Even as the digital revolution has changed the world, there are thousands of California residents in rural areas that do not have an internet connection adequate for engaging in modern technology.
With offices in all California counties and several research centers located in remote locations, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Vice President Glenda Humiston and UC ANR Chief Innovation Officer Gabe Youtsey believe UC ANR is in a position to forge partnerships with government, industry, and other academic organizations to connect rural Californians with high-speed internet.
Youtsey testified at a rural broadband informational hearing in Sacramento on Aug. 28 held by the Assembly Select Committee on Economic Development and Investment in Rural California, chaired by Rep. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), and the Communications and Conveyance Committee, chaired by Rep. Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles.)
In his testimony, Youtsey characterized the presence of UC ANR in California for the lawmakers.
“We are a network, not a place,” he said. “We have more than 1,500 very applied academics; I call them academics with muddy boots because our job is really to turn science into on-the-ground solutions.”
While it is potentially expensive to bring broadband internet connectivity to every resident of California – from the far reaches of Modoc County in the north to remote desert communities near the Mexican border in the south – those communities' lack of high-speed internet is also exacting a high medical, social, and educational cost.
“High-speed connectivity is needed in rural communities not just for entertainment,” Youtsey said. “It's about online education, medical care, banking and businesses. Digital inclusion is an issue of economic justice.”
Youtsey likens the spread of broadband internet to a successful initiative in the 1930s to promote rural electrification in the U.S. The program was managed by the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration, one of the agencies created under the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt's sweeping legislation that helped lift the United States out of the Great Depression.
The government's role in “internetification” could be an investment in infrastructure, Youtsey said.
“It is very expensive to bring wired internet connectivity to places where it has never been before,” Youtsey said at the hearing.
At one UC ANR location, the UC Sierra Foothills Research and Extension Center, laying a wired connection was cost prohibitive.
“The internet provider had to beam a signal from Marysville, up to the top of the Sutter Buttes, and then beam 26 miles across the valley to our location. That was about a $150,000 one-time set-up cost. That's just not realistic in many cases,” he said.
Youtsey said UC ANR would like to leverage its remote locations as launch points for public-private partnerships for rural broadband, a plan that dovetails an initiative now being considered by state legislators.
Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) has introduced AB 1665, known as the Internet for All Now bill, which aims to ensure social and economic equity for all Californians in the digital age. This bill would approve funding by Dec, 31, 2022, for infrastructure projects that would provide broadband access to no less than 98 percent of California households.
“We support passage of the bill, but we're not going to stand still,” Youtsey said.
Already, UC ANR is creating partnerships with rural communities to provide shared internet connectivity. One project underway is located at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Centernear Parlier, a 15,000-resident community in rural southeast Fresno County that has one of the state's highest percentages of Latinos. After connecting the center with fast one-gigabit speeds, UC ANR is planning to outfit all 330 acres with outdoor wireless coverage to support research and innovation. The next step will be to pilot a public-private partnership with the local community to work with the center and a vendor to share costs and make affordable broadband upgrades for both the residents in the community and UC researchers.
Another project is located at the UC Lindcove Research and Extension Center at the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley near Exeter, an agricultural city of 10,000 near the Sierra Nevada foothills.
“We don't have this site lit up yet. We're working hard on beaming a signal from Visalia, 25 miles away,” Youtsey said. “Once we have it here, we're in the heart of the state's citrus region. We're surrounded by commercial citrus farmers who all struggle immensely with getting broadband. We hope to be part of the solution.”
What's one way to combat food waste, save money, and expand food knowledge? Ask a UC Master Food Preserver.
Or rather, have a group of dedicated volunteers do a hands-on demo at a CSA pick-up location. Tanaka Farms, located in Orange County, did just that. The farm's Community Supported Agriculture program delivers more than 1,600 produce boxes a month to a subscriber base that is highly motivated to prepare and cook food. Educating their customers is a mission of Tanaka Farms CSA as well as a tenet of the UC Master Food Preserver Program.
Additionally, Master Food Preserver volunteers held demonstrations at the farm's Strawberry and Corn Festivals. There they demonstrated dehydrating strawberry fruit leather, making strawberry freezer jam, canning corn relish and making corn broth.
These off-site demos are a prime example of bringing safe, reputable information directly to the public. Preserve today, relish tomorrow!
Late in August, the Helena Fire closed six schools in Trinity County and forced 2,000 people out of their homes. Ultimately, 70 houses were destroyed and Gov. Brown issued a state of emergency in the mountain community.
In the midst of the tragedy, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition education specialist Margarita Alvord and program supervisor Janessa Hartmann quickly developed a plan to serve the children they couldn't reach during the school closures and organized activities to support local families. Alvord brought together several organizations, including Human Response Network, First 5 Trinity County, and Weaverville Parks and Recreation District to address the needs of the fire-stricken community.
The agencies developed a plan to provide youth activities, including physical activity, nutrition education, arts and crafts, and games. They served healthy lunches and provided three days of programming at the Local Assistance Center in Weaverville.
"We received significant positive feedback from parents, teachers and community members, showing Trinity County's strength, resilience and solidarity," Hartmann said. "The staff at UCCE Trinity County seized the opportunity to ensure the students, families, and community displaced during the fires were offered opportunities to learn and have fun in a safe place."
On the second Saturday of every month, Tuesday Simmons heads to the downtown Berkeley farmers market. Among the produce stalls and coffee stands, she sits behind a table with a sign that reads “Talk to a scientist!” She and other students spend the day fielding questions from strangers about topics that range from genetically modified foods to climate change and more.
“We never know who we'll talk to at our public events, or what kinds of questions we'll be asked,” said Simmons, a graduate student in the UC Berkeley Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB). “This makes the farmers markets fun.”
Simmons' monthly visits to the farmers market are organized by the student group CLEAR (Communication, Literacy, and Education for Agricultural Research). The group aims to mentor the next generation of science communicators by engaging in open, transparent, and active conversations with the public about science and research. Funded through the University of California Global Food Initiative, CLEAR offers a series of scientific outreach events including activities at the farmers market, student-led lectures at libraries, and discussions with the public at local pubs.
The events are aimed at making science accessible.
“For members of the public who think scientists are a group of scary, isolated individuals funded by companies with special interests, these brief exchanges can be enough to make them question that assumption,” said Simmons, who also noted that translating her microbiology research for the public has helped improve her communication skills.
Learning to create compelling and impactful science communications is also a draw for Daniel Westcott, who joined the group in 2015. As a PMB graduate student who studies a specialized field — photosynthetic energy conversion in algae and plants — Westcott noted that discussing his research with non-scientists felt like a challenging hurdle to overcome.
Students like Westcott practice their communications skills through writing for the CLEAR blog. In their monthly blog posts, group members have tackled the economics of the meat industry, and the science behind the Impossible Burger, and the difficulty in labeling foods as “natural,” as well as highlighting CLEAR's ongoing outreach efforts.
Westcott understands that sharing his research with the public through the blog and other CLEAR activities is essential.
“Nearly two million scientific articles are published each year,” Westcott said. “Today's successful scientists must be media savvy in order to rise above the noise.”
Launched in 2015, CLEAR began as a project across three UC campuses — Berkeley, Davis, and San Diego. At Berkeley, co-founders Peggy Lemaux and Dawn Chiniquy, a PMB postdoctoral fellow, saw the funding as an opportunity to focus on outreach activities and mentorship opportunities, such as helping graduate students write for and talk to non-scientific audiences.
Lemaux is a UC Cooperative Extension specialist and PMB faculty member who studies food crop performance and quality. She said CLEAR is a student-driven organization. All members of CLEAR are volunteers, and a mix of undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers participate in the group's activities. Many of members are PMB students, but students from other scientific fields also participate in CLEAR's events and monthly meetings. Student scientists from across campus are welcome.
As the faculty organizer of CLEAR, Lemaux mentors students by providing feedback and guidance on their public presentations and blog posts. Recent student-led lecture topics include pesticide use and genetically modified foods, and as new members join the group, they'll continue to add new presentations to their calendar of events.
CLEAR also hosts workshops and trainings to foster students' science communication and writing skills. Last spring, the group invited NPR science writer Joe Palca to present a talk, “Real News or Fake Science.” More recently Brian Dunning of Skeptoid gave a presentation tittled “Science Communication in a Minefield of Fiction.” This fall, Sara ElShafie, a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology and founder of Science Through Story, will give a science communication workshop for CLEAR students.
In recent years, Lemaux has seen a shift in students' interest in outreach and science communication.
“Today's generation of scientists understand that they must be scientists in the lab and translate the message of their research — and research in general — for the public,” she said.
Some CLEAR students have pursued careers in public communication after leaving Berkeley. Mikel Shybut, PhD ‘15 Plant Biology, is now a fellow at the California Council on Science and Technology where he provides scientific analyses to state legislators. After arranging a day of informational meetings in Sacramento for a group of CLEAR students, Shybut commented, “It's heartening to see what CLEAR has accomplished in the last two years. The group's outreach efforts demonstrate that scientists can be effective messengers.”
Visit CLEAR's calendar to learn more about upcoming events. In September join CLEAR at the following events:
Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market: Come chat with CLEAR members and check out their science demos at the farmers market. They feature a different science theme each month and are always looking forward to listening to community members' science questions and concerns.
Science Café with PMB professor John Taylor: Join CLEAR members for a beer, fun fungus exhibits, and Dr. John Taylor's tentatively titled "Felons, Fungi and Rats: California's Valley Fever Epidemic.”