gained invaluable experience and confidence interacting with leaders of the state's forestry community under occasionally stressful inspection and inquisition.

Although not a pure integration of graduate education in Extension, Josh's project was a truly interactive endeavor that yielded results relevant to a "real world" application.

The next example is a more direct integration of Extension in graduate education.

*Presence/timing -- Again, our principal Extension focus is sustainable forestry. Our sustainable forestry and wildlife outreach efforts have been closely linked with the state's Forest Stewardship Program since 1991 (Jones & Finley 1993). This ongoing cooperative relationship with the U.S. Forest Service Forest Stewardship Program positioned us well for developing projects related to sustainable forestry.

*Need -- Because field demonstrations are a proven education tool in agricultural Extension, we felt that our forestry Extension efforts could benefit from a network of demonstration sites across the state, accessible to county educators, Service Foresters, landowners, and others. The State Forester and the state Forest Stewardship Advisory Committee (FSAC) shared our interests in developing a series of Stewardship Demonstration Forests. In addition to establishing the demonstrations, we wanted to determine whether field tours could enhance the education experience beyond what we could achieve with lectures and seminars.

*Key Players -- We approached the U.S.Forest Service Northeast Forest Experiment Station Laboratory at Warren for help in creating a model demonstration forest; Jim Redding, a researcher at the Lab, enthusiastically endorsed the concept and helped design the model. The State Forester, Pennsylvania's FSAC, and individual wood products firms similarly offered spirited endorsement and, in some cases, the pledge of in-kind services and land for establishing the demonstration.

*Funding -- In early 1993, we secured full project support from the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE). Funding included a graduate assistantship, field crew wages, and travel and materials costs for establishing the sites. Cooperators (Bureau of Forestry, Game Commission, State Parks, and private landowners) provided in-kind support and land for our use.

*Entrepreneurial Faculty -- Several elements of this example presented risks that a non-entrepreneurial faculty member might avoid. The involved graduate student, a biologist and environmental educator, was interested in forestry more as a vehicle for earning a Masters degree, and less as a disciplinary objective. Education in the natural sciences was her academic focus. Her research project was somewhat afield of our disciplinary expertise, but our Extension program needed the results. However, through course work in Leisure Studies, she was able to find a faculty member with the appropriate expertise to round out her committee.

*The Right Student -- Concurrent with our developing the SARE proposal, Alison Hiller expressed interest in doing a Masters. Alison was employed at an environmental education center in northeastern Pennsylvania. With a biology Bachelor's degree and a keen interest in environmental education applications in forestry, Alison was attracted by the potential offered by the SARE grant. Her interests and experience in delivering environmental education programs to diverse audiences seemed well suited to the project demands. She accepted when the funding was confirmed. Alison's research examined the comparative efficacy of slide presentations and field tours, both of which she delivered admirably, for effecting a shift in knowledge (of forest ecology and forestry) and attitudes (toward timber harvesting and clearcutting) of workshop participants (landowners principally). Alison will soon complete a Ph.D. in nutrition education.

The final example also addresses a pressing issue associated with our sustainable forestry Extension program, particularly as it relates to NIPFs. We were promoting sustainable forestry to one-half million landowners who we knew little about. What do they know of forest stewardship as a concept and a program? Are their beliefs about forest stewardship reflected in the practices they adopt on their property? These questions and many others led to this fourth example of graduate education in Extension.

*Presence/timing -- The same situation holds for this project as for the preceding example.

*Need -- Again, we were attempting to promote sustainable forestry through Extension education, yet we had little evidence that increasing landowner knowledge could effect either an attitude shift or translate to implementation of sustainable forestry on NIPFs.

*Key Players -- We convinced the State Forester and the Pennsylvania FSAC that the need was real, and that addressing it was a necessary requisite to effective implementation of the state Forest Stewardship Program.

*Funding -- Through the Bureau of Forestry, we secured funding from the U.S. Forest Service, State and Private Forestry to support a graduate student to work on this project, and to provide overall assistance to the Penn State-directed education and outreach components of the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program.

*Entrepreneurial Faculty -- This project was relatively low risk, except that the methodology involved several techniques from the social sciences. Drawing colleagues from Sociology and Rural Sociology to serve on the Ph.D. committee compensated for our disciplinary shortfall. Another interesting facet of this example is that the work on the overall Extension elements of the Forest Stewardship Program served as the student's Extension assistantship duties, along with actually carrying out the research. This tactic of supporting students with Extension assistantships, although parallel to teaching faculty securing teaching assistantships, affords maximum entrepreneurial flexibility to the Extension professor who is willing to aggressively pursue non-traditional funding sources.

*The Right Student -- Andy Egan responded to a Journal of Forestry posting of our Forest Stewardship Graduate Assistantship. The notice was not specific to this project, but instead suggested flexibility in selecting the research topic, and it stated implicitly that maturity and experience in forestry were preferred. Andy brought an undergraduate psychology degree and a forestry Masters to his Ph.D. program along with several years experience as a logger and five years as an instructor in the forestry program at New York's Paul Smiths College. The combination of maturity, teaching and logging experience, and a clear sense of academic objectives suited him well to the specific project that eventually evolved. Exceptionally qualified, Andy was able to interact effectively with landowners, foresters, loggers, and others as required.

Andy's project represented a direct melding of Extension and graduate education. A principal element of success in Andy's project was our recognition that we had recruited a unique individual with special talents. He understood the broad arena within which his research fit, and he recognized the real potential for applying results to thousands of landowners in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Advising Andy was a classic example of "leading from behind." Our role was to guide and direct, but mostly stay out of the way. Andy is now an Assistant Professor (teaching/research appointment) in West Virginia University's Division of Forestry, demonstrating that an Extension-based Ph.D. is valid currency for research-based faculty positions.


Extension faculty are now part of the academic mainstream. They conduct scholarly pursuits, publish refereed articles, and advise and direct graduate students at both the Masters and Ph.D. levels. Opportunities for integrating graduate education in Extension abound, provided the right ingredients are in place. This "right stuff" includes:

  • an aggressive faculty member who is involved with natural resource issues on an ongoing basis;
  • a real need for action (research and Extension);
  • involvement of key stakeholders and decision makers relating to the issue;
  • financial support to conduct the project;
  • an entrepreneurial faculty member who sees opportunity and takes risks;
  • a student who can meet the sometimes special needs of a project.

Extension-based graduate education offers students opportunities for professional and personal growth that more traditional projects often do not provide. There is a corollary benefit to the Extension faculty member -- working with graduate students keeps us sharp and provides a level of job satisfaction that no other tasks can surpass.


Jones, S.B. and J.C. Finley. 1993. Public forest stewardship ethic: Extension's role in the forest program. Journal of Extension. Vol 31 Fall 1993. pp. 8-10.