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Roger Kjelgren Uses Principles of Effective Public Engagement to Bridge Rural and Urban Communities in Florida

Roger Kjelgren and Merritt Turetsky at 2018-19 Leshner Fellow Orientation
2018-19 Leshner Fellows Roger Kjelgren and Merritt Turetsky at their AAAS orientation.
Photo credit: Mary Catherine Longshore, AAAS

The University of Florida (UF) is a land grant university with a large cooperative extension service – which often finds itself in the middle of shifting cultural and economic trends and differences between the state’s rural and urban populations. Roger Kjelgren is director of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Mid-Florida Research and Education Center. Bridging the gap between rural and urban communities is one of his long-term public engagement goals. He wants to create interest in agriculture among the growing urban population, to help support it as an ongoing, viable industry. One way he is approaching this is through the local food movement, which is making people in urban areas “stakeholders in what they eat, how it is grown, and the impact on the environment. [Locally grown food] is a social amenity,” says Kjelgren.

Kjelgren, a 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow, looks for ongoing opportunities to create alliances and connections between the local food movement and traditional agriculture, including by highlighting individual farmers on social media. He says the Leshner fellowship largely inspired this idea of reaching out to his center’s constituencies and telling their stories. He also has been doing outreach on industrial hemp, although he views it as more of a short-term effort around the rise in interest due to its recent legalization. Kjelgren and his center conduct research on the production of industrial hemp, in support of this emerging industry, and often receive questions and requests from potential investors and growers.  

In May 2019, Kjelgren’s university held an extension conference focused on “vexing issues” in agriculture and natural resources in Florida, such as blue-green algae-red tide and invasive iguanas, where the university is involved in both communicating about the issue and researching solutions. As part of this conference and as his major AAAS fellowship activity, Kjelgren organized two sessions: a AAAS Communicating Science Workshop and a focus group for faculty on how to incorporate public engagement into their promotion and tenure evaluations. Another Leshner Fellow, Alexis Racelis, gave a remote presentation on how the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley College of Sciences has been working on this, as well.

Kjelgren administered surveys about the event and will be submitting a report to his college administrators for their use in considering a structured program to encourage engagement. One of their goals is to designate interested faculty who can engage with the public on various challenging topics. Public engagement at his university is often part of the cooperative extension process, which is fundamental to the land grant mission. However, Kjelgren thinks the AAAS workshop was important in showing other approaches – including the process of developing a public engagement plan.

The Leshner fellow orientation at AAAS was eye-opening for Kjelgren. While he was already using some of the principles of effective public engagement, “this pulled back the curtain” and helped him become more intentional and a better advocate. One of the most important lessons he internalized was not to “talk at” people, which he believes is nearly everyone’s default mode. Public engagement requires people feeling comfortable enough to ask questions. Similarly, he says another area where the fellowship “resonated most strongly was my understanding of communication as putting yourself in the position of your audience.” While Kjelgren realizes these are not new revelations, he internalized them through seeing them laid out clearly.  The challenge remains of getting an institution to fully support these approaches – but his workshop, focus group and ongoing activities are making progress toward this goal.

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to a cohort of mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.