October 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW5

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Adapting a College Credit Course to Extension Programming Needs

An irrigation systems management college credit course was offered in the state of Nebraska for a period of 6 years with an on-campus instructor lecturing via satellite and off-campus Extension Irrigation specialists delivering instruction at research and Extension centers across the state. Agency personnel were in need of training to assist them in redirecting their expertise to assist and educate farmers in the area of irrigation water management. Eighty-nine professionals across the state completed the basic irrigation course that gave detailed instruction on water management as well as background for conducting one-on-one water management assistance.

C. Dean Yonts
Extension Irrigation Engineer and Associate Professor
Panhandle Research and Extension Center
Scottsbluff, Nebraska
Internet Address: cyonts1@unl.edu

Brian L. Benham
Extension Water Management Engineer and Assistant Professor
South Central Research and Extension Center
Clay Center, Nebraska

Chuck Burr
Extension Educator
Clay County
Clay Center, Nebraska

Dean E. Eisenhauer
Biological Systems Engineering Department
Lincoln, Nebraska

William L. Kranz
Extension Irrigation Specialist and Associate Professor
Northeast Research and Extension Center
Norfolk, Nebraska


One of five goals outlined by the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) states the need for " greater harmony between agriculture and the environment" (United States Department of Agriculture, 1997). One of the objectives stated for this goal is "to develop, transfer, and promote adoption of efficient and sustainable agricultural, forestry, and other resource policies, programs, technologies, and practices that protect, sustain, and enhance water, soil and air resources." Extension personnel throughout the U.S. are encouraged to identify state and federal agencies with whom to establish a partnership with the purpose of maintaining agricultural profitability and protecting or improving the environment.

Nebraska has over eight million acres of irrigated land (Irrigation Journal,2001), ranking second in the nation. Nebraska agriculture is diverse, with a variety of crops grown, a climate ranging from semi-arid to sub-humid, and irrigation methods divided among center pivot and surface systems and major sources of water from both surface and ground water supplies. Given the size and diversity of the state, it is important that educational efforts be widespread in order to focus on protecting water quality and using water resources efficiently.

The goal of this educational outreach effort described here was to provide professionals with the knowledge necessary for making good water management recommendations.

Targeted Program

The United States Department of Agriculture - Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) wanted its personnel to deliver on-farm water management assistance. However, many of the NRCS personnel lacked water management expertise and were in need of training. The NRCS and the University of Nebraska outlined a training program for NRCS personnel with the following issues in mind:

  1. Water management was not a part of the formal training for many NRCS employees;
  2. Redirection of personnel to address water management issues had to occur in conjunction with their current job assignment; and
  3. Training had to provide in-depth basic water management information along with hands on experience.

Meier (1989) discusses the importance of prioritizing education clientele and the need for collaborative efforts to meet the needs for future Extension programming. For this program, the solution was to combine formal teaching associated with a college credit course with the informal and broad outreach of Cooperative Extensions adult education programming.

There are other examples of college courses being taught to the agricultural sector. D. J. Breece (1993) described an economics course taught to farmers wanting more detail than what the traditional Extension meeting could provide. However, this irrigation training program required students to not only obtain in class training but also hands-on experience.

Course Description

Irrigation Systems Management is a senior/graduate level course for engineering and non-engineering students. The course is taught one semester during each year in the Biological Systems Engineering Department at the University of Nebraska. The course objective is to develop a working understanding of irrigation systems and methods of managing irrigation systems. It stresses fundamentals and application of irrigation technology. The three credit hour course consists of two 1-hour lectures and a 3-hour lab each week.

Course Delivery

Beginning in 1993, the semester course was offered to distance education students as a series of three 5-week modules. Students could enroll for one or more module in a given semester. The modules allowed students to commit to a short training period yet still complete other duties associated with their jobs. At the end of each module, a test was given over material covered. More than 50% of the students were asked by their employer to complete the semester course over a 2- to 3-year time period.

The course was taught in conjunction with the Irrigation Systems Management on-campus course offering and broadcast via satellite. An Extension Irrigation specialist or educator was located at each of four off-campus delivery sites.

Even though the course was delivered to four locations across the state, some students still traveled up to 100 miles to reach the delivery sites. For this reason, off-campus students attended class only 1 day per week. This reduced travel time for off-campus students and allowed 4 days a week at their work stations.

During a class day, off-campus students viewed a recorded lecture, heard a live lecture, and completed a lab exercise. Off-campus instructors taught lab exercises and designed some to address local irrigation issues. To utilize the hydraulics lab on-campus, the on-campus instructor videotaped the data collection process, and students used the results to complete their lab reports. To provide faster response time for the students, off-campus instructors graded course exercises and tests. Delegating duties to the off-campus instructors provided both on-campus and off- campus students easy access to a course instructor.

Course Outcome

A total of 89 off-campus students completed the 3-hour Irrigation Systems Management course offered between 1993 and 1998. Students included Nebraska NRCS personnel, Wyoming NRCS personnel, Crop consultants, research technicians, Educators, and Wyoming Conservation District personnel. The average grade for students off-campus was a high B+. This was slightly higher than for traditional on-campus students.

At the beginning of the course, off-campus students were encouraged to phone in questions to the on-campus instructor. Because of the delay in receiving questions and the subsequent interruption that it caused to on-campus students, this process gradually gave way to off-campus instructors providing answers for questions at their respective sites.

Off-campus students were not actively involved in the on-campus lecture, yet the on-campus instructor noted that when broadcasting, on-campus students responded less to questions and were less likely to engage in discussion. On those occasions when filming was not taking place, students tended to be more relaxed and actively took part in class discussion.

Students were pleased with the methods that were used to deliver the course. Comments from students included: "I have already used some of the material on my job" and "The course is very good and is very relevant to our work in the NRCS and irrigation water management."

As a result of this course, professionals gained irrigation water management training that can be used when working with farmers to improve irrigation water management decisions. The program also enhanced linkages between Extension and NRCS as a result of the relationships developed during course instruction. Examples are increases in the number of co-lead demonstrations and joint information development and delivery. However, as personnel change and additional water management strategies develop, training like that documented here will likely be necessary in the future.


Breece, D .J. (1993). University coursework for farmers. Journal of Extension [On- line]. 31(3). Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1993fall/iw3.html

Irrigation Journal. (2001). Volume 51, Number 1.

Meier, H. A. (1989). Extension trends and directions. Journal of Extension [On-line]. 27(3). Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1989fall/a3.html

United States Department of Agriculture. (1997). Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service strategic plan [On-line]. Available: http://www.reeusda.gov/part/gpra/stratpl.htm