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More than a Soil Test

By Mary Jo Katras, Program Leader — Family Resiliency

At our school, the annual science fair is a big deal.

My 13 year-old daughter Fae had been mulling over her idea for months. Originally, she wanted to test whether a Wi-Fi network has an effect on plant growth. As with any research project, her first step was to find out what previous research has to say on this topic. However, Fae found very little research online or in books, so she asked her teacher. Her teacher recommended talking to an expert in field, perhaps someone from Extension. Lucky for Fae, I work for Extension and had the inside scoop on someone she could talk with — Sam Bauer, Extension educator in horticulture.

Fae sent Sam an email with her questions, and he conferred with his colleagues, then explained to Fae the difficulty of controlling for all possible variables to really be able to know the true effect, if any, of a Wi-Fi network on plant growth. Sam offered an alternative idea: testing how varying soil temperatures affects plant growth.

Fae took the idea one step further, wanting to know how temperature affected the soil composition and subsequently, plant growth. She was set — Extension had saved the day!

The next week, Fae had done some research on ways to test soil composition and wanted to buy a soil testing kit on Amazon. However, the cost of these kits ranged from $10 to $150! Furthermore, we did not know enough about what we needed to test for in the soil to know if the kits would be suitable for Fae’s purposes. So, I told Fae to go on the Extension website to see if any of our experts had any information.

Fae found that not only will Extension’s University of Minnesota partner, the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, test soil at a relatively low cost, but experts there also provide:
  • A step-by-step explanation for what to test for and how to collect a soil sample,
  • A sample report explaining and defining all results, and
  • Terminology to help you not only interpret your results but also apply to your situation, whether it be a science experiment or crop management.
A University of Minnesota Extension partnership to the rescue!

So why am I telling you this story? For me, this highlights the “value-added service” of Extension. Sure, our goal is to create a stronger Minnesota through education and research. However, how we do that is where we shine. We don’t just offer tools and resources without any explanation like the soil testers available on Amazon. And we don’t just offer an educational website without any personal expertise or possibility for continued learning to back it up.

We add value to our service through our content and local expertise — grounded in research, University resources, and the community — and our dedication to continuous improvement. We empower individuals (like my daughter), families, and communities with quality education, and the necessary tools and resources to support their decision-making through life transitions (or science fair projects).

And on top of all that, we work with our community partners to build organizational capacity through train-the-trainer workshops and technical assistance so they can better meet the needs of their organization and the individuals and families they serve. We work across all levels of the Spectrum of Prevention, from the level of the individual up to policy.

While the jury is still out on how temperature will affect the soil composition and plant growth, we do know that in Extension, we continue to add value to our service!

Fae's experiment in progress.

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