Connected to Communities: Celebrating Two Years Since Extension and Public Media Joined UW-Madison

UW-Madison’s commitment to community outreach is an important part of our campus culture. The Wisconsin Idea holds that our campus responsibilities extend to the boundaries of the state and beyond. That philosophy undergirds work done by every faculty and staff member, but it’s especially relevant to people who work in our statewide outreach programs.

It’s been two years since Extension, Public Radio, and Public Television were formally reincorporated into the UW-Madison campus. I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on how our closer engagement with these historic networks are helping us address emerging challenges.


Extension at UW-Madison traces its roots to the beginning of the previous century. In 1912, E.L. Luther became the first Extension agent in Wisconsin, traveling Oneida County by motorcycle, disseminating research- based information about farm management, crops, and livestock.

This was two years before the U.S. Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, creating the national Cooperative Extension network.

At about the same time, UW electrical engineers were experimenting with wireless transmitters. In 1916, station 9XM transmitted the first state weather forecast by Morse Code. Three years later, the station carried the first documented clear transmission of human speech. And when the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performed at the UW Armory (the Red Gym) in 1921, it was the first such performance to be carried live via radio.

In 1922, station 9XM was relicensed as WHA — the call letters it still uses today. With the advent of television, WHA-TV Madison went on the air in 1954 as only the seventh educational television station in the United States.

When the UW System was created, these units were split out into a separate institution, the University of Wisconsin-Extension. But history has a way of repeating itself, and we welcomed all three back into campus on July 1, 2019. That transition has created tighter connections, allowing us to work together to inform research and work with local communities to solve problems across Wisconsin.

That transition is also personally significant to me, as both of my parents worked as Extension agents. It’s gratifying to see how our public university is made more accessible and more relevant to people across the state through our county extension offices, public television networks, and public radio networks.


Extension’s community partnerships are integral to its work with families, business owners, community organizations, and youth – and those partnerships have benefitted from Extension returning home to UW–Madison.

The School of Education and Extension are working with science and social studies teachers in rural communities to better engage Latinx English-Learner students in examining local, controversial, and socially relevant topics. Another Extension partnership is helping Carbone Cancer Center scientists strengthen community involvement. Yet another, funded by the Mellon Foundation, is bringing together faculty, students, community leaders, and Tribal partners to encourage more diverse groups to pursue careers in science and math fields.

We want to encourage even more interaction between our on-campus faculty and staff and our Extension staff.  As a result, we will soon announce a new grant opportunity for campus researchers and Extension employees who work together to identify projects that address the concerns to local communities. The Wisconsin Ideas Collaboration Grant program – a partnership between Extension, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation – will award a total of $600,000 in grants across a wide range of academic disciplines.


Public Television reaches directly into our living rooms and local school classrooms. PBS Wisconsin and the Center for Healthy Minds teamed up to create The Kindness Curriculum — a free 24-lesson guide designed to help pre-K and kindergarten students recognize their emotions, self-regulate their responses, and care for themselves and others. Developed and researched by university scientists and disseminated by PBS Wisconsin, the Emmy award-winning Kindness Curriculum has been shown to have a positive impact on academic performance, peer relationships, and teacher-perceived social competence.

Meet the Lab is a collection of educational resources for middle school science classrooms. It is a collaboration between PBS Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and the Morgridge Institute for Research. This collection introduces students to relevant real-world issues, cutting edge research, and the human element—the people working together to research, innovate, and solve problems using science. The curriculum creates opportunities for learners to get an up-close look at people who work in science, technology, engineering, arts and math, hopefully deepening students’ interest in these fields.


When COVID struck, Wisconsinites had questions and trustworthy answers were hard to come by. WPR’s engagement project, WHYsconsin, fielded more than 3,000 questions and reported 59 stories on topics like where to get tested, eviction rules, and changes to schools. Every person who reached out received answers to their questions. The project won the national “Best Use of Community Listening in a Crisis” award from Hearken in 2020.

In addition to the fast-changing Covid crisis, WPR provided in-depth coverage of the fight for racial justice, a contentious national election, and other critical issues. As the fall general election approached, WPR offered analysis of the issues, candidate interviews and up-to-date information on voting guidelines, and coverage of more than 30 debates.

WPR’s partnership with Story Corps’ Military Voices Initiative helped more than three dozen Wisconsin veterans and family members connect and preserve their stories online; some of which have been featured on “Wisconsin Life” this year.

Thanks to an investment UW-Madison made in new digital broadcast technologies prior to the pandemic, WPR engineers were able to reconfigure their network so that hosts and reporters could safely broadcast from home. While people remained physically isolated, they could connect with others through WPR’s trusted news service, engaging conversation, the solace of music and free virtual events – including several in partnership with Badger Talks LIVE.

Wisconsin Public Media has moved beyond on-the-air broadcasting – its use of technology to deliver on the Wisconsin Idea has extended to include digital platforms and continues to evolve to meet the needs of a 21st century audience.


I’m consistently impressed by the tremendous talent we have in the faculty and staff who share their knowledge with individuals, communities, and businesses statewide. I’m also aware of the relationships our employees – particularly in Extension and public media — have established with communities and how that connection is important to the university.

From 4-H educators and nutrition experts to agriculture agents and economic development specialists, Extension has a unique foothold in every corner of the state. These university educators are trusted neighbors.

Likewise, our public broadcasting colleagues deliver educational programming, entertainment, cultural enrichment, and news programming that people have come to rely on. Whether it’s Big Bird talking about life on Sesame Street or an interview with a state legislator, people have learned to trust public broadcasting

Perhaps that’s the most impressive outcome of all — a world-class university that stays connected to ordinary people through bonds strengthened by trust. That relationship improves the quality of life for Wisconsin residents and makes us a better university.