Extension interns maximize summer experiences

From using drones to track nutrient management in upstate corn fields to working with Head Start programs in Harlem, Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) interns had a busy summer impacting communities across New York State. Along the way, they learned the value extension brings to applied research and the important role Cornell plays as New York’s land grant university.

For nearly a decade, faculty and staff from the College of Human Ecology (CHE) and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) have teamed with county CCE offices to provide 10-week summer internship opportunities for Cornell undergraduate students. “The summer internship program began as a pilot in 2007 with just five projects,” CCE Director Chris Watkins said in his opening remarks at Extension’s internship reception on Sept. 21. “This year we had 35 students in the field working on projects ranging from bilingual dairy education, food hub development, improving the quality of adult-youth relationships and health and the brain neuroscience outreach.

“Our internships are unique in that students work on projects proposed by faculty and staff from CALS and CHE and are then hosted by extension educators at local CCE offices all over New York State and New York City,” Watkins continued. “I look forward to this event every year because it is the culmination of the decisions CCE makes early in the year to select the very best projects. The faculty then choose the best students for the projects, but it is only today at this reception that we hear about the fruits of all the hard work that goes into this program.”

Cornell Vice Provost Judy Appleton, who also spoke at the reception, said the intern projects addressed an impressive diversity of issues and topics while demonstrating the impact that can only be achieved with reciprocity of knowledge sharing. “The CCE association educators share their knowledge with students and faculty, to our benefit,” Appleton said. “Meanwhile, students share their learning with communities in ways that are beneficial.”

As both an administrator and a faculty member in the College of Human Ecology, CHE Associate Dean of Research and Outreach Rachel Dunifon told reception attendees that she can attest to the value and uniqueness of the CCE intern program. “The program builds on two key strengths we have here at Cornell - our amazing undergraduate students, and our mission as a land grant institution - bringing the two together to enhance not only the student experience, but also the work of CCE educators in the field,” she said.  “Cooperative Extension Interns exemplify the mission of the College. Through their work they equip individuals and families to make changes in their own communities. Essentially, our CCE interns put the mission of the College in action.”

One of those interns was Deborah Seok ‘17, a CHE human development major. For her project, Seok relocated to Harlem, where she worked with 4-H Head Start Programs, leading a pair of studies centered on early intervention work to promote spatial skill development in young children.

“We wanted to see whether providing constructive toys, like building blocks and puzzles, to families will enhance toddlers’ spatial skills,” said Seok, whose work was supervised by Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development in CHE and director of the Cornell Infant Studies Lab. “Working in Harlem allowed me to focus on families from especially disadvantaged backgrounds and target environmental factors such as low socioeconomic status.

“I believe that this summer gave me a glimpse of what to expect from a research and education related career,” Seok added. “It was a great but important challenge to maintain communication with my professor, the school staff, and the families I worked with. Therefore, I gained strong interpersonal skills, not to mention stronger abilities to engage with children. In addition, working with a low-income population taught me a lot about the effects of socioeconomic status--a topic that I am now very interested in studying further--and hopefully prepared me for any future work in similar environments.”

CALS Senior Associate Dean Max Pfeffer believes that what makes the CCE internship so special is the collaboration between CALS, CHE and CCE to allow Cornell students to tackle real-world problems. “All of us strive to provide students with access to world-class faculty and facilities,” Pfeffer said during his reception remarks. “Beyond the classroom and lab, we make it a priority to also provide engaged experiential learning opportunities so our students may get the necessary hands-on experience that will help make them tomorrow’s leaders in whatever they do. Internships often have a tremendous and life-changing impact in that regard.”

Lindsay Chamberlain ’17, can attest to that. The CCE intern, who was featured in a video presented at the reception, spent her summer participating in precision agriculture trials run by the CALS Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP). Under the tutelage of NMSP Director Quirine Ketterings, Chamberlain used cutting edge instruments, including drones, to collect data on corn field nitrogen and growth rates, Chamberlain traveled between a number of western New York farms and the Cornell Musgrave Research Farm. She later presented her research findings at the Aurora Field Day in late August, which she describes as the highlight of her summer.

“The simple idea that I was involved in the planning and presentation at the field day was fantastic, and made my research contributions feel so real,” Chamberlain said. “Quirine really encourages undergraduates to get involved in projects and presentations that might typically be reserved for more experienced researchers. As an intern that makes you feel important, trusted and responsible. It also gives you a great deal of confidence going forward.”

Planning to pursue a master’s in agronomy upon graduating this spring, Chamberlain says she is now looking for a program that is heavily focused on extension. “I enjoy working in an applied research environment,” she says. “And I think the best way to get information to growers is by making personal connections - get them involved and talking to researchers. It’s important to take the farmers’ feedback into account and then pass all of that data and research on to other farmers, which is certainly a concept I became familiar with this past summer.”

Like Chamberlain, Seok is also thankful to have accessed an environment that allowed her to hone her interpersonal and research skills while making a positive impact on the people she worked with. “Through my internship, I was able to take the theoretical basis of what I learn in the classroom and actually apply it to the world around me,” she said. “It was not just learning, but doing, taking action. I saw that my work was actually having an impact on the community and not only that, but I really enjoyed it along the way. Therefore, I can definitely say that my experience this summer gave me more experience and confidence in what I would like to do in the future.”