Mini-Employees are helping UT Extension do big things

Tennessee UT Extension is looking to increase services and community outreach by a new forward-thinking way to be efficient.

A tiny land rover gets its go-juice from the sun-- solar-powered, quick, and expertly designed.

Jeff Duncan is a former engineer with DuPont and Louisiana Pacific. Now several hours a week, he teaches 4-H youth in Williamson County STEM lessons, including how to build these vehicles, a program called Junior Solar Sprint.

“I think it is a great fit to have somebody that’s previously been in the industry, who has actually practiced the skills that you’re teaching,” Duncan explains. “Most of us don’t particularly have a lot of teaching skills, so that’s not our strong suit, but from a technology standpoint, you won’t get anything past us. You won’t stump us very often on the technology side.”

A mini-vehicle engineered by a mini-employee.

Jeff is one of sixteen people from the Franklin area who work a handful of hours at the Williamson County UT/TSU Extension office, some in STEM instruction, and in other areas of outreach.

Director Matt Horsman says that he was able to call on a diverse group of talented local people.

According to Horsman, “Is there a model where we can get them in here for a few hours a day to teach a very, very specific thing-- that’s all they’re here to do, and then we can actually begin to address the needs of our community. So, it started with one.”

More were added-- programs and people. Jennifer Hartsell is a former 4-H’er and now teaches a STEM CSI class to young people, what she calls the intersection of law and science.

“During that class, we focus on things like fingerprinting, DNA, blood typing, blood splatter, gun powder residue-- the kind of things that kids get really excited about,” Hartsell states. “We do hands-on labs, so they learn the science.”

Williamson is the only county office in Tennessee with this employee plan. This is one of the state’s fastest-growing, urban areas, but Extension leaders believe this model could work well anywhere.

“When we think about what’s important in our urban communities, suburban, rural areas, those community members, the work they do is so relevant in these communities, and even with small amounts of their time, their ability to share that is just tremendous,” Amber Stokes, the dean at UT Extension, adds.

When Williamson County Extension meets someone they would like to employ, they find a program to fit the person. And, what better way to efficiently serve a community and run an office? Finding a skillet to meet a need.