CSS receives award to make health research more accessible

1/19/2023 11:03:47 AM Amy Clay-Moore

University of Illinois Extension and IHSI’s Community Seminar Series (CSS)  is one of four Illinois Extension projects to receive a New Technologies for Ag Extension (NTAE) Award from the Extension Foundation.

Projects selected for NTAE participate in one of three levels of development and support: incubation, acceleration, and expansion. Entering its fourth year, the CSS qualified for an acceleration award, which includes $10,000 as well as mentorship and resources to expand the series’ impact and reach.  

The Community Seminar Series was conceived in Fall 2019 to address the online proliferation of inaccurate (and potentially dangerous) health information available to the public. Launched just weeks before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, series organizers quickly realized how necessary reliable and accurate health information can be. They also recognized the dire need to increase public trust in the sciences.

The Community Seminar Series program model achieves both goals, connecting University of Illinois researchers with members of the public who are interested in learning about current health research and identifying reliable sources of health information. The program also provides training for graduate and postdoctoral researchers to develop and deliver educational programming utilizing best practices in science communication.

And the CSS has had great success. In the first year alone, the CSS reached over 1,500 participants. Since its inception, 32 graduate and postdoctoral researchers have participated in the Community Seminar Series, often coming back in subsequent sessions to deliver additional seminars on topics related to their research and to further develop their science communication skills.

Extension Outreach Associate Dee Walls saw the NTAE program as an excellent opportunity for the CSS to expand its reach and impact. Recognizing the success of the model, the team had been developing a graduate certificate in community engagement and creating a playbook to provide guidance to other universities and extension programs interested in adopting this community engagement model to increase the accessibility of academic research findings and public trust in the sciences.

Walls, who serves as the official team lead and fellow on the NTAE award, encouraged the team to apply. “After working with the CSS team for around a year, there were so many things that were going well. There was broad reach and great participation from attendees, and the program processes worked very efficiently. The NTAE grant seemed like a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the programmatic successes and identify new areas for growth, all with the help of experience and expertise throughout the Extension network.”

In addition to receiving the $10,000 award, the CSS team will work closely with a network of Catalysts and Key Informants from the Extension Foundation. Catalysts are experienced Cooperative Extension System (CES) directors and administrators who provide mentorship and guidance to project teams, while Key Informants provide subject matter expertise across a variety of areas, including publishing, evaluation, partner development, leadership and team development, project management, marketing, and more.

This added support will help the CSS team to formally evaluate the efficacy and impact of their efforts, develop and publish a playbook that is robust and adaptable for extension systems across the country to use, and build a graduate certificate program that helps trainees hone their science communication skills and to explore how community engagement can strengthen the impact of health research.

The CSS Playbook, to be published this spring, will provide the tools and resources necessary for other universities to host their own community seminar series. IHSI Research Development Manager Kelsey Hassevoort and Extension Educator Chelsey Byers originally conceived the idea after seeing such positive results for the attendees and participants in Illinois’ Community Seminar Series.

“Over the years, we’ve heard from professionals at other universities who were interested in the topics our presenters covered and invited our students to speak with their communities. We wanted to develop a toolkit that would allow other universities to develop their own version of this program and leverage the knowledge and experiences of their researchers. Our NTAE award will truly catalyze this work and allow us to create an interactive and engaging product and share it far more widely than we initially envisioned,” said Hassevoort.

The graduate certificate program will play an important role in training the next generation of researchers and graduate students to build skills in public engagement and provide accessible scientific communication.

To ensure that presentations are accessible and engaging, graduate student and postdoctoral research trainees are paired with University of Illinois Extension Educators who have experience delivering research-based educational programming to a variety of audiences. Currently, Extension educators provide mentorship and feedback to the presenters throughout their participation in the series to identify areas for future growth and improvement. The graduate certificate will formalize this training, bring in additional community engagement perspectives, and help trainees consider how to build a robust engagement practice into their work.

By the end of 2023, the NTAE award will certainly have helped the CSS team increase its impact and make critical leaps in helping more of the public recognize reliable health information and building greater public trust in the sciences.  

The Community Seminar Series enters its ninth season on March 1. Topics this spring include managing medical misinformation, rethinking the weight-centered health paradigm, debunking common myths in psychology and neuroscience, gene editing, and more. Learn more about the community seminar series

Read more about the four University of Illinois Extension projects that received NTAE Awards.