Urban Extension: Aligning with the Needs of Urban Audiences Through Subject-Matter Centers

The educational program model is the principle approach Extension uses to deliver on its mission of “taking knowledge to the people.” However, with county-based faculty fully engaged in long-term program delivery, they may have little or no capacity to address emerging issues faced by urban communities. Urban governments often seek the research capacity of a university in addition to, or instead of, the traditional Extension programming model but sometimes turn first to other urban-serving universities. Washington State University Extension has addressed these challenges by establishing subject-matter centers. This article examines how subject-matter centers can add capacity to traditional Extension offices in order to be responsive to emerging local needs, suggesting models that other university Extension programs may use or adapt to their local communities. These models also foster more community engagement and articulate greater public value for the institution as a whole.

Keywords: metropolitan, public policy, short-term projects, building capacity, responsiveness, programming, public value


Since its inception over a century ago, Extension has fulfilled its mission of “taking knowledge gained through research and education and bringing it directly to the people to create positive changes” (U.S. Department of Agriculture, n.d.) through nonformal education and learning activities–often referred to as programs (Peterson, 2015). While variation exists across the Extension network, Extension programs are comprised of the key attributes of planning, design, implementation, evaluation and stakeholder involvement (Franz, Garst, & Gagnon, 2015).

Franz et al. (2015) provided a comprehensive review of approaches to and the evolution of Extension programs, including Boone, Saftrit, and Jones’ (2002) assessment that program development is complex and technical. Franz et al. (2015) noted that most Extension professionals directly or indirectly utilize the program development model articulated by Seevers and Graham (2012) comprised of planning, design and implementation, and evaluation. However, Franz et al. (2015) presented additional program development models with more steps—one with 15 steps (Boyle, 1981) and an interactive, nonlinear model with 10 concepts (Caffarella & Ratcliff Daffron, 2013); as well as models from differing foci—a systems approach for organizational improvement (Boone et al., 2002), lifelong learning (Boyle, 1981), peoplecentered (Cervero & Wilson, 2006), and adult education (Caffarella & Ratcliff Daffron, 2013).

The development, delivery, and implementation of a program are not enough; it must “create positive change” in order for Extension to deliver on its mission (Kalambokidis, 2014). Historically, Extension professionals have worked to provide value to the lives of rural stakeholders and community members by developing programs that fit the specific needs of the communities they serve. This direct impact on the lives of program participants is a private value of Extension’s work. Historically, articulation of these direct benefits has been sufficient for Extension and its traditional audiences (Kalambokidis, 2014). In tracing the evolution of needs assessments (an integral piece of traditional program development), Garst and McCawley (2015) reinforced that the U.S. Congress created Extension primarily to help meet the needs of rural communities and assist farmers in providing the amount of food needed throughout the country as populations continued to grow, linking the private value (assisting farmers) with the public value (ensuring an adequate food supply) of Extension. While implicitly articulated in Extension’s past, it is only recently that Extension has begun to focus on articulating its public value (Franz, 2011; Franz et al., 2015; Kalambokidis, 2014), which is defined by Kalambokidis and Bipes (2007) as “the value of a program to those who do not directly benefit from the program” (p. 12).

Read the full article: Urban Extension: Aligning with the Needs of Urban Audiences Through Subject-Matter Centers

Originally written by Brad Gaolach, Michael Kern and Christina Sanders in Journal of Human Sciences and Extension – Spring 2017 Special Edition on Urban Extension

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