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Nutrient Loss Reduction

How Extension drives student experiences in agriculture

Stream next to a wooded area

The North Central Region Water Network is a 12-state Extension-led collaboration focused on ensuring safe and sufficient water supplies not only in the North Central Region, but beyond. The Watershed Management Research and Outreach Undergraduate Internship Program through this network helps students from all backgrounds gain valuable experience that will help students pursue future careers in watershed management and gain an understanding of the role of Extension. At the completion of the 2023 summer program, Dr. John McMaine, director of the Water Resources Institute at South Dakota State University, Ethan Davis, intern at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Sam Henry, intern at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, discussed the Extension-focused watershed management internship.   

What is the REEU? 

REEU stands for Research and Extension Experience for Undergraduates. McMaine, the project lead, explains how many of his colleagues in the North Central Region work in Extension, but they have trouble recruiting new graduates. Many students are familiar with teaching and research at their universities, but there is a general lack of awareness of Extension at the undergraduate level. McMaine, along with a group of Extension professionals, collaborated and were awarded a 5-year grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. The grant supported 12 mentors and seven undergraduate students across six states during the 2023 summer and focused on training the next generation of watershed management Extension professionals.  

What is the REEU internship? 

McMaine emphasized that intern selection is competitive. Applications are released in the fall, selections are made in late December, and interns commit at the beginning of the year. The program is always looking to grow and hopes for future interest from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and smaller schools. The goal of the internship is to foster excitement and passion surrounding watershed management while building a network for the interns within their cohort and with Extension professional mentors. 

Summer 2023 was the second year of the internship program. Students not only had the opportunity to gain experience from their mentors, but also complete tasks and activities with other students and mentors in the cohort. At the beginning of the summer, the interns traveled to Ames, Iowa for an in-person kickoff meeting. They spent time surveying streams with beaver dams to get field experience and talked to professionals and graduate students to gain a perspective of what prospective career paths might look like. In addition, the interns met virtually weekly for “skill share” meetings led by mentors within the program. Topics included how to approach controversial topics and how to build an Extension program.  

The interns were also tasked with working together on a regional project along with the project the intern worked on individually. The intern cohort created an REEU StoryMap, including interactive pictures and videos, showcasing each intern’s summer projects. All the students’ individual state projects were tied together into the theme of nutrient loss to understand how they connect across the region.  

Interns’ projects 

Ethan Davis worked on virtual learning surrounding water issues in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He created multiple StoryMaps with “quests” integrated, which are questions to make the StoryMaps more engaging for students and educators. Davis completed two StoryMaps during his internship: 

Sam Henry focused on education and outreach for the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS). She created a photo library of agricultural conservation practices for use in educational materials, like brochures and webinars. Henry also attended many field days throughout Illinois, but a majority of her time was spent drafting blog posts as a supplement to the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Podcast.  

Interns’ advice for other students 

While often overlooked, students’ major departments have a wealth of resources that go unnoticed. These include professional, networking, and research opportunities to expand students’ horizons. It is also advised that students pay attention to what specifically makes their favorite classes so enjoyable and figure out how that plays a role in potential careers.  

REEU plans for 2024 

The REEU program will continue to push the envelope for training and experiences for interns. McMaine values how the interns and the cohort bond, so he expects there to be another in-person meeting at the beginning of the summer and a national conference at the culmination of the program. In 2023, all interns presented research posters on their individual projects at the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) conference in Des Moines, Iowa. The interns gained valuable experience as they interacted with natural resource conservation professionals from across the country and talked about their research.  

Those interested in participating in the program in the coming years can find program details on the North Central Region Water Network website. All the mentors and the projects they are working on can be viewed on the website. Applications are set to open in September 2024, and all interested are encouraged to apply.  



Rachel Curry is an Agriculture and Agribusiness Educator for two Nitrogen Priority Watersheds (Flint-Henderson and Lower Rock River Watersheds) and is housed in the Galva office of the Henry, Mercer, Rock Island, and Stark Counties Extension Unit. Rachel earned a BS in Environmental Studies from Knox College and an MS in Environmental Science and Soil Science from Iowa State University with an emphasis on soil fertility. She is interested in sharing information on the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy and agricultural conservation practices through discussion and outreach. 

Nicole Haverback is a Watershed Outreach Associate for two Phosphorus Priority Watersheds (Embarras and Little Wabash River Watersheds) and is housed in the Effingham office of the Clay, Effingham, Fayette, and Jasper Counties Extension Unit. Nicole earned a BS in Agriculture and Rural Policy Studies from Iowa State University in May of 2022. She is interested in sharing information on the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy and agriculture conservation practices through discussion and outreach. 

Sam Henry is a Research and Extension Experience for Undergraduates (REEU) intern working with Rachel and Nicole during Summer of 2023. She is an Agricultural Engineering student at the University of Illinois. Outside of classes, she works with Dr. Rodriguez in his BioMASS Lab and learns about alternative agricultural methods in Illini Urban Farmers. She is in her third year and is passionate about the nexus of clean water, sustainable agriculture, natural resources, and sustainability. 


At Illinois Extension, we’re working to improve water quality at home and downstream. Every month, our Watershed Outreach Associates will bring you stories highlighting agricultural conservation practices, current research projects and results, and from the field farmer interviews. The Nutrient Loss Reduction blog covers conservation practices recommended by the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, timely updates, farm safety, and new decision tools to help farmers and producers reduce the nutrients leaving their field. Want to get notified when new blog posts are available? Subscribe at