UW Extension and UniverCity Alliance find synergy across Wisconsin counties

In counties across the state, UniverCity Alliance and University of Wisconsin–Madison Extension have collaborated to move forward community goals and engage students.  

Extension has worked in Wisconsin communities for years on core issues. When Extension and UniverCity are able to collaborate, community projects receive focused attention from UW–Madison students who are eager to apply their classroom knowledge to practical projects.  

“There are situations where Extension’s long-term work can benefit from this infusion of student attention and energy,” Extension’s Coordinator for Programmatic Partnerships Pam Foster Felt, also a member of UCA’s Advisory Board, said during Extension’s annual All Colleague Conference on Nov. 2, 2023.

The panel highlighted four areas where Extension and UniverCity connected in Green, Pepin, and Dane counties. 

Victoria Solomon, an associate professor in Community Resource Development with Extension, recorded a message for the audience with Brodhead Mayor Casey Jones about UCY’s partnership with Green County from 2017-20.  

Extension had already been working on a downtown market analysis in Brodhead and found an opportunity for students to collaborate on the project. The students conducted a business inventory and interviewed local owners to capture their concerns about working in downtown Brodhead.   

“One of the strengths that we really see of UW and the Wisconsin Idea in action is that different parts of UW can really collaborate and lift up opportunities,” Solomon said. “UniverCity projects can build on work that Extension does consistently.” 

Jones, who assisted with the downtown market analysis team, shared that the analysis highlighted gaps in the local market. After the report was complete, he and two other community members opened the Brodhead Business Center. 

“It opened up our eyes to what we could do and also what we didn’t really want to do,” Jones said about the project. “We were very thankful to get to work with the young people who came here. We got to see a lot of ideas. I think it’s a really strong program for the community.”    

From left, Gavin Luter, Sharon Lezberg, Bret Shaw, and Ken Genskow

In Pepin County, Bret Shaw, an environmental communication specialist with Extension and a Life Sciences Communication professor, and a student studied farmers’ attitudes about nitrogen use in order to help local land managers communicate more effectively.  

Shaw said he was stretched thin when initially approached about the project but was interested in contributing his expertise. UniverCity “made it easy” by connecting to a group on campus to source funding to support the student.  

“This project influenced my Extension-related research and outreach since,” Shaw said. “This has directly resulted in several new collaborative research opportunities with funding to address groundwater issues statewide.” 

Sharon Lezberg is the community development educator for Extension in Dane County, and she said UniverCity has had an “increasing impact” on her work. 

One of the most recent connections occurred in Stoughton. The Stoughton Sustainability Committee wanted to include the public in developing sustainability goals and reached out to Extension for assistance in developing a community engagement plan. Lezberg then connected with UniverCity to hire a qualified student interested in a community-based internship 

“UniverCity Alliance is an entrypoint for the university for us,” Lezberg said. “I have found it to be a lot easier to find the resources and to have UniverCity deal with all these challenges of finding the right person on campus, integrating it into the course, and finding students. Tapping into UniverCity’s network of our campus-based colleagues is really helpful.” 

Finally, Ken Genskow, Extension specialist and Planning and Landscape Architecture professor, shared his experience working with Water Resources Management students on developing a watershed management plan for Koshkonong Creek.  

From 2021 to 2024, a group that includes the city of Sun Prairie, towns of Deerfield and Cottage Grove, and Friends of Koshkonong Creek with support from Badger Farms is partnering with UniverCity to work toward a healthier Koshkonong Creek to improve water quality and support a variety of wildlife and human activities for generations to come. 

The goal is to create a 50-year vision for the watershed. While the WRM students will finish their project in early 2024, Koshkonong Creek will still need attention.  

“Students are coming in, they put a lot of energy in, and then they leave,” Genskow said. “Someone needs to be able to continue the connection, and that is the real strength of Extension.”  

—Abigail Becker