Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // Tools of the Trade // 1TOT2

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The MESS Experience in Staff Development


Gail Gunderson
Coordinator, Staff and Organizational Development
Extension Service
North Dakota State University-Fargo

Mary Ann Smith
Staff Development Leader
Minnesota Extension Service
University of Minnesota-St. Paul

In the last 11 years, more than 1,500 Extension agents and administrators from around the country have participated in the learning opportunities offered at a summer staff development program affectionately called MESS (short for Minnesota Extension Summer School). In 1989, 100 Extension staff from 22 states participated in 12 courses. Yet, this is a significant decline from the mid-1980s when MESS attracted nearly twice as many. The decline in participants has been gradual but steady, reflecting major changes in Extension staff development resources and commitments. The MESS program has changed as needs and demands have changed.

The program is planned with an advisory committee representing 12 state Extension Services in the North Central region. In week-long sessions, participants take one of five or six graduate courses on important issues confronting Extension, attend breakfast presentations on all of the courses, exchange ideas with colleagues from around the U.S. and Canada, and take advantage of opportunities for personal and family renewal.

The content and format of the program are designed to meet a variety of learning and personal growth needs of Extension professionals and to determinate teaching based on principles of adult education. The faculty are selected because they're outstanding Extension educators with special expertise. Topics include program development issues, administrative and leadership development, ways to teach/deliver nonformal programs, and evaluation approaches. Specific, current issues in each of those areas are the focus of the courses each week. Classes are taught from 8-12 in the morning, leaving the afternoon and evening open for study and renewal activities. The program is offered two consecutive weeks with different courses each week so participants may attend two courses if they choose.

The format of the program allows blocks of time for people to work together on programs, discuss common concerns and problems, learn about practices in other states and regions, get to know new colleagues, and build new bonds with old friends.

This program is built on sound principles of adult education. Key among these are:

  • Actively involve the learner to promote understanding.
  • Connect the content and methods to the real world of the learner to increase retention.
  • Facilitate learning: learners already know a great deal and can learn from each other as well as the teacher.
  • Provide a relaxed, supportive, pleasant environment rich in learning resources to free people to learn in their own way.

Although the specific program content and faculty vary each year, the overall goals remain the same. For more information on 1990 offerings (June 18-29), write the Minnesota Extension Service or the authors. Despite significant changes in Extension staff development nationwide, MESS continues to be a national Extension resource.