Extension Funded Research Projects


Extension Collaboration Grants

Extension Collaboration Grants fund partnerships between University of Illinois Extension personnel and investigators at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to develop programs and projects that leverage campus-based research to enhance the quality of life for people in communities across Illinois. Project themes may vary widely – from improving school nutrition programs to helping farmers manage nitrogen application – but all focus on research with practical applications for Illinois residents. Each winning team receives up to $60,000 that can be spent over two years to enact their projects.

2024-25 Grants

The application period has ended.

2024 Extension Collaboration Grant Recipients

The 2024 Extension Collaboration Grant Program received financial support from University of Illinois’ Office of the Provost Investment for Growth Program and Illinois Extension, with a focus on supporting research and partnerships that address critical issues in five key areas: food, economy, environment, community, and health.

Building Microclimate Networks: A Community Approach to Collecting and Analyzing Climate Data in Illinois

Microclimate data will be collected using a community-based approach that integrates climate sensors into high schools and other public areas with a citizen science program to empower Illinois residents to respond to climate change adaptation and mitigation plans.

Principal Investigators:

  • Samuel Stickley, teaching assistant professor, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
  • Jennifer Fraterrigo, professor, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment
  • Duane Friend, Extension specialist
  • Curtis Sinclair, Extension specialist

Camine Con Su Communidad: Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a Community-Based Physician-Facilitated Walking Program for Latina Women

This project creates and implements a six-month walking intervention that partners Latina women in Champaign-Urbana with physicians and medical students from Carle Health to increase communication, develop health self-advocacy, and improve health status.

Principal Investigator

  • Nick Pitas, assistant professor, Recreation, Sport and Tourism

Designing the Youth Participatory Action Research Playbook for Working with Youth as Partners

A 10-module handbook titled ‘Youth Participatory Action Research Playbook for Working with Youth as Partners’ will be developed. Further, adults will be trained in this curriculum designed to facilitate programs in which youth have voice and choice.

Principal Investigators

  • Amy Leman, assistant professor, Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications
  • Jacinda Dariotis, professor, Human Development and Family Studies and Pampered Chef Ltd. endowed chair in Family Resiliency

Establishing Farmer Collaboration Networks to Improve Crop Resilience Using Precision Agricultural Practices

This project will establish a farmer collaborator network to develop cost-effective precision agriculture-based mitigation strategies in flood-prone fields in Illinois by collecting and analyzing field and soil data to produce sustainable solutions.

Principal Investigator:

  • Christy Gibson, Postdoctoral Scholar, Crop Sciences and Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation

Rainbow Extension 4.0: LGBTQ+ Cultural Competency Training for Illinois Extension

Online, asynchronous LGBTQ+ cultural competency training for Illinois Extension will be developed, evaluated, and refined to foster affirming environments within Extension and across the programs provided to Illinois residents.

Principal Investigator:

  • Courtney Cuthbertson, assistant professor and Extension faculty specialist, Human Development and Family Studies


Smartphones, Smart Families: Promoting the Well-being of Children and Families throughout Illinois in a Digital Age

This project will explore technology use within families, create and disseminate resources on smartphones, social media, screen time, and other digital innovations, and develop policy recommendations for legislators.

Principal Investigator:

  • Allen Barton, assistant professor and Extension faculty specialist, Human Development and Family Studies

The Supply Chain of Agricultural and Food Commodities across Illinois Counties

Trade flows from county to state to national levels across the agri-food supply chain will be mapped based on extreme weather events and other disruptions. An ‘Illinois Food Commodity Flow Explorer’ webtool will be created and tested with producers and consumers to characterize decisions within and impacts on the food supply chain.

Principal Investigator:

  • Sandy Dall’erba, professor, Agricultural and Consumer Economics

2020 Extension Collaboration Grant Recipients

The 2020 Extension Collaboration Grant Program received financial support from University of Illinois’ Office of the Provost Investment for Growth Program and Illinois Extension, with a focus on supporting research and partnerships that address critical issues in five key areas: food, economy, environment, community, and health.

Illinois Geothermal Coalition Technical and Outreach Program

Awarded to: Illinois State Geological Survey

Principal Investigator: Andrew Stumpf



  • Mohamed Attalla, executive director, Facilities & Services
  • John Freitag, executive director, Geothermal Alliance of Illinois (GAOI)
  • Frank Holcomb, associate director, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Champaign, Illinois
  • Madhu Khanna, interim director, Institute of Sustainability, Energy & Environment (iSEE)
  • Yu-Feng Lin, director, Illinois Water Resource Center
  • Scott Tess, sustainability and resilience officer, City of Urbana
  • Steve Whittaker, director, Energy and Minerals, Illinois State Geological Survey

As Illinois moves towards achieving its commitment of converting all energy systems to running on 100% renewable energy by 2050, it is recognized that other renewable energy sources besides solar and wind energy, including geothermal energy, will be needed to meet the state’s future energy demands. This project will develop a technical, outreach and education program that supports wider adoption of geothermal energy systems and disseminates information to decision-makers and public stakeholders about the potential economic, energy efficiency, and environmental benefits to the residents of Illinois. An interactive dashboard will be developed that provides technical data and explanatory information to the geothermal industry and government organizations. In addition, a decision support tool will be programed to assist decision-makers and public stakeholders in identifying how geothermal energy can be implemented successfully in long-term solutions. The project will involve a coordinated statewide education and outreach program that introduces all aspects of geothermal energy pertinent to Illinois and provides a venue to discuss potential benefits to the residential, commercial and industrial sectors.

Central Illinois’ Cultural Assets: Mapping Resources, People and Meaning to Propel Community and Economic Vitality

Awarded to: Fine and Applied Arts Administration in the College of Fine and Applied Arts

Principal Investigator: Jennifer Novak


  • Andrew Greenlee, associate professor & head of community development for social justice graduate study, Department of Urban and Regional Planning


  • Kathie Brown, Extension educator, Illinois Extension
  • Earl Allen, county Extension director serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria and Tazewell counties, Illinois Extension
  • Anne H. Silvis, assistant dean, Illinois Extension
  • Claire Rice, executive director, Arts Alliance Illinois
  • Jennifer Gordon, executive director, Arts Partners of Central Illinois
  • Shannon Cox, executive director, Peoria Arts Guild/Peoria Fine Arts Fair
  • JD Dalfonso, president/CEO, Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
  • Andrew Ngui, director of innovation and startups, Greater Peoria Economic Development Council
  • Patrick Urich, city manager, City of Peoria

To address the statewide issue of recovery from the economic and social toll of the pandemic on creative and cultural workers and cultural life in Illinois communities, this project will generate an expansive mapping of creative and cultural assets in Peoria, IL. This project stands to make significant contributions to Peoria and Illinois by propelling reflection and connections across Peoria’s cultural ecosystem to identify strengths and opportunities, providing research-informed community-based cultural asset mapping products that can inform local and regional community and sustainability planning, and serving as a pilot project to inform and model how cultural asset mapping can be implemented in communities throughout Illinois.

This mapping project is purposively designed to be inclusive, both in process and perspective. In addition to utilizing geospatial mapping, our mapping process will use a video-based, iterative interviewing process to capture individuals’ reflections to curate a holistic vision around strengths and opportunities in Peoria’s cultural ecosystem. The interview methodology focuses on engaging underrepresented stakeholders, and on using an iterative process of listening, capturing community thoughts, sharing those thoughts through video, and listening to responses via individual conversations, focus groups and reflection. In terms of perspective, an expansive view of Peoria’s cultural ecosystem will be used, one that encompasses non-profit, for-profit, third-sector, and other activity; a broad array of artistic and cultural forms, and ways to engage with them; an array of artists and culture-bearers; and the variety of values and meaning that people ascribe to arts and culture.

This project leverages research faculty expertise in applied research spanning arts and culture, public policy and community planning, and Extension collaborators’ community engagement expertise and deep local networks through a highly iterative, community-engaged mapping and critical reflection process that will produce geospatial maps, a public narrative report and videos about Peoria’s cultural ecosystem.

Statewide Community Engagement in Pollinator Conservation

Awarded to: Department of Entomology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Principal Investigator: Alexandra Harmon-Threatt


  • Kelly Allsup, extension educator, Illinois Extension
  • Morgan Mackert, research specialist, Entomology

Pollinator declines threaten ecosystem stability by reducing plant and crop seed set. Providing additional forage is considered key to slowing declines, but we lack practical planting guides for most homeowners due to a lack of information on most plants. By bringing together scientists, extension specialists, and citizens, I-Pollinate engages citizens in scientific data collection on plants in their yards while educating them on environmental issues. The project has been in existence for two years and seeks additional funding to achieve two major outreach objectives:

  1. Increase the number and diversity of people engaged;
  2. Produce and distribute planting guides for home gardens.

The objectives for this grant are to significantly extend the reach of the program by engaging new groups of people (4-H and gardeners not affiliated with the existing Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs). We propose to use the data generated by citizens in I-Pollinate to create “Planting for Pollinator Guides,” which will be made freely available both in printed and digital copy to all Illinois residents. This project will help Extension reach its environmental goals by educating citizens through the project and providing all Illinois residents with planting guides to improve conservation efforts. We believe this project can be self-sustaining through USDA and NSF grants and has already been reviewed favorably.

Increasing Knowledge of Human Tickborne Diseases among Farmers and Extension Officers in Illinois

Awarded to: Department of Pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine

Principal Investigator: Rebecca Smith


Tickborne diseases have become extremely prevalent in the United States and tick vectors of concern have become established in many counties in the state of Illinois. Farmers, agriculturists and some veterinarians are at a high-risk of being exposed to tick bites and contracting tickborne diseases due to their time spent outdoors. The present study is a multi-pronged approach to increase knowledge of tickborne diseases in the farming community in Illinois. We are a team of interdisciplinary researchers interested in determining the perception and actual risk of contracting tickborne diseases among farmers in Illinois. We plan to identify gaps in knowledge and awareness regarding tickborne diseases among farmers in Illinois using a survey currently underway and fill these knowledge gaps with effective educative materials.

In addition, we want to train interested individuals in tick dragging and surveillance efforts to help monitor tickborne disease prevalence in the state. We hope that this will create awareness about the presence of ticks and tickborne disease in areas frequented by the target audience. The findings from this study will help us to develop effective communication and education materials to help reduce human exposure to tickborne diseases in Illinois. We believe that identifying the knowledge gaps and providing the necessary tools to the community to monitor risk of tickborne diseases and measures to prevent tickborne disease is critical and needs more work.

Developing and Delivering a Stress Management and Mental Health Program in Pembroke Township and Kankakee County

Awarded to: Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in the College of ACES

Principal Investigator: Josephine Rudolphi


  • Azizah Ashraf-Ali, Pembroke Township community member
  • Johari Cole-Kweli, Pembroke Township community member
  • Courtney Cuthbertson, assistant professor and Extension specialist, Department of Human Development and Family Studies
  • Bobby J. Smith, II, assistant professor, Department of African American Studies
  • Shardé Smith, assistant professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies
  • James Theuri, Extension educator, Illinois Extension
  • Megan Walsh, county Extension director serving Grundy, Kankakee and Will counties, Illinois Extension

Focusing on health as a critical issue area, this project addresses farm stress and mental health among agricultural producers in Pembroke Township. Illinois Extension has increasingly provided resources to agricultural producers and agribusiness professionals to support mental health and wellbeing. To date, such resources have not included content or approaches that are responsive to how farm stress may be experienced differently by race or ethnicity. Given historical trauma and discrimination faced by Black farmers and farmers of color, and in context of Illinois Extension’s aim to provide relevant programs to all residents of the state, farm stress programs must take racism and race into account. This proposal engages a community-driven approach to identify needs and create relevant and responsive farm stress programs/resources in Pembroke Township, a predominantly African-American, rural, agricultural community. A community advisory board made up of University of Illinois faculty and Extension specialists, Extension educators, and interested community members will guide the process through collaborative decision-making. The group will engage in a needs assessment using methods determined by the community advisory board to identify concerns related to stress and mental health among agricultural producers in Pembroke Township, as well as what supports producers would like from Extension. Findings of the needs assessment will be shared in a presentation to the community and then used to create relevant resources and an educational program. Evaluation of the process and new materials will assist in further revisions to ensure relevancy and assess impacts. This project sits at the nexus of agriculture and health in a way that acknowledges Extension’s history of providing resources for agricultural communities, while simultaneously pushing Extension to continue to be responsive to needs of Illinois residents.

Illinois Positive Aging for Latinos Study (I-PALS)

Awarded to: School of Social Work

Principal Investigator: Lissette Piedra


  • Willene Buffet, Cook County Extension director, Illinois Extension
  • Molly Hofer, Extension educator, Illinois Extension
  • Melissa Howe, senior research scientist, NORC at the University of Chicago
  • Yadira Montoya, principal research analyst, NORC at the University of Chicago

Latinos (65+) number nearly 5 million people in the United States; this number is projected to increase to 15.9 million by 2050. Among U.S. aging populations, Latino older adults tend to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. While this group has greater longevity than the general population, many spend their later years in decline and with serious functional limitations, adding economic and emotional burden to their families. Yet despite their greater needs in later life, Latinos tend to underuse formal supports. Instead, many turn to family for caregiving, which places enormous pressure on Latino families to provide care for longer periods. To reach this underserved population, this Illinois Extension collaboration will culturally and linguistically adapt existing Extension curricula to help Latino families: 1) talk about long-term care needs and 2) increase their awareness of available resources and caregiver support strategies. Such an approach will bolster Latino families’ ability to plan for and manage long-term care with older adult family members, which will go far in bridging a service gap and improving health outcomes.

Advancing An Integrated Approach to SEL, STEM, and Equity in Middle and High School

Awarded to: School of Social Work

Principal Investigator: Kevin Tan


The field of social work and cooperative Extension are historically rooted in addressing large societal inequities. This collaborative effort between the School of Social Work and Illinois Extension proposes to address a pervasive inequity that impacts the vitality of the Illinois workforce. The practical nuances Extension offers to the world of research are essential to the communities we serve across the state. This type of faculty-staff partnership has the potential to create meaningful action research, which seeks transformative change and allows for stakeholder participation in ways that immediately help to inform the change(s) and best practice(s). The purpose of this project is to develop and evaluate an equity-focused teacher intervention that integrates social and emotional learning (SEL) and restorative action principles among middle and high school mathematics and science classes in two Chicago schools. This project provides the opportunity for teachers’ and students’ voices to be heard from start to finish. Their lived experience in STEM-related classes will be the driving force for meaningful curriculum change. This project focuses on addressing the inequities in STEM careers through promoting teacher-student SEL and self-efficacy that can contribute to improved student grades, yield long-term interest in STEM careers, and enhanced teacher effectiveness.

GSI Research Toolkit and Outreach throughout the State of Illinois

Awarded to: Illinois Extension in the College of ACES

Principal Investigator: Eliana Brown

Core Team:

  • Layne Knoche, visiting outreach associate, Illinois Extension/Illinois Indiana Sea Grant
  • Mary Pat McGuire, associate professor, Department of Landscape Architecture
  • Margaret Schneemann, water resource economist, Illinois Extension/Illinois Indiana Sea Grant

New Collaborators:

  • Mohamed Attalla, executive director, Facilities & Services
  • Kate Gardiner, visiting outreach associate, Illinois Extension/Illinois Indiana Sea Grant
  • Andrew Mackay, associate scientist, Illinois Natural History Survey Medical Entomology Laboratory
  • Kevin McSweeney, director of arboretum, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
  • Chris Stone, director, Illinois Natural History Survey Medical Entomology Laboratory

Rainscaping Education Program Extension Educators:

Existing Collaborators:

  • David Grimley, principal research scientist, Illinois State Geological Survey
  • Andrew Phillips, principal research scientist, Illinois State Geological Survey
  • Ashlynn Stillwell, associate professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Advisory Group:

  • Matt Bardol, senior principal engineer, Geosyntec Consultants
  • Jeff Edstrom, water resource specialist, Illinois Department of Natural Resources
  • Kate Evasic, senior planner, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning
  • Chelsey Grassfield, policy specialist, Friends of the Chicago River
  • Ted Haffner, climate fellow and landscape architect, Openlands
  • Justin Keller, associate, Metropolitan Planning Council
  • Lisa Krause, coastal management specialist, Illinois Department of Natural Resources
  • Bill Wood, associate civil engineer, SmithGroup

Facilities & Services (F&S) is responsible for the campus landscapes, from design to installation to maintenance. The F&S team, led by Dr. Mohamed Attalla, will be key collaborators in this project, including departmental representatives from the Grounds Department, the Campus Landscapes Department, F&S Sustainability, Utilities and Energy Services, Construction Services, and Environmental Compliance. Additional information may be found on the Facilities & Services website.

This project proposes to create the first-ever comprehensive design, modeling, implementation, and maintenance toolkit in Illinois for urban and rural communities to implement systemic green stormwater infrastructure (GSI). The ultimate goal is to reduce impacts from flooding, while increasing co-benefits for residents and communities such as community health, pollinator habitat, water quality, economic development, and traffic calming.

This toolkit will build from recent multi-disciplinary GSI design and modeling research completed for the Calumet region of Illinois by adding complementary implementation and maintenance knowledge from constructed demonstration GSI landscapes. For planning and site design, the research goal is to provide an innovative method of siting GSI that is uniquely based in soil mapping and neighborhood conditions, rather than opportunistic land availability. For practical design, the research goal is to investigate GSI barriers, such as an approach to native plant selection that maximizes performance and minimizes maintenance, while balancing aesthetics and biodiversity and whether mosquitoes in GSI pose a public health concern.

The toolkit will contain multiple types of university GSI data, from rain garden planning and design guidance, to large-scale planning strategies, to economic and co-benefit metrics allowing communities to carefully assess potentials and investments. Moreover, it provides a platform to both unite the currently bifurcated and multidisciplinary campus research, as well as a vehicle to advance translating this research into outreach and education benefiting communities. The project toolkit will be disseminated through a website (separately funded) and will be integrated into the Extension Rainscaping Program and other workshops, thereby leveraging state networks and creating additional demonstration landscapes. The proposed project addresses Extension critical issue areas of health, environment, economy, and community.

Sustainable Insect Control in High Tunnel Vegetable Production through Biological Control

Awarded to: Department of Crop Sciences in the College of ACES

Principal Investigator: Kacie Athey


The interest in sustainability and learning where our food comes from has invigorated the need for fresh local food production. In Illinois, local produce production is limited by climate; high tunnels allow vegetable growers to extend their growing season, thus allowing more people to assess local produce. High tunnel production may increase in the coming years as the demand for local food increases. High tunnels have unique insect pest pressures with a hybrid of open field and greenhouse pests. Many of the common greenhouse pests -- aphids, thrips and mites -- are difficult to control through conventional means leaving high tunnel growers looking for more sustainable, non-chemical means of pest control. Biological control by insect predators may be a viable solution for these growers. This could be achieved through either releases of commercially available natural enemies, or conservation of natural enemies present in the system. We will release commercially available generalist predators and monitor the effect on pests in high tunnels in tomato and pepper production. An expected decrease in pest pressure may show that our releases are working, or it may be that the resident predators immigrating from the surrounding open field are contributing to pest control.

To uncover which predators are consuming the focal pests, we will use molecular gut content analysis to pinpoint the identity of the most effective predators in the high tunnels. Conserving some of the resident natural enemies may be cost-effective for growers and either natural enemy release or conservation biological control may be a viable solution for growers to limit their exposure to conventional insecticides. Local foods Extension educators are the direct liaisons between growers and researchers, and working directly with Extension educators may facilitate further adoption of this sustainable growing practice after the conclusion of this study.

Project Update

The results from the 2021 growing season are promising so far; the number of aphids, whiteflies, and leafhoppers decreased in high tunnels where predators were released. The insidious flower bug was eating aphids, thrips, whiteflies, spider mites. The predator mite was eating thrips, whiteflies, and spider mites.

In the summer of 2022, the research team will use what they learned to further pinpoint useful biological control agents. They will focus on a predator to control the pest thrips.

The team has shared early results with southern Illinois high tunnel growers. They plan to publish a paper on their work and create a fact sheet of recommendations for growers that includes a cost comparison between biological controls and pesticides.

Media release: Crop scientists explore using predator insects to eat pests in high tunnels

Empowering Illinois’ Farmers to Mitigate Food Safety Risks

Awarded to: Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition in the College of ACES

Principal Investigator: Pratik Banerjee


This project pursues a sustainable collaboration between University of Illinois researchers and Extension professionals to empower small farmers and growers in Illinois to comply with federal, state, and local food safety regulations. Ensuring the safety of farm-grown fresh produce from contamination by pathogens is a critical issue for farmers in Illinois. The transmission of pathogenic E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Campylobacter, Norovirus, Cyclospora, and more recently, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic) through various pre- and post-harvest routes continue to pose serious threats to the farming communities. It is well known that when farmers and growers lack access to food safety knowledge and technical tools, it exponentially elevates the food safety risks associated with the production, storage and distribution of food. To address this issue, the project will build a comprehensive food safety program to assist small fresh fruit and vegetable growers, mid-sized farms, and socially disadvantaged farmers in Illinois to comply with FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Regulations (PSR).

The specific objectives of the current project are:

  1. Develop statewide water and soil testing initiative (mandated in FSMA PSR);
  2. Conduct onsite community-based boot camps to educate farmers on developing a food safety plan; and
  3. Increase the number of Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) Lead Trainers for FSMA in Illinois.

The project will build around a recently funded USDA Food Safety Outreach Program grant awarded to Pratik Banerjee. The project will help small and underserved growers to remain compliant with major FSMA-covered topics and increase the number of Extension educators with PSA Lead Trainer credentials. Overall, the project will close the knowledge and resource gaps by assisting farmers across the state of Illinois to comply with food safety regulations and best practices.

Project Update

Every year, 1 in 6 Americans suffers from a foodborne illness according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Local, state, and federal food safety regulations govern every step of the food supply chain to prevent pathogens from reaching the consumer.

A new set of requirements for food producers will roll out over the next few years. The Food Safety Modernization Act, FSMA, was passed in 2011 and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized the act’s new produce safety regulations in 2015. University of Illinois researchers and Extension educators are working with small farmers to help them understand and apply the new guidelines aimed at avoiding food safety risks for consumers.

One of the new rules covers water quality and will require producers to submit their farm’s water supply for microbial testing four times in the first year and on an annual basis after that. Small farm businesses need to comply with the water rules by 2023 and very small businesses by 2024. To help Illinois farmers meet the water testing requirement, Banerjee is creating a laboratory map database. One of the challenges is the time limits in submitting samples. A water sample must reach a lab within six hours of being collected. To simplify the process for farmers, Banerjee’s food safety research lab is developing a rapid on-site method to detect pathogens.

Food Safety Plan field days will resume this summer and fall aided by Illinois Extension’s community connections.

The final part of the project aims to increase the number of Produce Safety Alliance Trainers in Illinois. If an Illinois produce farmer must maintain compliance with the new FDA produce safety rule portion of the FSMA regulation, then they must take a standardized national produce safety training program provided by the Produce Safety Alliance. In order to meet the increasing demand of this training by Illinois specialty crop farmers, three new Extension educators have become certified trainers. The team is hoping to establish a new lead trainer in Illinois from this pool of new trainers. Lead trainers conduct these certified trainings with the assistance of certified trainers.

Full UpdateResearchers, Extension staff help farmers navigate new food safety rules

Illinois Inquiry Adventures in Nature: Expanding Environmental Education for Youth

Awarded to: Education Policy, Organization & Leadership program in the College of Education

Principal Investigator: Samantha Lindgren


  • Susan Gasper, Extension educator, Illinois Extension
  • Abigail Garofalo, Extension educator, Illinois Extension
  • Barbara Hug, associate teaching professor, Curriculum & Instruction
  • Meghan McCleary, Extension educator, Illinois Extension
  • Jacqui Ulrich, assistant director, Forest Preserve of Cook County

Stephen Jay Gould, an American evolutionary biologist, once said about the environment “…we will not fight to save what we do not love” (Orr, 1993). Today’s most pressing issues are related to climate change. An understanding of how human activity impacts the environment helps us make sense of how a zoonotic transfer of a virus to humans causes a global pandemic, and how rising temperatures increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires and storms. Environmental Education (EE) connects people to their environments, instilling values and knowledge that leads to better environmental stewardship of local environments and natural resources. There are several well-established EE programs offered throughout Cook County by Illinois Extension and the Forest Preserve of Cook County (FPCC). Missing from these opportunities are programs available to middle school-aged children, the age best suited for EE experiences because their environmental sensitivities are still developing and early experiences in nature have been shown to have impacts throughout adulthood (Boom, 2017). This proposal seeks to develop a program, Illinois Inquiry Adventures in Nature (IIAN), for middle school children and their families, suitable for small groups during the pandemic and expanding in scope to include classrooms when safe. A series of four seasonal activities and teacher workshops will be created to bring groups to their local green spaces, including FPCC sites. Groups will engage in open-ended investigations based on their own observations and questions, complete activities at home and enact local community conservation projects. Research will be conducted to examine how individuals’ connections to nature and environmental stewardship change over the course of their participation. This program fills a local need in Cook County, creating a continuum of opportunities across ages, and will be made available to all residents in Illinois, and nationwide, encouraging the next generation of environmental leaders.

Assessing the Needs and Connecting Young & Beginning Farmers with Extension Resources in Northern Illinois

Awarded to: Illinois Extension in the College of ACES

Principal Investigator: Joseph Malual


  • Nikki Keltner, Extension program coordinator, Illinois Extension
  • Grant McCarty, Extension educator, Illinois Extension
  • Hope Michelson, assistant professor, Department of Agricultural & Consumer Economics

More and more young people are engaging in small-scale farming, with many focusing on specialty crops and sustainable agricultural production. Despite this trend, entry into farming, which is a complex business, is challenging. Beginning farmers face serious obstacles in accessing critical assets, including startup capital to acquire land, farm equipment and agricultural technical knowledge needed to develop a successful agricultural practice and profitable business. The situation is complicated by lack of adequate research to understand the unique challenges facing this generation of farmers. In Illinois, there is limited research to understand how people new to farming navigate access to critical resources. This research project aims to provide a comprehensive assessment of the needs and opportunities facing young and beginning farmers in northern Illinois. We will identify and map farms owned by young and beginning farmers, examine their experiences and strategies used to leverage critical startup assets, including farmland and equipment, financial capital and agricultural technical assistance, as well as strategies for marketing agricultural products. This project will build relations and connect this new audience with Extension resources, which can help beginning farmers develop the knowledge and skills necessary for solving critical problems. Through interdisciplinary collaboration between Extension educators and specialists with faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this research will generate useful knowledge that can help beginning farmers, businesses and communities make informed decisions and plan for future support of those new to farming. The knowledge and practices discovered and identified through this project will be shared with Extension across the state. Extension educators can build on this knowledge to plan and deliver educational programming that empowers farmers to develop financially viable and sustainable farms. Those successful endeavors will, in turn, help to revitalize their rural communities.

New Immigrant Foodways

Awarded to: Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Principal Investigator: Teresa Barnes


This project will leverage new and existing research with immigrant communities about challenges and strategies in adapting home foodways to American food systems to create short instructional videos related to nutrition and cooking. The project addresses a complex issue at the intersection of three critical areas of Extension’s mission: food, health and environment. It addresses the public need of new immigrant families to access information and expertise and develop sustainable strategies when faced with the bewildering array of often unhealthy food options in the USA. This proposal is an interdisciplinary public impact-focused scholarship that brings community- and institutionally-based knowledge to better outcomes for new immigrant families.

This interdisciplinary partnership unites historical, culture area and linguistic expertise about the diasporas of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean communities with outreach programs in citizenship rights and resources, nutrition research and education, and the wide network of Extension services. These areas of expertise are housed in two academic area studies centers with public outreach programs (the Center for African Studies [CAS], and the Center for Caribbean and Latin American Studies [CLACS] of the Illinois Global Institute), the New American Welcome Center (NAWC) at the University YMCA, and the “Abriendo Caminos” and the “Afro-Centered Abriendo Caminos” (ACAC) programs of Extension.

The centers have been producing outreach programs linking faculty to communities and schools in Champaign-Urbana for many years. The University YMCA initiated the NAWC in 2017. Abriendo Caminos has a 12-year track record in Champaign County and the new ACAC initiative began last year. In particular, this project will leverage one of Abriendo Caminos’ central research findings, that the respectful integration of community knowledge into programming is crucial to the uptake of educational programming. Thus, “New Immigrant Foodways” will work with research subjects to become transmitters of home-country-based and US-based healthy food knowledge.

I-Rural: Reimagining Illinois Rural Tourism through Community and Extension Collaboration

Awarded to: College of Applied Health Sciences

Principal Investigator: Joelle Soulard


Rural communities in Illinois face an increasing demand by tourists for outdoor recreation activities. This growth in demand presents an opportunity for rural Illinois communities to reimagine rural tourism and sustainable development strategies that align with the communities’ values and priorities, advance local workforce development, support local entrepreneurship, and foster collaboration among rural communities across the state. Our overall aim is to design and implement a model that local communities in Illinois can use to guide rural tourism development. Thus, the goal of this project is to identify the challenges and opportunities present in Illinois communities that seek to develop rural tourism and understand tourists' motivations and constraints to engaging in rural tourism in Illinois. Our interdisciplinary team will use a community-participatory approach to achieve our project goals (see Appendix B for letters of support). In the first phase of the project, we will offer four interactive workshops in four rural Illinois communities (Grafton, Havana, Savanna, and Galena). The workshops will form the basis for a toolkit that provides communities an evidence-informed process for stakeholders to co-create and foster tourism development and collaboration in their community. Building on the outcomes of these workshops, we will conduct interviews with stakeholders during Phase 2. These stakeholder interviews will then be used in Phase 3 to develop a survey targeting tourists in Illinois and surrounding states to understand their motivations and preferences to travel to rural Illinois communities. In Phase 4, we will develop executive reports and infographics and hold four webinars to disseminate our findings and provide clear evidence-informed tourism strategies to help stakeholders design successful rural tourism experiences across Illinois. Finally, we will continue to work with the rural communities that are ready for more development by helping them find grants and assisting with planning for sustainable tourism development.

Health Data Literacy Ambassadors

Awarded to: School of Information Sciences

Principal Investigator: Rachel Magee


  • Catherine Blake, associate professor, School of Information Sciences
  • Jana Diesner, associate professor, School of Information Sciences


In this two-year project, information sciences researchers and Extension staff will collaborate to implement the Health Data Literacy Ambassadors program. Building on existing 4-H Ambassadors and Advocate models to address critical issues in health and community, this work supports Illinois teens in developing health data analytics skills to advocate for change in their local areas. Fifteen Illinois teens will participate in the program, which will introduce health concepts, health data, analytics concepts and tools, and develop youth presentation and communication skills through two workshops. Supported by a Youth/Adult Partnership (YAP), the teens will also conduct needs assessments of health topics in their communities, develop and conduct data analytics projects to address issues that arise from their assessments, and present their findings to University and local audiences. Teens will be matched with faculty and University students for dedicated mentorship and have opportunities to interact with Extension and local health experts. This project models youth engagement with health and data, will build teen expertise in analytics, communication and health topics, and provide scaffolded opportunities for youth voices to positively impact local communities, while also creating a career development pathway. Research activities including analysis of workshop recordings, interviews and surveys with teen participants about their experiences, and assessments of the health data analytics projects and media they create throughout the YAP experience. It will inform scholarship of youth information behavior, youth services, positive youth development, mentorship, and health and data analytics learning and literacies. The resources developed will be shared with Extension audiences, informing the development of the Ambassador program with further statewide impact, as well as a broader data literacy program for national 4-H youth, and will inform other public audiences through the researchers' efforts in K-12 educational institutions and public library settings.

Safe, Efficient Schools during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Awarded to: Department of Landscape Architecture in the College of Fine and Applied Arts

Principal Investigator: Brian Deal


The Smart Energy Design Assistance Center (SEDAC) proposes to collaborate with Illinois Extension to launch a training program to a) improve the safety of schools, childcare facilities and other public sector facilities so that they can offer services during the pandemic; b) prepare HVAC and engineering small businesses for new market opportunities in building safety and energy efficiency; and c) evaluate the impact of collaborative workshops vs. traditional webinars in learning and implementation outcomes. This proposal is at the intersection of three of Extension’s focus areas: economy, health, and environment. We will work with Lisa Merrifield to engage with local governments, schools and building professionals; and with Karen Winter-Nelson to evaluate the program.

One major barrier to economic recovery is the closure of schools, childcare centers and other local government facilities. Until these places can safely open, many parents will be unable to return to work. To help the economy recover, we need safe and healthy places where children can learn and receive care services. Almost none of these facilities were designed to mitigate virus transmission, and most of them are inadequately ventilated. Without corrective measures, there is high risk of airborne virus transmission. At the same time, the untrained application of HVAC corrective measures could significantly increase energy use, potentially doubling the utility expenses of organizations that are already struggling financially. We propose to provide collaborative education and traditional webinar-based training to facility managers, building professionals and HVAC contractors to expand services related to indoor air quality and energy efficiency. Our training program will identify solutions that keep students and teachers safe, opening the door for broader economic recovery. Our research objective is to evaluate the impact of our collaborative and traditional training methods to expand the body of knowledge on effective training methods.

Identifying and Breaking Down Barriers to Inclusivity in the Master Naturalist Program

Awarded to: Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of ACES

Principal Investigator: Joy O'Keefe


  • Peggy Doty, Extension educator, Illinois Extension
  • Chris Evans, interim Master Naturalist coordinator, Illinois Extension
  • Abigail Garofalo, Extension educator, Illinois Extension
  • Ross Wantland, director of curriculum development and education, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Our natural environment is at risk, but not all stakeholders have an opportunity to advocate for change because there is inadequate representation of race and ethnicity in natural resource conservation organizations and programs. The Illinois Extension Master Naturalist program trains and certifies environmental stewards who help to protect and restore habitats and to educate people in their communities about conservation. However, this program primarily serves white residents, with low participation by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Our proposal aims to begin the process of increasing diversity in the Master Naturalist program through four main objectives. We will conduct a yearlong training for Master Naturalist program facilitators that uses online lectures, trainings and readings to examine the relationships of people of color to natural areas and the environmental movement and to identify strategies to change current norms. We will also engage in community research to hear from leaders of communities of color and to find willing participants for an advisory board that will track our progress. We will create a continuing education module that will give Certified Master Naturalists the tools to recognize and be better prepared to confront issues of low diversity and barriers to inclusion through their volunteer efforts. Finally, we will identify and propose changes to the Master Naturalist manual and modes of delivery to make the program more inclusive for the diverse people of Illinois.


In January 2021, 20 Master Naturalist coordinators from local county Extension offices committed to the year-long community of practice that included monthly readings, assignments and discussions, quarterly in-depth trainings, and a two-day retreat at a state park. Their curriculum has been shared with Master Naturalist programs in other states. The pilot group explored racism in the outdoors, personal experiences from people of color, how racism impacts relationships with nature, how to create more racially inclusive programs, and techniques for reaching out to diverse communities.

Extension staff who participated reported an increased level of awareness of the unique issues communities of color face when engaging with the environment and tools to help connect with them. 

Abigail Garofalo, Extension natural resources, environment, and energy educator, leads the Master Naturalist program for Cook County along with fellow coordinator Val Kehoe. Prompted by the project, Garofalo and Kehoe mapped where their current volunteers were and use partnerships to build deeper connections in communities they were not reaching. When the time came to recruit volunteers for annual training, Garofalo revisited their marketing materials to make them more representative of the targeted communities and to help make their commitment to diversity clear. She promoted the program in new neighborhoods and made

The Master Naturalist volunteer training curriculum will also be revised to include more information on barriers to accessing nature and community. Participants recommended that the program should be open to change because its current design does not fit every county.

Read the full article: Master Naturalists advocate for diversity in ecosystems and volunteer program

2018 Grant Recipients

The 2018 grant program was funded by Extension and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

  • An interdisciplinary collaboration to improve child diet quality and reduce wasted food in school nutrition programs (Principal Investigator: Melissa Pflugh Prescott, assistant professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition)
  • Chicago Safe Soils Initiative: Developing and disseminating tools to identify and mitigate soil heavy metal risks to urban stakeholders (Principal Investigators: Andrew Margenot, assistant professor, Crop Sciences; Zack Grant, Extension educator)
  • Pest and beneficial insects in Illinois cover crops (Principal Investigators: Nicholas Seiter, research assistant professor, Crop Sciences; Duane Friend, Extension educator; Nathan Johanning, Extension educator; Ken Johnson, Extension educator)
  • Illinois Extension and the Data-intensive Farm Management Revolution: A tool to help farmers turn on-farm experiments into profitable decisions (Principal Investigator: N. Dennis Bowman, Extension educator; Co-Principal Investigators: David Bullock, professor, Agricultural and Consumer Economics; Nicolas Martin, assistant professor, Crop Sciences)
  • Rainbow Extension 3.0: Building supportive communities through Extension programming (Co-Principal Investigators: Ramona Faith Oswald, professor and interim head, Human Development and Family Studies; Anne Silvis, Extension program leader, Community and Economic Development)
  • Reducing the impacts of phytophthora root rot and stem blight through outreach and the development of molecular-based management tools (Principal Investigator: Nathan Kleczewski, research assistant professor and Extension pathologist, Crop Sciences; Co-Principal Investigator: Santiago Mideros-Mora; assistant professor, Crop Sciences)
  • Targeting natural lawn care communications to homeowners in Illinois (Principal Investigator: Sarah Zack, Extension specialist, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant; Co-Principal Investigator: Lulu Rodriguez, agricultural communications program director)
Chicago Safe Soils Initiative

Project Overview

In the Chicago metropolitan region, Illinois Extension and College of ACES researchers have identified hotspots of lead in soils being used for food production. This project developed open-access tools for the public to identify soil contamination, inform stakeholder decision-making, and develop evidence-based guidelines for managing soil lead risk to food production.

Research Team

  • Principal Investigators: Andrew Margenot, Assistant Professor, Crop Sciences; Zack Grant, Local Food Systems and Small Farms Extension Educator
  • Co-Principal Investigator: Nico Martin, Assistant Professor, Crop Sciences
  • Collaborators: Laura Calvert, Executive Director, Advocates for Urban Agriculture; Mark Clark, Clinical Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Northwestern University

Project Results

For the first time, communities have access to a city-wide map showing how much lead is in the soil where they live.

Legacy lead, leftover from paint, gasoline, and other sources, lingers in the environment. Lead poisoning is a health concern for children and may cause delayed brain development. In high-risk areas, playing in mud puddles, running through dusty yards, and helping in the family garden can expose children to lead in the soil.

Mapping lead levels is also the first step in understanding contamination risks in urban food production says Andrew Margenot, assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at University of Illinois.

In 2018, Margenot partnered with Zack Grant, a University of Illinois Extension Local Foods Small Farms educator in Cook County, and Chicago-based Advocates for Urban Agriculture to gather soil samples as part of the Chicago Safe Soils Initiative. By offering free soil tests, they were able to map thousands of submitted and gathered samples from parkways and yards across the city.

Lead contamination is widespread across Chicago

The average amount of lead in the soil was 220 parts per million (ppm) which is 11 times higher than the natural level of 20 ppm. According to the study, 20% of the city’s soils are higher than 400 ppm.

Environmental agencies nationwide have different standards for what soil lead levels are a risk to human health. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency follows the federal EPA rate of 400 ppm, while the California EPA has a more cautious rate of 80 ppm.

Margenot suggests people use the lead map, available in the open-access publication or at www.mapmyenvironment.com, as a starting point. “If you’re in a hot spot, you’re probably going to want to invest in a $60 soil test for your yard, especially if you have a garden or any bare spots that could be kicking up dust which is an inhalation risk,” he says.

Soil contamination is an environmental justice issue

Some south-side neighborhoods had soil lead levels of more than 1,000 ppm. “This is the ugly story of industrialization in this county. A lot of Black Americans were forced to live in highly industrialized areas of the city which typically had high levels of contaminants in soil, water, and air,” Margenot says.

Mitigating risks for urban gardening and farming

With urban gardening and farming on the rise in Chicago, researchers also wanted to explore how much lead fruit and vegetables absorb from the soil. Current research-based recommendations focus on washing and peeling produce to remove dirt and dust from the surface, not the produce itself.

To test this, Margenot and Illinois Extension staff recruited local growers for on-site experiments. Researchers added the nutrient phosphate to the soil and planted tomatoes. The fruits from the phosphate-rich soils did not have different levels of lead, but the results show that food crops can be safely grown in high lead level soils, even up to 1,200 ppm. “We still don’t find detectable amounts of lead in the fruit that would prove a human health risk according to FAO/WHO,” Margenot says.

These results will direct future research on different crops and soils and eventually lead to new guidelines for growers.

Illinois Extension and the Data-intensive Farm Management Revolution

Project Overview

A tool to help farmers turn on-farm experiments into profitable decisions

Inefficient application of nitrogen fertilizer on farm fields lowers both farm income and water quality. This project will test and refine a new decision tool software package designed to enable extension personnel and certified crop advisors (CCAs) to discuss nitrogen management with farmers, based on data from their own farms. It will also offer training to Extension professionals to train CCAs to run on-farm trials with their farmer clients, and use the resulting data to improve input management.

Research Team

  • Principal Investigator: N. Dennis Bowman, Commercial Agriculture Extension Educator
  • Co-Principal Investigators: David Bullock, Professor, Agricultural and Consumer Economics; Nicolas Martin, Assistant Professor, Crop Sciences
  • Collaborators: Shaowen Wang, Professor, Geography and Geographic Information Science; Phillip Alberti,  Commercial Agriculture Extension Educator; Talon Becker, Commercial Agriculture Extension Educator; Russel Higgins, Commercial Agriculture Extension Educator; Jessica Soule, Commercial Agriculture Extension Educator

An Interdisciplinary Collaboration to Improve Child Diet Quality and Reduce Wasted Food in School Nutrition Programs

Project Overview

Over 29,000 U.S. schools have implemented Smarter Lunchroom strategies, which aim to reduce food waste and encourage students to increase their consumption of vegetables and healthy foods. Recent critiques have questioned whether the program’s effects on consumer behavior are meaningful or overstated. This project will implement and evaluate Smarter Lunchrooms interventions at two schools – Stark County Elementary School and Bethel Grade School District 82 – in order to develop a simulation tool that identifies effective Smarter Lunchroom techniques and addresses food waste concerns.

Research Team

  • Principal Investigator: Melissa Pflugh Prescott, Assistant Professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition
  • Co-Principal Investigators: Kristin Bogdonas, Nutrition and Wellness Extension Educator; Brenna Ellison, Associate Professor, Agricultural and Consumer Economics; Ashley Hoffman, SNAP-Ed Extension Educator

Rainbow Extension 3.0

Project Overview

Building supportive communities through Extension programming

According to the 2013 Williams Institute report, there are 368,700 individuals in Illinois who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ). Research shows that LGBTQ individuals experience amplified risk for poor physical and mental health and that building community supports can buffer these outcomes. This project will engage Extension educators statewide to survey the needs, barriers, and social climate experienced by LGBTQ individuals in their communities, to better address the physical and mental health disparities faced by LGBTQ individuals and work toward building more supportive and affirming communities.

Research Team

  • Co-Principal Investigators: Ramona Faith Oswald, Professor and Interim Head, Human Development and Family Studies; Anne Silvis, Extension Program Leader, Community and Economic Development
  • Collaborators: Annie Hobson, 4-H Youth Development Extension Educator; Laura L. Payne, Professor and Extension Specialist, Recreation, Sport and Tourism; Lisa Diaz, Extension Program Leader, 4-H

Reducing the Impacts of Phytophthora Through Molecular-based Management Tools

Project Overview

Phytophthora root rot and stem blight, caused by Phytophthora sojae, is a common disease impacting soybean production in Illinois. Developing a molecular tool to determine the different strains, or pathotypes, of P. sojae present could improve testing services, cultivar selection, and data for soybean breeding. This project will conduct statewide pathotype surveys to increase grower awareness of current pathotype diversity and to further develop and implement a molecular tool to determine P. sojae pathotypes.

Research Team

  • Principal Investigator: Nathan Kleczewski, Research Assistant Professor and Extension Pathologist, Crop Sciences
  • Co-Principal Investigator: Santiago Mideros-Mora; Assistant Professor, Crop Sciences
  • Collaborators: Phillip Alberti, Commercial Agriculture Extension Educator; Russel Higgins, Commercial Agriculture Extension Educator; Jesse Soule, Commercial Agriculture Extension Educator; Talon Becker, Commercial Agriculture Extension Educator

Targeting Natural Lawn Care Communications to Homeowners

Project Overview

Conventional lawn care methods are resource intensive: Approximately 89 million pounds of pesticide-fertilizer products (weed and feed) are applied annually, and outdoor irrigation comprises 30 percent of community water demand in summer. In this project, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and College of ACES Agricultural Communications investigators will address lawn care-related pollution in watersheds by developing, piloting, and assessing a natural lawn care communication campaign in three Illinois communities.

Research Team

  • Principal Investigator: Sarah Zack, Pollution Prevention Extension Specialist, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant
  • Co-Principal Investigator: Lulu Rodriguez, Agricultural Communications Program Director
  • Collaborators: Allison Neubauer, Great Lakes Outreach Associate, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant; Haley Haverback, Extension Watershed Outreach Associate; Jennifer Woodyard, Extension Watershed Outreach Associate

Pest and Beneficial Insects in Illinois Cover Crops

Project Overview

Practical recommendations for integrated pest management are still evolving for systems that incorporate cover crops, and are currently based largely on anecdotal information rather than empirical data. This project will identify the pest and beneficial insect complex that inhabits rye cover crops in Illinois and develop appropriate monitoring recommendations for producers.

Research Team

  • Principal Investigators: Nicholas Seiter, Research Assistant Professor, Crop Sciences; Duane Friend, Energy and Environmental Stewardship Extension Educator; Nathan Johanning, Local Food Systems and Small Farms Extension Educator; Ken Johnson, Horticulture Extension Educator

2014 Grants

Eight collaborative projects were awarded two year pilot grants by University of Illinois Extension in July, 2014. Awards were selected from a pool of 71 pre-proposals originating in 16 campus units. The awards were made under the University of Illinois Extension and Outreach Initiative, a special partnership between Extension, the Dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, and the Office of the Provost. Those projects included:

  • Maker Literacy Program
    This project established “maker spaces” across Illinois where learners create 3D printing and other digital products. Participants also receive manuals, presentations, instructional videos, and more.
  • Artifact Speaks: A Traveling Museum
    Students experienced interesting and treasured artifacts from the Spurlock Museum. The program used loan boxes with replicas of ancient cultural artifacts and lesson plans.
  • Digital Innovation Leadership
    This program expanded opportunities for entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic and social development through digital manufacturing and fabrication, digital media production and data analytics.
  • Disposing of Medication
    Advancing educational and outreach strategies about the use, storage, and disposal of pharmaceuticals and personal care products, including the establishment of medicine take-back programs.
  • Designing for Human Health
    This project examined the relationship between health, design, and the environment in Peoria. The project brought together researchers, students, community stakeholders, and residents.
  • 4-H Computing Connections
    A curriculum that addresses computer programming and fundamental computer science concepts. The project team trains 4-H volunteers and 4-H teens as teachers to run the activities