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In robotics or Extension—engagement is the glue that holds everything together

By Mary Jo Katras, program leader in family resiliency

I was recently reminded how multifaceted the work of Extension is. There are many parts that go into our work—leadership, teaching, scholarship, engagement, program management and service. I have come to realize each plays a critical role.

However, I think that as we work with new audiences to address grand challenges and wicked problems, and as we strive for innovation, engagement is especially critical. It is the glue of any work we do in our communities across Minnesota and with our colleagues nationally. At first glance, the role of engagement is not obvious. But if you look past the surface and examine the inner workings of a team, you will likely see what I mean!

A robotics team example

Here’s a personal example. A few years ago when my oldest daughter, now 15 years old, was in 8th grade, her school was forming its first robotics team. My husband and I encouraged her to join. I thought I knew the basics of what a robotics team actually is. It builds a robot, right? I also thought that anything that promoted confidence in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for girls would be a good thing. My thoughts did not go much deeper than that.

Robotics team at competition with their instructors behind arena.
Mary Jo Katras’ daughter’s robotics team proudly poses with their instructors. 

As the robotics season went on, however, my daughter would share the things that she learned at her team meetings. As she explained the different roles on the team, I began to see that her robotics team was more than just about an actual robot. Rather, the team and its work was multifaceted and had many moving parts—no pun intended!

There are typically four subteams on a robotics team--mechanical, electrical, programming and business. The first three subteams did not surprise me, but the business subteam did. My daughter’s team defines the work of the business subteam as follows: “The business subteam is responsible for all non-build support, including social media, community outreach, fundraising, website maintenance, and all business ventures in which the entire team partakes. They are the main contact between sponsors, and the team works cooperatively with the programming subteam to maintain a scouting database.”

My eyes were opened. The business team is the glueof the robotics team’s work—just like the engagement we do in Extension!!

Time has passed, and my daughter will be a sophomore in high school this fall. She was recently elected co-lead for community outreach for her all-girls robotics team. As she shared this news with me, I could hardly contain myself with all the ideas I had for her in her new role. The ideas just flowed out—I could not help myself!

After a few minutes of going on and on about ways she could connect with the community, I stopped as I noticed that she was notsharing in my excitement and was staring at me with a “are you done yet?” expression. She simply said, “Mom, I got this!” And I am confident that she does!

Engagement is integral to Extension

Turning back to the role of engagement at Extension, according to the University of Minnesota Extension Guide to Promotion (pdf), “Engagement is integral to Extension. It is the process of connecting with communities and stakeholders to better understand needs, use resources, and build capacity. Engagement can be demonstrated through program leadership, Extension teaching, scholarship, and program management. Engagement is viewed as a distinct criterion for promotion to highlight its value and contribution to the work.”

I encourage us to all think about the role that engagement plays in our current projects. Engagement can be a slow process, and it can be an invisible process to the outside observer. It often goes unrecognized. I thought of this during my daughter’s activities with the robotics team.

At each robotics team competition, there are two “winners.” One award recognizes the team’s work of building the actual robot winning the matches, while the other award, called the Chairman’s Award, seems to me like the “all-around” award at a gymnastics competition. This award recognizes all work of the team. Last year my daughter’s team received the Chairman’s Award and went on to international championship. I don’t think I ever cheered so much at a non-sporting event in my life!

This brings me to my main point—we know engagement is critical. Again, the role of engagement might not be obvious at first glance. And sometimes it takes a back seat to the other pieces of our work.

However, by taking a closer look, we see how engagement is the glue that holds everything together. We must celebrate and recognize the role of engagement in our teams’ work! I challenge you to peel back the layers and really look at the inner workings of your team. What do you see? What should you be celebrating?


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