The First Earth Day: A Personal Remembrance

Today’s guest blog post was written by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement Section.

The first Earth Day, which took place on April 22, 1970—50 years ago—sparked the creation of environmental policies and programs that helped clean up parts of the environment not only across the U.S., but also here in Iowa.

The first Earth Day, founded by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, followed by the passage of the Clean Air Act that year, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and years later—in 1987—Section 319 of the Clean Water Act, a new program to provide funding and technical assistance to address nonpoint source pollution in the U.S. to help clean up rivers, lakes, and streams.

Iowa has actively participated in the Section 319 program. Since 1990, the Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement program has funded over 600 local, regional, and statewide clean water projects (mostly watershed projects) totaling over $100 million, through the EPA’s Section 319 grant program. Currently, the DNR provides $1.8 million annually to locally-led watershed projects to restore lakes, streams, and river segments in Iowa.

When the Section 319 program was created, I was completing my master’s degree in Land Resources at the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, named in honor of the founder of Earth Day.

Although I can thank many people for teaching me about nature and the environment—including my professors and fellow students at Wisconsin—among the first were my paternal grandparents, Claude and Bernice Hopkins.

At the time of the first Earth Day, I was an 8-year-old boy who loved to visit Grandpa and Grandma Hopkins at their pasture-based cattle farm in northwest Missouri, only a three hour drive from our home in Atlantic, Iowa.  Grandpa loved working with and observing cattle, which he had done his entire life, and he was in fact the 1935 national collegiate dairy judging champion, while competing with the Iowa State College Dairy Judging Team.

Grandma loved animals, too, but also so much more.  She not only helped Grandpa with livestock chores, she also kept a large garden of healthy vegetables and beautiful flowers, and she cooked delicious meals every day.  She had studied home economics and horticulture at Iowa State, and she put her knowledge to practical use on the farm.

What I remember most about her, though, was how she loved birds.  She would listen carefully to bird calls on the farm, and she had an old 78 record of bird calls that she listened to so she could learn bird calls better. She also could whistle the call of bobwhites so accurately that they would respond by calling back to her.  And, in describing the musical call of meadowlarks, which sang from the tops of the many fence posts on their farm, she would say joyfully, “It sounds like they’re singing ‘Gee whiz, my feet are cold!’”

Grandma Hopkins would never have called herself an environmentalist. Yet she helped instill in me at an early age an awareness and appreciation for nature that has been a part of me all of my life, even long after her passing from this Earth.

On a recent visit to a watershed project here in Iowa, I heard the familiar and welcoming call of a meadowlark, singing “Gee whiz, my feet are cold!”  I thank Grandma for helping me hear that call, and for helping me find my calling.

Steve Hopkins

Water Rocks! Amps Up Online Environmental Learning Fun

Water Rocks! is expanding its online portfolio of environmental and water quality education programming with the addition of two streaming video programs. Water Rocks! Unplugged is a weekly studio session featuring Water Rocks! music and associated lessons. Water Rocks! Out of the Box is a series of short natural resources lessons with at-home activities. Both programs leverage the strong science education content typically delivered through the Water Rocks! classroom visits and assemblies which have been put on hold this year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The unprecedented closure of schools across Iowa led us to brainstorm some new ways to use technology and remote learning to continue delivering our natural resources and water quality content and lessons to youth around Iowa,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “Our enewsletter, The Monday Mix, has been well received, and these new streaming options will give teachers, parents, and kids some new options to have fun while learning—all while keeping natural resources, water quality, and the environment around us at the forefront. We are eager to provide resources and support teachers and parents who are facing incredible challenges.”

Water Rocks! Unplugged features Water Rocks! music frontman Todd Stevens, performing acoustic versions of hit songs from the Water Rocks! catalog. Each performance is accompanied by a quick lesson highlighting the key science elements related to the song. New videos will drop on Facebook and YouTube every Tuesday and Thursday at 1 p.m. CDT – beginning TODAY, April 14!

Water Rocks! Out of the Box is a series of virtual video lessons featuring student intern Emma Flemming, sharing fun, hands-on, at-home adaptations of classroom lessons and interactive activities from the Water Rocks! classroom visit program. Each lesson runs 5-10 minutes, and a new video will drop on Facebook and YouTube every Wednesday and Friday at 1 p.m. CDT – beginning TOMORROW, April 15!

Aligned with the new normal of working from home and learning from home, these video projects are being recorded and produced in the performer’s homes.

“Flexibility and innovation are watchwords right now, and Emma and Todd have both come through with creative ideas, effort and content for today’s youth,” continued Staudt. “Emma has shown great ingenuity in adapting the Water Rocks! activities for at-home use. Building on her experience visiting classrooms in our Water Resources Internship Program last summer—she’s truly driving the Out of the Box project. We are excited to launch both of these new video series.”

As Iowa schools implement online programs at all grade levels, the Water Rocks! online resources and online learning modules provide science-based content that is easy to use. All Water Rocks! programming is correlated to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) adopted by most Iowa school districts. Teacher, parent and student links to music, videos, games and educational resources are available free of charge at www.waterrocks.org

Be the first on your block to catch the new videos Tuesday through Friday each week at 1 p.m.! Just follow these links to Water Rocks!’ social media pages:
https://www.facebook.com/WaterRocksISU
https://www.youtube.com/user/WaterRocksISU

Water Rocks! eNewsletter Offers Fresh Science Activities Weekly

Water Rocks! has launched The Monday Mix, a new multimedia e-newsletter providing conservation and water quality education materials and activities for school-age youth who are suddenly “learning from home.”

“In these uncertain times when schools are closed and we’re all social distancing from one other, we here at Water Rocks! want to continue to make science education fun, interactive and accessible for Iowa’s students,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “Water Rocks! has a wealth of fun STEM and science-based educational videos, songs, games and classroom materials that are ready for use by students, teachers and parents. We encourage everyone to explore the site, sign up for The Monday Mix and have some fun learning about our state’s environment and diverse ecosystems.”

The Monday Mix is distributed via email to all subscribers each Monday. Current subscribers to the Water Rocks! newsletter will automatically receive The Monday Mix. To sign up to receive The Monday Mix, click here.

Content each week will highlight Water Rocks! music videos and fun natural resources-related activities that can easily be done at home by students in grades K-8.

Water Rocks! is widely known for its innovative conservation education programming delivered to elementary and middle schools across Iowa through a mixture of classroom visits, school assemblies and outdoor classrooms. With the uncertainty of school furloughs happening throughout Iowa, the Water Rocks! team is extending much of its library of content for individual use in homes.

“We understand the strain the sudden closure of schools is having on parents and teachers, and we are delighted to share our materials in ways that will facilitate fun learning for the whole family,” concluded Staudt.

Here’s a sample of some soil fun facts shared in last week’s edition:

Farmland wildlife making a comeback

How do we maintain productive, profitable farms in Iowa that protect soil resources, support biodiversity, and send cleaner water downstream?  Tune in to the December Iowa Learning Farms webinar to learn more about these challenges and opportunities from Dr. Adam Janke. Janke serves as Assistant Professor in Natural Resources Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Specialist at Iowa State University.

Many wildlife species in Iowa have exhibited consistent population declines over recent decades. However, contrary to popular belief, these population declines are not due to the expansion of agricultural land. Farmed acres in Iowa have actually declined when compared to the 1930s.

However, what has changed dramatically is the intensification and homogenization of agricultural production. Comparing the 1930s to now, the diversity of cropping systems has dramatically decreased, hedgerows and weedy areas have all but disappeared, and there has been a clear trend towards uniformity on the landscape. Put simply, all of this points to fewer places for wildlife to live.
While much recent attention has been focused on water quality-related conservation practices that align with the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, Janke emphasizes that many of these conservation practices also offer great benefits to farmland wildlife.

Janke points out, “Changes in land use intended to address water quality can also address wildlife concerns in Iowa’s Wildlife Action Plan.” (Did you know that Iowa has over 400 species identified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need?!)
In order for farmland wildlife to thrive, Janke emphasizes three big needs:

  • Native diversity: Wildlife favor native plants over non-natives, and there is a particular benefit to having diverse vegetation providing food resources over the course of the season.
  • Natural features: Natural features like herbaceous vegetation and shallow, pooled water provide important food resources and habitat for wildlife.
  • Size/connectivity: In order to make meaningful gains, wildlife need adjacent or near-adjacent, connected parcels of land that provide quality habitat.

Riparian buffers, wetlands, and strategic integration of prairie into row crop productions can make a huge difference for wildlife!  Watch the full webinar here to learn more about studies that Janke and colleagues have conducted tracking farmland wildlife here in Iowa, along with additional insight into the relationships and synergies between water, soil, and wildlife stewardship.

Ann Staudt

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P.S. Stay tuned for further information about next month’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar (date TBA).  We look forward to kicking things off with a joint webinar-podcast featuring a conversation with Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.

 

Getting Conservation in the Hands of Local Citizens

Our newest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast, A Passion for Prairies, features Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s David Stein. He is truly passionate about helping people learn more about their local ecology through on-the-ground outreach across central Iowa. Enthusiastic may be an understatement when it comes to Stein’s zeal and motivation to provide a personal, education-minded, place-based approach to conservation on working lands!

As a Watershed Program Coordinator with the non-profit (former RC&D) Prairie Rivers of Iowa, Stein holds a unique position in that the area he serves here in the heart of Iowa is at the direct interface of urban areas and prime agricultural land. That presents both unique opportunities and challenges when it comes to water quality, soil health, and facilitating corridors of habitat for wildlife.

Stein is particularly passionate about native prairie establishment, and its benefits to reduce runoff, improve water quality, build soil health, and provide habitat/food resources to many species of wildlife. Tune in to the Conservation Chat to hear about Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s targeted efforts to establish corridors of habitat, creating uninterrupted flyways between publicly-owned and privately-owned lands.

Photographs by Prairie Rivers of Iowa

Interested in doing some native landscaping, establishing a pollinator garden, or other native plantings on your land?  Look no farther that Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Native Plant Seed Bank! Tune in to the podcast to learn more about this awesome new initiative, the brainchild of Stein (and his proudest accomplishment on the job thus far). The seed bank is currently offering 10 different species of native plants (flowers and grasses), and they are accepting deposits of native seed, as well—an incredible conservation resource for central Iowa.

Catch this episode and all previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt

 

Water Rocks! Annual Report Reflects Impacts on Students Across Iowa

The annual school visit evaluation report from Water Rocks! highlights comprehension increases among youth, outreach to new schools and underserved counties, and accolades from teachers

Water Rocks! has published its 2018-2019 School Visits Evaluation Report, detailing the impacts Water Rocks! visits had on students, teachers, and conservation education during the 2018-19 academic year. Water Rocks! teams conducted 197 school visits, 17 more than the previous year, and participated in 13 outdoor classrooms, one more than the previous year. Having identified 11 priority counties that have had limited exposure to Water Rocks!, the team redoubled efforts to connect with schools in these underserved areas – garnering success in eight of the targeted counties.

Water Rocks! is a uniquely Iowan youth conservation and water quality education program that uses a creative mix of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), music and the arts to connect with students in grades K-12 with science-based information about Iowa’s natural resources and ecosystems. Through high-energy classroom presentations, outdoor classroom programs and school assemblies, Water Rocks! energized nearly 33,000 youth during the school year.

With a keen eye on constant improvement, Water Rocks! uses several assessment tools to gather feedback from teachers and students. Among the teachers’ comments were “engaging to the entire class,” “reinforced the ecosystem unit,” and “retention of the information was amazing!” In addition, assessments before and after lessons showed improved comprehension among students for almost all programs when compared to the previous year.

“This report is a guidepost to improving how we teach these important lessons and assure we are delivering the most value in the short time we are with the students,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “The assessments help us identify topics that need more repetition to plant the ideas and concepts more firmly in the students’ minds. We are working with the future leaders and decision-makers for our state, and we feel our role is crucial to building awareness of conservation and water quality for future generations.”


Key findings in the report include:

  • Presented in 197 schools and 13 outdoor classrooms, reaching 32,800 students
  • Key topic comprehension levels increased 40 percentage points or more in all programs when comparing students’ pre- and post-lesson evaluations
  • Of teachers attending Water Rocks! assemblies, 99% would recommend the program to peers

To read the report, learn about assessment methods or to view comments from students and teachers, please visit https://www.waterrocks.org/201819-water-rocks-evaluation-report.

Faces of Conservation: Jacqueline Comito

This blog post is part of our ongoing Faces of Conservation series, highlighting key contributors to ILF, offering their perspectives on the history and successes of this innovative conservation outreach program.


JACQUELINE COMITO
Director, Iowa Learning Farms

Jacqueline Comito joined Iowa Learning Farms in April 2005, soon after it was formed, and has been a key leader and contributor to the program ever since. She brings a strong background in social science that influenced the development and growth of the program’s highly successful evaluation and feedback initiatives.

As Director of ILF, how do you see your role with the organization?
As ILF has grown over the past 15 years, my roles and responsibilities have changed, but fundamentally, I like to think the most important part of my job is to help ensure the organization stays true to what has made us successful—an emphasis on farmer-to-farmer outreach to put information and best practices in front of those that can make the best use of them.

Sometimes I’m a cheerleader and coach, other times I facilitate brainstorming and conversations among team members to continue to develop and expand the vision for ILF. I want to make sure we are effectively and efficiently reaching as many farmers as we can. As an organization we need to continue to grow and improve how we support farmer conservation implementation. This is where a robust evaluation program really helps; it provides a positive feedback loop that fosters ideas and energy for our efforts to help build a Culture of Conservation in tangible ways.

 

Evaluation and feedback are priorities for ILF. How do you see this part of the program evolving in the years ahead?
Evaluation is an organic thing. It must come out of what you are doing with programming. If it’s an integral part of the planning process, programming and evaluation are seamless elements that support each other. For example, when we were building our recently launched Emerging Farmers program, we included evaluation and feedback in the mix from the beginning. We used these tools to fine-tune the program to the unanticipated and evolving needs of participants. This approach helps us deliver more value to our participants more quickly.


How important is youth outreach—such as the Water Rocks! program—to Iowa making progress on conservation, water quality improvement and the nutrient reduction goals for Iowa?
It’s incredibly important! With youth we are playing the long game. We are planting seeds with these young people about conservation, water quality, and what they can do individually to have an impact. When they become decision-making adults, our hope is that they will have a solid framework and environmental ethic that puts natural resources challenges and solutions in the forefront of their thoughts and actions.

In addressing today’s youth, we are speaking with the future scientists and inventors. Not only are we providing education, we feel as though we are modeling career opportunities in science and research.

 

If you had to choose two, what are the most impactful achievements or lessons-learned from the first 15 years of ILF, and how do they inform the path going forward?
Field days. We’ve developed an excellent process for organizing, promoting, and operating field days that works for everyone involved, and takes a lot of pressure off the host farmer or organization. Field day programs are crucial to facilitating farmer-to-farmer conversations.

The Conservation Station trailers have also been a significant achievement for ILF. Designing and redesigning these mobile classrooms across the years have kept materials fresh, enabled us to respond to feedback, and drawn audiences to learn about conservation, farming practices and water quality. Utilizing the trailers at county fairs, farmers markets and community gatherings, we’ve been incredibly successful in taking the conservation message to the public.


How do you see the next five years of ILF evolving?
ILF will continue to be a strong voice providing education and advocacy for conservation practices at venues from field days to classroom programs. There is no end in sight for the need to continually reinforce the challenges facing Iowa and provide information and education through outreach programs such as ILF.

 

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
The relationships I’ve formed with colleagues and people throughout the state are very special to me. I’ve particularly enjoyed getting to know many farmers and learning about farming processes, challenges and their conservation efforts. Even if there are long periods between meetings, when I do get a chance to see them it’s like seeing an old friend. Relationships and community are essential to the success of ILF, and we are striving to make the most of advocates across Iowa to help build a Culture of Conservation that will benefit all.


If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?

My hope for the future of Iowa includes a substantial increase in the number of wetlands. I would love to be a part of finding a solution and resources to make a reality of the goal to take three-to-four percent of cropland out of production and return it to prairie and wetlands. We would also like to build a fourth Conservation Station trailer with an emphasis on wetlands education.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series: