Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Case for “Sustainability-Plus”: A New Outreach Strategy for Cooperative Extension

Note: The following is a rationale for a sustainability-plus model that I prepared for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System administration in late 2009.  For more specific details on the Sustainability-Plus concept, see our FAQ: “Sustainability-Plus: Questions and Answers.”

Overview

Quoting from Shakespeare, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune.”

A number of serious challenges now occurring in our state, nation and world present us with a marvelous opportunity to demonstrate our continued relevance to our clients and stakeholders.

The Challenges:

These challenges stem from a host of causes— environmental, economic and social — but virtually all of them to one degree or another relate to sustainability: living and working in ways that address present-day needs without eroding the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

The Environment

Environmental challenges stem from many different sources: climate change, unrelenting demands on limited supplies of fossil fuel and water, and perennial concerns about the effects of overpopulation, to name only a few.

Writing recently in the New York Times, columnist and author Thomas Friedman expressed fears of the immediate effects of atmospheric carbon buildup, especially the possibility that

…the next emitted carbon molecule will tip over some ecosystem and trigger a nonlinear event —like melting the Siberian tundra and releasing all its methane, or drying up the Amazon or melting all the sea ice in the North Pole in the summer.  And when one ecosystem collapses, it can trigger unpredictable climate changes in others that could alter our entire world.

Partly for this reason, agriculture — historically speaking, one of Extension’s core competency areas —is facing some of the most acute challenges.   The agricultural model constructed in the 20th century was critically dependent on petroleum and water — two resources that are predicted to be in perilously short supply in the 21st century.  Even so, agriculture over the next few decades will be called upon to achieve what to some seems almost unachievable:  to feed a burgeoning population in spite of these shortages and in the midst what is widely considered to be global climate change.

Yet, these challenges are only a few among many other pressing 21st century concerns, which also include biodiversity and land use, the prevalence of toxic chemicals and heavy metals in our waterways, air pollution, waste-management problems, and a steady depletion in the supply of oceanic fish, to name only a few.

The Economy

Many economists, policymakers and pundits cite growing levels of public and private debt as long-term threats to the nation’s future.   Debt levels accrued by federal, state and local governments now comprise about 24 percent of U.S. GDP.   Darrell J. Stanley, professor of finance at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, writes that government expenditures at these levels “could have a very negative impact on the nation’s ability to consume goods and build plants and equipment for future economic growth.”

The size of federal government debt alone has increased from $2.13 trillion in 1986 to $9 trillion today — a level of growth that prompted this observation by Thomas Friedman:

…one need only look at today’s record-setting price of gold, in a period of deflation, to know that a lot of people are worried that our next dollar of debt — unbalanced by spending cuts or new tax revenues — will trigger a nonlinear move out of the dollar and torpedo the U.S. economy.

Private debt presents yet another challenge.

One worst-case scenario could involve a future in which U.S. national and local governments, faced with insurmountable debt levels, will no longer be able to undertake the public investments necessary to secure the future of upcoming generations of Americans.

Yet, that is only one harbinger among many others of a troubling U.S. economic future.  The median family savings rate has also declined substantially.  In 2006, for example, the U.S. savings rate was negative, even though it stood as high as 8 to 10 percent from 1960 to 1990.

For Americans to be assured of long-term economic viability, levels of personal savings must increase not only to support retirement but also to provide capital for long-term investment, Stanley contends.

Both Stanley and Friedman believe these economic trends are unsustainable in the long run.  For his part, Stanley doubts the historically high U.S. standard of living can be maintained, “unless there is a change in social and economic behavior.”

Health

Equally unsettling is the prevailing state of health in the United States and the threat this poses to the sustainability of the healthcare system.

Fully two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight, and about half of these are classified as obese.  Among African-Americans and Latinos, the rates are even higher.  Childhood obesity also has emerged as a serious long-term threat to the U.S. health system: Among children between 6 and 19 years of age, about 15 percent, or 1 in 6, are overweight.  An additional 15 percent are at risk of becoming overweight.

Obesity-related health costs already are estimated to run more than a hundred billion a year.   The threat to the U.S. healthcare system stemming from obesity-related diseases — diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer — will increase as obesity levels rise.

 The Common Thread

All of these challenges share one thing in common: the way their effects are perceived and interpreted by policy makers, pundits and the American public in general.  Many people fear that we are dealing with more than just an ailing economic order.  Some even fear that this multitude of challenges threatens our very survival.  While still holding out hope, Stanley maintains that fundamental economic reforms are needed to shore up the American economic order and to stave off what conceivably could be disaster in the making.

Will it [the United States] continue under the new world realities? It will not, in the opinion of the author, unless there is a change in social and economic behavior.

To be sure, a change of mindset appears to be taking hold.   Mounting concerns about the perilous state of the economy have sparked a nationwide “crusade for economic restraint,” according to New York Times columnist David Brooks. And while these issues may not yet have bred a culture of malaise, they have put Americans into what New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently described as “a different mental place.” 

Moreover, many policy makers, political commentators and other tend to perceive these challenges as linked rather as isolated problems.  A good example is farming: Whether justified or not, production agriculture is perceived as a major contributor to many of these challenges, not only degrading the environment but also contributing significantly to spiking obesity rates.

Whatever the case, there is a growing, if not full-blown sense of malaise in 21st century America — which brings us back to that word: sustainability.

The Advantages to Extension of a Comprehensive “Sustainability Plus” Effort

 All of these challenges present Extension with a remarkable opportunity: A chance to demonstrate to our clients and stakeholders how we can play an integral role in developing and fostering new production systems and other approaches to address these mounting environmental, economic and social concerns.

Once again, farming serves as a prime example.  As one administrator observed recently, Extension played a major role building the so-called factory farming system.  Now, for the sake of our long-term organizational survival, Extension must demonstrate how it will play a major role in fostering what Jonathan Foley, of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, has described as a “third way” approach.  This approach would combine the elements of two principal farming paradigms: the high-efficiency version, distinguished by its “benefits of economic scalability, high output and low labor demands,” and its organic counterpart with its emphasis on local and scalable farming methods.

Extension is also uniquely equipped to undertake another important mission: to show how sustainability relates to all of us.  Yes, we can serve an important role demonstrating the values recycling and adopting greener production systems.   But we have an even greater role to serve: introducing our clients and stakeholders to the bigger picture by demonstrating how all the major challenges of the day are best addressed by adopting sustainable practices.

Simply put, we have a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the value of “sustainability plus” — sustainability as it relates to every facet of our lives.

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Healthcare Reform and Its Implications for Cooperative Extension

Blogger Matt Yglesias offers a series of compelling thoughts on the future of liberalism — one, I believe, that has direct relevance to the mission of Cooperative Extension.  Big government liberalism is in its death throes not because it has failed but because it achieved what it set out to do decades ago.

For the last few decades, Yglesias says, political debate has centered on questions about the size and scope of the welfare state.

With the passage of health reform, that debate is largely over “with liberals having largely won,” Iglesias says.

Yes, debate will continue to ensue over the scope of health reform.  Nevertheless, with passage of this measure, the basic contours of the federal safety net have been established.  Some significant items remain to be resolved on the progressive political agenda, but none of these will involve impressively large price tables, Yglesias maintains.

From now on, the focus will not be on expanding the welfare state but on rendering the one in place as cost-effective and efficient as possible — a daunting challenge in the midst of ever-tightening federal and state budgetary restraints.

“Most broadly, questions about how to boost growth, how to deliver public services effectively, and about the appropriate balance of social investment between children and the elderly will take center stage,” he says.

Moreover, in the considerably more redistributive policy environment following healthcare reform, he believes liberal proponents of issues such as reduced trade barriers and increased immigration flows will likely feel more emboldened about advancing their agendas.

All of this brings me back to how these changes will affect the Extension agenda.  

In a future in which policymakers will be searching for ways to deliver public services more effectively, Extension may be better positioned than ever fill an enhanced role. Compared to other federal and state programs, our involvement in these services has historically been peripheral.  However, the types of expertise we have provided in the past may acquire greater value in coming years.

I’m reminded of the grassroots model developed by Uva Hester and other Tuskegee Institute Extension educators early in the last century to assist tuberculosis sufferers and others in geographically remote locations not reached by more conventional types of medical assistance.

The Alabama Department of Health’s Division of Chronic Disease Prevention already enlists Alabama Extension agents in a statewide grassroots effort to help people, especially low-income people, develop “self-care strategies” — proactive steps to reduce chronic disease risks, such as type-2 diabetes and hypertension.

These kinds of grassroots efforts deemed marginal in the past may be more highly prized in the future as federal and state policymakers search for more proactive measures to control healthcare costs.

Likewise, the transformed public policy landscape that will likely result from healthcare reform may present other opportunities for Cooperative Extension.  For example, a renewed push for trade expansion and immigration reform will present opportunities for Extension educators representing a wide array of programming areas.

What Should Comprise a Cooperative Extension Grand Narrative?

Late last week, I mentioned the value of grand organizational narratives and why constructing such a narrative is critical to the success of the Cooperative Extension mission.

We Cooperative Extension professionals have a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, many of us, especially the younger ones, are not fully apprised of our history and the role it can and should serve in helping us understand where we have been and, most important, where we should be going.

That raises an important question:  What should constitute this grand Extension narrative?

I’ve formulated a few initial thoughts.

Working Knowledge

First, Extension educators and professionals should develop a keen awareness of and appreciation for the role Cooperative Extension has served in advancing practical knowledge.

To a significant degree, Americans put practical knowledge on the map — a considerable feat in its own right.  Not too long ago, the humanities were regarded, especially by Europeans, as the sole hallmarks of learning and culture, even as practical sciences, such as chemistry or forestry, were derided as “hick” knowledge.

Cooperative Extension educators played a major role in elevating practical knowledge to a preeminent place not only in the United States but throughout the world.

Yet, we accomplished something even more significant:  We added value to practical knowledge.  We transformed it into working knowledge by showing ordinary people how to make use of it to improve the quality of their lives and livelihoods.  By improving their quality of life, we also empowered them.

Simply put, working knowledge is value-added knowledge that enables our clients to improve their lives and livelihoods in lasting and meaningful ways.

It’s a form of practical knowledge that has been expressed many times and in many ways throughout our history.  Even before passage of the Smith-Lever Act establishing formal Cooperative Extension programs, the working knowledge concept was embodied early forerunners of Extension work — in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration projects and in Booker T. Washington’s farm demonstration wagons.

As a concept, working knowledge has the potential of providing all of us with much greater organizational clarity.

Likewise, it is a concept that we Extension educators should closely bear in mind as we strive to distinguish ourselves from among the legions of other knowledge providers on this increasingly flat world — a world that now includes nonhuman knowledge providers in the form of search engines.

We can’t compete with search engines. On the other hand, we still offer something that search engines lack: the ability to empower lives through working knowledge.  We provide our clients with knowledge in deep context, showing how the practical application of knowledge can enrich their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

Wiki Knowledge

This working knowledge concept also positions us in another unique way.

Too an increasing degree, collaborative knowledge — so-called wiki knowledge that emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning — is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

Isn’t working knowledge, the collaborative, empowering knowledge that has characterized Cooperative Extension work for the last century, a forerunner of this approach?  Equally important, doesn’t this longstanding experience with working knowledge uniquely equip us for the future?

I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes — yet another reason why I believe the working knowledge concept should form the bedrock of the Cooperative Extension narrative.

Dialogue and Empowerment

Finally, I believe this unique approach to working knowledge puts us in another especially advantageous position.

Over the last few decades, worsening deficit problems, coupled with a host of cultural and social factors, have forced policymakers at all levels to rethink the way they deliver programs.

Consequently, the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach that once characterized public programs, whether at the federal or state level, is passé.  This has led to the formation of a new approach built on dialogue and empowerment that encourages individuals and groups to address change by making things happen themselves rather than having things happen to them.

Working knowledge should play an integral part in this approach.

This change from a traditional top/down problem-solving approach to one that emphasizes dialogue and empowerment presents Cooperative Extension educators with one of the greatest opportunities in our history to showcase distinctive working knowledge approach.

For the sake of our future, emphasizing this unique Extension experience and facility with working knowledge as well as the dialogue and empowerment that goes with it should comprise an integral part of our grand narrative.

The Value of Grand Organizational Narratives

Okay, I admit it: I’m obsessed with the big picture.

But that’s not surprising.  I’ve tested consistently on the Meyers-Briggs personality test as an INTJ. INTJ’s tend to be obsessed with issues like big picture thinking and grand strategies.

All joking aside, though, I do believe that grand organizational narratives are not only an egregiously overlooked issue but also are a critical ingredient of success for many, if not most, organizations

Why are grand narratives so important?  Possessing a sound narrative is a lot like possessing a solid grounding in history.   My 11th grade history teacher summed it up well: He used to say the lack of this solid grounding is a lot like driving down an unusually busy interstate highway without a rearview mirror.  You can’t move forward unless you know what’s behind you.

But grand organizational narratives are important for another reason.

Let me illustrate with a recent current event — the U.S. Tea party movement. Mind you, I neither come to praise this movement nor to bury it — only to analyze it and to account for its success.

I believe the movement is successful largely because of its grand narrative.  To put it another way, it’s succeeded because it has inspired and, most important, motivated its membership with a message that is perceived as being both deeply  rooted in the past and relevant to the needs of the present day.

Call it what you will — patriotism or lunacy —the Tea Party narrative not only has inspired but, even more significant, also has motivated tens of millions of citizens, some of whom up to now have been  entirely apolitical,  to participate in the American political process, largely through turnouts at rallies and other public functions.  But of course, the Tea Party is only the most recent example of how effective grand narratives have inspired Americans throughout history.   The Civil Rights Movements and Vietnam Antiwar movement are two especially noteworthy examples.

The Cooperative Extension movement in America is desperately in need of its own narrative.  And what a foundation on which to build! In terms of its history, Cooperative Extension figuratively is sitting on a veritable treasure trove, though the vast majority of Extension educators are scarcely aware of this fact.

Roughly a century ago, we helped integrate a technologically challenged farming landscape into an vibrant and integral part of the U.S. economy and, in the process, transform U.S. farming into one of the most successful enterprises in human history.

Of course, this only scratches the surface of the century-old Extension narrative.

To be fair, though, within the last century Extension has done a lousy job equipping its employees and clients with an adequate understanding of and appreciation for this narrative and its value to our mission and future success.  It’s high time we corrected this.

Be advised, though, that narratives and history aren’t synonymous.  Narratives must also help underscore how this history has uniquely equipped an organization to rise to the demands of the present day. The most effective grand narratives have one foot firmly planted in the past, the other similarly positioned in the present.

Narratives must not only extol the past but also underscore how past experiences have equipped organizations especially well for the future.  Without this balance, narratives don’t account for much.

On the other hand, well-conceived, balanced narratives can inspire and motivate our employees to better serve their clients even as they provide clients not only with a compelling story about our past but also a deeper appreciation for our continued organizational relevance.

The Cooperative Extension Educator as Sentinel

A Journal of Extension article by three land-grant university faculty members has caused something of a stir within Cooperative Extension circles — and well it should.

The three expressed the fear — an entirely justified fear — that Extension is going the way of the Pony Express.   The Pony Express once represented the cutting edge of mail delivery until the advent of the telegraph and the construction of the transcontinental railroad changed all that.

Likewise, in its halcyon days, the U.S. Cooperative Extension system served as cutting-edge educational model for developed and developing nations alike.  Much like the Pony Express, though, the Extension model is becoming increasingly irrelevant due to a number of factors — especially the rising levels of education within most of its client base.

This, in turn, has led to flagging confidence in Extension’s value among federal, state and local funding sources.  

What is to be done? 

Cooperative Extension, they contend, is badly in need of redefinition — an effort that may result in the loss of some of Extension’s traditional client base, though the authors stress that Extension must retain its traditional approach among its existing client base even as it presses ahead with efforts to reach new audiences.

Marketing, they contend is equally critical.  One of the first steps should be an extensive survey to determine Extension’s “modern-day niche.”

Finally, the authors stress the importance of “rigorous communication and education.”  Extension pioneered many communications technologies throughout its history, but its next challenge lies in developing programs and products grounded in current communication and educational theory.

Likewise, Extension educators steeped in subject-matter expertise nonetheless possess inadequate training in education, communication, psychology and other fields that that are paramount to the success of the Extension mission, they contend.

Needless to say, all of these concerns are valid, but I think they are overlooking the two most critical factors: The rise of globalization and, equally significant, the advent of social media, both of which will directly affect the way Extension educators undertake their mission in the future.

Simply put, Extension educators are operating within an entirely new environment, which author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman aptly describes as the flat world.

On this radically “flattened” landscape, change is literally occurring at the speed of light as knowledge is rapidly moved across oceans and entire contents through emerging Web-based media. 

These changes will require nothing less than the redefinition of the Cooperative Extension educator — how he/she interacts with clientele within the flat world environment.

Extension educators already are being forced to move beyond their traditional venues of face-to-face contacts and print and broadcast media — 20th century methods of knowledge transfer.   But the changes will be even more far reaching.

A growing number of Extension educators are beginning to realize that they no longer can afford to be mere knowledge providers — a task for which Google and other search engines are now fully equipped.  Rather they must strive to become value-added knowledge providers —sentinels, in manner of speaking.

I draw my lessons from the blogging phenomenon that has unfolded within the last decade.  

As a political junkie of sorts, one of the first Websites sites I visit every mornng is Andrew Sullivan’s Weblog, The Daily Dish. Sullivan has succeeded spectacularly as a blogger through the role he serves as a sentinel.   He informs readers and endows them with a deep historical and philosophical understanding of the passing political scene but he also does something more:  He provides his readers with a reasonable expectation of what may happen next — an understanding of the political and cultural events that lie just beyond the horizon.

Simply put, along with knowledge,  he strives to provide the deepest possible context.  And by providing unusually deep context, Sullivan has succeeded not only as a knowledge provider but also as a value-added knowledge provider.

Cooperative Extension educators are faced with the same challenges.  To compete successfully within this flat world, we must become sentinels — value-added knowledge providers who are fully equipped to use social media to empower our clients not only with knowledge but also knowledge within an especially deep context.

To their credit, a growing number of Extension educators already are fully aware of what is at stake. In my state, for example, our precision farming team already has adopted this new sentinel model successfully.  They are viewed among their clients as cutting-edge sources of knowledge about precision farming.  But they are also are taking the next critical step, learning how to use social media and other Web-based technologies to provide their clients with daily insights and commentary about emerging technologies and practices. 

They are becoming value-added knowledge providers, because they know that within this increasingly flat world, their future — and the future of the Cooperative Extension mission — depends on it.

Safeguarding a Precious Extension Asset: Institutional Knowledge

I ended 2008 with two indelible impressions that helped me gain a clearer perspective on how we, as an organization with a long, venerable history, should be passing along our institutional torch from generation to generation.

The first impression stemmed from the inspiring “last lecture” of Dr. Randy Pausch, the creatively brilliant, doggedly optimistic Carnegie Mellon University professor who lost his courageous struggle with pancreatic cancer in 2008.

The last lecture concept, which is used widely at many leading universities throughout the United States, was initially envisioned as a kind of dramatic device:  Faculty members are invited to reflect on their lifetime insights and professional achievements as if they were delivering the last lecture of their lives.  In Pausch’s case, the presentation turned out to be not only a literal last lecture but also one of the most memorable valedictory addresses in history.

A Viral Sensation

Recorded and posted on Carnegie-Mellon’s youtube site, the lecture soon went viral, transforming Pausch in the last months of his life into a media celebrity, a national spokesperson for pancreatic cancer and, ultimately, a best-selling author.

I’ve watched the youtube lecture and read the book several times.  Many of Pausch’s insights will stay with me for the rest of my life.

The Ethereal Nature of Institutional Knowledge

That was my first deep impression. The second one originated from a series of conversations with a handful of friends and coworkers about the ethereal nature of institutional knowledge.

Ethereal, defined as “extremely delicate and refined,” is an especially useful adjective within this context, because institutional knowledge, despite the valuable role it serves in organizations, is precisely that — extremely delicate and refined — and fleeting.

Institutional knowledge is the agglomeration of facts, concepts and experiences that have been generated and refined over years, decades, even centuries, in some cases, within an organization.  Despite the long periods of time required to grow and refine this knowledge, much of it cannot be fully articulated — which is perhaps one reason why it is so ethereal.

Of course, other types of knowledge are also indispensable to organizational success, such as how an organization employs its formal knowledge base — the hard, empirical type of knowledge generated by research and recorded in books and other media.

But the value of institutional knowledge should never be discounted.

NASA’s Experience

A close friend of mine who works as an industrial engineering professor at my university has observed that both kinds of knowledge, formal and institutional knowledge, propelled men to the moon and back in the late 60’s and 70’s.

Likewise, a combination of the two was critical to the success of the Apollo 13 mission in 1970.  Drawing on both knowledge bases, an eclectic array of rocket scientists, flight specialists and engineers collaborated effectively to fling three men in a badly injured spacecraft around the dark side of the moon and, ultimately, back to safety on earth.

As I said, though, institutional knowledge is fleeting: Any NASA engineer will readily attest that the body of institutional knowledge that propelled men to the moon and that safeguarded the Apollo 13 astronauts has been lost through a host of factors, including reduced funding, downsizing and retirement.

While most, if not all, of the formal knowledge associated with the Apollo moon mission could be retrieved from troves of archival materials, much of the institutional knowledge has been irretrievably lost. And without this institutional knowledge, some of the formal knowledge isn’t much good.

A retired Extension colleague of mine rightfully has pointed out that Cooperative Extension is undergoing a similar kind institutional knowledge loss in the midst of funding reductions and steady retirements.

Even in cases in which funding is available to replace retired Extension faculty members, the successors  often turn out to be  young tenure-track professionals who struggle to balance Extension work against a heavy load of teaching and research responsibilities.

Lessons from Randy Pausch and the Last Lecture Concept

Consequently, many of these young Extension professionals, despite a genuine affinity for Extension work, fail to develop the same levels of refined institutional knowledge that characterized earlier generations of Extension professionals.

This brings me back to my first impression: Randy Pausch and the last lecture concept.  To be sure, reversing the loss of institutional knowledge within Cooperative Extension is not something that can be readily addressed.

But the last lecture concept is a start.  Ponder this sobering fact: We are allowing hundreds, if not thousands, of Extension educators who collectively represent hundreds of years of institutional knowledge to leave each year without sharing their insights with the rising generations of young educators who are taking their places.

Last lectures are no panacea, but they are a start.  They should become a revered tradition within the Extension mission as well as an integral part of a comprehensive strategy to preserve our invaluable, but nonetheless ethereal, institutional knowledge base.

Expertise Research: Lessons for 4-H?

Malcolm Gladwell, a native Canadian, has been accused of holding Canadian views on the factors behind high achievement.  Success, he contends, stems from more than just latent talent and a rugged individualistic desire to succeed. 

Whether these views reflect Canadian or American values, I do believe they fall close to the truth.

Success does not stem from raw talent alone.  Indeed, Gladwell says a number of psychologists specializing in expertise research have determined that there is an especially significant factor associated with high achievement — one that Gladwell calls the 10,000-hour rule.  Simply put, great creators throughout history have spent a minimum 10,000 hours, or 10 years, working diligently to perfect their skills.

Gladwell describes this phenomenon in his bestselling book Outliers: The Story of Success.

Every great composer, for example, has composed for about a decade before he writes his master work.  Mozart, considered by many to be the greatest of all, was no exception. 

“Mozart is composing at 11, but he’s composing garbage,” Gladwell says.  “He doesn’t compose anything great until he’s 22 or 23.”

Gladwell says the research he’s done into this phenomenon has driven home a vital lesson: that society is not allowing sufficient enough time to for people to master complex skills.

“We are far too impatient with people,” he says. “We assess what it takes for people to do a certain job.  We always want to make that assessment after 6 months or a year and that’s ridiculous.”

“The kind of jobs we require people to do today are sufficiently complex that they require a long time to reach mastery.  What we should be doing is setting up institutions and structures that allow people to spend the time and effort to reach mastery, not judging them prematurely.”

Consider the number of people throughout history who, while possessing tremendous potential, were passed through educational institutions by educators who either did not readily discern their gifts or simply lacked sufficient patience.

Speaking as a Cooperative Extension professional, this raises an intriguing question: Could 4-H help fill this breach by providing children with the levels of immersion they need to acquire these high-level skills?

I think the answer is obvious.  The findings of expertise researchers present 4-H and other publicly and privately supported grassroots organizations with tremendous opportunities to fill this breach.