New Seed to Academe: An Extension Services Model
Date Published: 
7 February 2011

A model for getting new ideas into the hands of faculty took its basic shape from agricultural extension services aimed at farmers. Today, consultants help computer science and engineering departments improve their yield of graduates, particularly female. Faculty, not farmers, are the clients who want to learn what to do differently, and to get help putting it into action.

In farming and education, research is slow to come out of theoretical and methodologically correct settings and into practice. Findings must be filtered, translated, and applied by example. Even educators who work mostly with words, not plants and dirt, need help understanding what to do differently, and how to proceed to a new way of doing things.

For example, how do you change department climate? What hooks will draw more women and minorities to science and engineering fields? What “relevant problem solving” can be added to an introductory engineering or computer science course?

The National Science Foundation has had a long interest in the diversity of the science and
engineering workforce. All kinds of strategies are tried: funding research on root causes and how students learn, funding experimental programs and “interventions,” incentivizing the development of student outreach and support programs, and so on. The Research on Gender in Science and Engineering program reached a point where there were many tested models and approaches to increase the numbers of female students in fields where their numbers are very low and falling. However, there was frustration that the community of practice was not aware of them, and, progress with adoption was very slow. The program introduced extension services in 2005 to enable adoption and adaptation.

To date, more than nine projects have five years and $2.5 million each to change behaviors in a small plot of the educational landscape. The National Academy of Engineering, for example, is working on engineering curriculum. The National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) is coaching faculty in 35 computer science departments to try out pair programming, team learning, better student experience, and making computer science more relevant using real?world problems. The Stevens Institute of Technology is transporting a well?tested spatial visualization skills course to about 30 engineering schools.