Biodiversity Bonanza

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

Biodiversity Bonanza is another one of our awesome classroom presentations with Water Rocks!. As we start all of our presentations, we introduce ourselves and then we ask the students a (pre-assessment) multiple choice trivia question: “What is biodiversity?”  After everyone has answered the question, we then explore the term biodiversity, asking the students to break the word into two parts, bio- and diversity. When the students define what bio- and diversity are, we then put the full word back together, explaining that biodiversity is all the different living things in a certain area.

We then transition to another important science term, ecosystem, which is a community of living organisms and their environment. At this point, it’s time for another game, our ecosystem guessing game, where students identify ecosystems from around the world.

After the game, we define the next amazing science term which is niche, defined as the specific job that each creature does within the ecosystem. We then continue by asking the students what it would be like if everybody in their school did the same job. The answers are usually like it would be boring or maybe a bit crazy. A diversity of niches keeps a school operating properly, and the same holds true for ecosystems! Then we play another guessing game where we show them a poster with a zoomed-in picture of an airplane wing. Students must try to guess what they’re seeing. After they eventually guess it, we then ask them what would happen if each of the rivets were a different species and what would happen if the rivets were to be pulled out one by one. The wing would eventually collapse, which ultimately represents the collapse of the ecosystem.

Next we use a banner to show the students the trophic level pyramid. After we explain the pyramid, we play a game of Biodiversity Jenga. In this competitive game, the Jenga blocks are painted in different colors that match the colors of the previously seen trophic level pyramid. We then pull situations out of a jar that determine which blocks are to be pulled out each round. It’s survival of the fittest – which team can keep their ecosystem standing the longest? We continue the game until one of the Jenga towers has fallen. We then recap some of the situations that took place during the game.

We want to be sure that students are thinking about biodiversity right here in Iowa, not just faraway places like the Amazon Rainforest, so we like to bring local species and examples into the conversation. In particular, we focus on the Topeka Shiner, a native fish (endangered species) whose habitat has been altered. They prefer to live in oxbows, with slow-moving water and surrounded by trees and other plants that keep the water temperature cool. Yet many of the oxbows have gone through a process called channel straightening, which makes the living conditions much harder for the Topeka Shiner.

So to allow the students to walk a mile in the Shiners’ shoes, we play a game called Musical Oxbows. This game is very similar to musical chairs except instead of using chairs we use carpet squares, painted to represent the meandering bends in rivers. This game also has situations that affect the available habitat for the Topeka Shiner – each round, a new situation is read which means 3-4 habitat spaces are removed. When the music stops, Topeka Shiners must find a spot in the oxbow or they are eliminated! As this game continues, eventually there will only be a couple Topeka Shiners remaining and then the game is complete. Again, we ask the students to recap the different situations that affected the Topeka Shiner, to help solidify those concepts in their minds.

The last few things that we talk about are few different solutions/ideas of what we can all do to protect nature around us. Lastly, we have them answer the same trivia question that we asked at the beginning of the presentation, which helps us to evaluate our effectiveness in the classroom. We then send the students on their way and reorganize our posters, rebuild each Jenga tower, pick up Musical Oxbows, and more — resetting for the next class which usually starts in just 3-5 minutes!

Joshua Harms

The Fabulous World of Wetlands

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

As a continuation from last month’s blog, I will be explaining another one of our great modules with Water Rocks!. Our presentation over wetlands has many interesting and important facts along with a few games as well. The module is meant to feel like the students are on a game show and we are their game show hosts. This presentation, like all the others, has been fine-tuned by our team to make it run super smoothly in the classroom with elementary and middle school students.

Our Fabulous World of Wetlands module starts with an audio “field trip,” where we have all the students close their eyes as we play some sounds from out in nature. We then ask them what different sounds they heard. After they have given us some of the different creatures they heard, we ask them where they think the sounds were recorded, hoping that they eventually answer wetlands. We then ask them to answer a trivia/evaluation question to establish their baseline understanding of the subject.

We then continue into our first game, a guessing game in which the students have to try and guess what the three main characteristics of wetlands are (hydric soils, presence of water, and water-loving plants). After the students eventually get all three things, sometimes with the help of some hints, we move on to show them three objects that represent the three main jobs of wetlands. The first object is a coffee filter and we explain that wetlands filter the water and leave it cleaner after it passes through the wetlands. The second object is a sponge and we explain that hydric soils store water like a sponge would if it was dropped in a bucket of water. The third and final object is a small house, which we use to explain that wetlands are a habitat to many different creatures. After we get done explaining the three jobs we have the students repeat them to lock the knowledge into their brains.

We then transition to talking about some certain creatures that rely on wetlands, particularly migratory birds and butterflies. We ask the students to think about if we were all to get on a bus and take a long journey down to Texas, what would be some reasons that we would stop on our journey? They usually answer with things such as food, water, bathroom, sleep, etc. We then explain that for those same reasons that we would stop, birds and butterflies need those same things and they stop at wetlands to take care of all of it along their journeys. This leads us into the next game which is Habitat Hopscotch. This game involves different states that are on the birds’ and butterflies’ migratory paths, as pictured above. But there is a twist—there are some situations that remove wetlands in certain states, which means we remove that state from the game. We then go through all the situations one-by-one, and by the end of the game, there are only three of the original ten squares remaining. That means there are not many wetlands left for the birds and butterflies to stop at!

After the completion of Habitat Hopscotch, we show two maps of Iowa, one of what Iowa looked like 200 years ago and the other one of present day Iowa. What we are showing the students is that our state used to be almost all prairie and wetlands but now the state is mostly covered by corn and beans. We then let them know that 90% of our original wetlands have been converted into other things. We also tell them that 99.9% of our state’s prairie land has also been converted. But it’s not all bad news—there has been good work with farmers to restore both prairie and wetlands on part of their land, which is great for all the creatures that call wetlands home.

This leads us into our game of Wetlands Bingo, which allows the students to see many more of the creatures that live in wetlands. After each wetland bingo, we ask that student a trivia question that gives them a chance to win a prize. When we have had multiple winners, we then finish with the same trivia/evaluation question that we did near the beginning of our presentation. We also leave each classroom teacher with a set of Wetland Bingo cards, so they and their students can continue learning about the Fabulous World of Wetlands and all the amazing creatures that call wetlands their home!

Joshua Harms

We All Live in a Watershed

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

The work that the Water Rocks! crew performs is truly amazing. Traveling to schools and teaching young students about ways to protect our natural resources is such a great thing.  Every single one of our modules is on a different topic of conservation. Over the next several months, I’ll be sharing some insight into the different modules that we teach to our target audience of upper elementary and middle school students, to give you a behind the scenes look into how our classroom outreach programs roll!

Our best module is our watershed presentation. We start off with introductions and a trivia/evaluation question, then we get right into it by explaining the definition of natural resources. After we have explained the definition, we ask the students to give some examples of different natural resources. When that is complete, we introduce our major word of the day which is watershed.

We usually ask the students if any of them know what a watershed is. We then show them the definition and break it down in a couple different ways. First we have them cup their hand in front of them and we explain that the crease in the palm of their hand is a river, and their hand around it represents the land making up the watershed. We then have them “make it rain” on their hand/watershed and we ask them where all the water sheds off to. Another way to explain watersheds is with the concept of a cereal bowl and how the milk always flows to the bottom.

Next we show the students that watersheds come in many different sizes. After that we show them a map of the US which contains the 4th largest watershed in the world by the name of the Mississippi River Watershed. This map helps the students see how all our waterways are connected and that everything we do on the land eventually affects our water. This concept is the main thing we are trying to get the students to understand.

At this point we allow for the students to be creative with our game called We All Live In A Watershed! We give students a piece of riverfront property and an imaginary $5 million to build whatever they would like on their piece of land. When the students have completed their drawings, we go through a tour of the watershed and see what everyone had drawn. We continue on to then show them what the river water might have looked like in Iowa approximately 200 years earlier, and that our landscape was much different, primarily covered with tallgrass prairie.

Fast forward back to today. We then discuss with students pollutants that could get carried into the water, such as trash, soil, chemicals, oil, and dog poop. We then start the second part of the game which involves the students picking the most prominent pollutant coming off of their piece of land. They then come up to the front and we give them a cup of water with our biodegradable example of the pollutant. After everyone has acquired their cup of water, we have the students one by one pour their cups into the jar representing the river, demonstrating that all of the water drains to one common point in a watershed, and to show how all the pollution has really affected our water. We then talk with the students about some of the different things they could do to help the current water situation – we’re all in this together and it’s really encouraging to hear their ideas of ways to keep the land and water around them healthy!

We close with the same trivia/evaluation question that we asked in the beginning in order to gauge students’ change in comprehension after just a short 45-minute presentation. From our Water Rocks! 2017-18 School Visits Evaluation Report, 36% of students could correctly define a watershed prior to our classroom presentation. After our Water Rocks! lesson, 95% of students could correctly define a watershed.

Joshua Harms

The Adventures Down Your Gravel Road

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

Taking adventures adds lots of new life experiences. Many people think that those adventures involve lots of money and traveling to different states or countries. However, people miss out on a lot of experiences in the natural world that could very well be right down the nearest gravel road.

I think we could all benefit from learning to love the places we live instead of always wanting to live somewhere else. The beauty of this world we live in is endless. I encourage you to go explore the areas around you because you may just find some of that beauty closer to you than expected. Each of the four seasons here in Iowa bring a different type of beauty along with them. Spring brings lots of blooming flowers, summer brings some bright sunsets, fall comes with the beautiful change of color within the leaves, and finally winter brings a snowy wonderland.

At the end of October I took an adventure of my own down some gravel roads in my area looking for cool photos to be taken, and I found some places that I didn’t even know existed before. Here are two of the photos I took while on this expedition. Myself and a friend of mine explored some of the very little remaining prairie land. This land was quite difficult to find as it is very hard to see from the road. So if you were looking to find this area of prairie, good luck!

I encourage you to explore the area around you, because there very well may be some amazing things around your area that you never knew about. Iowa is a truly amazing state, but the beauty thereof may just be a little more hidden than it used to be. By all means go out and explore the world we live in to find some of that hidden beauty. Get out in nature and take in the sights and sounds of our great state – adventure awaits!

Joshua Harms

Harms joins Water Rocks! + AmeriCorps team

IowaAmeriCorpHeader

Hi everybody, my name is Joshua Harms. I’m 18 and I’m an Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach service member this year, serving with Water Rocks!. I have just graduated from South Hamilton High School and I am taking a gap year before I attend college. I love playing drums, drinking coffee, hiking, and watching Netflix.

I’m serving with AmeriCorps this year through Water Rocks! because of my great experience during my previous internship with them in 2017. The internship was during the summer right after my junior year of high school, which really helped me to improve my public speaking skills and overall was just a positive experience. I believe that I will have a similar experience throughout my year of service with AmeriCorps.

The AmeriCorps program requires 1700 hours for full time service members like me. When the hours are completed by the end of the term, I will receive an education award to help me pay for some of my college expenses. The program also offers a living allowance every month to be used for everyday purchases like gas and food (plus the occasional coffee!).

I see this year as a good experience to continue improving my public speaking skills, along with learning more about planet earth and what we as humans can do to take care of it. I’m learning a lot about natural resources, and that will also fit directly in with my plan to attend college to become a park ranger. I also love the opportunity to teach kids. I have found that I have a very good connection with children, which makes it easy and enjoyable to teach them about the different natural resources topics of our program at Water Rocks!.

The main part of my AmeriCorps service with Water Rocks! is to go around to different schools throughout the state of Iowa to teach kids about water, soil, pollinators, and plenty of other natural resources-related topics. We teach them using music, games and other activities. Our teachings are meant to be fun and to get the kids involved. These kids are the next generation, so we want them to be well equipped with information to help protect the planet they live on. The work I’m doing with this program is very meaningful compared to the jobs I have worked in the past. It makes me feel as if I am making a difference that will positively affect our planet as our lives continue.

I’ll be blogging monthly, so stay tuned to hear about all the amazing things we have going on with AmeriCorps and Water Rocks!.

Joshua Harms

The Most Rewarding Work

When I first began my AmeriCorps term in October of 2017, it was a matter of serendipity. I had been eager to do something meaningful in the space between graduating college in December of 2017 and moving into a full-time job in August of 2018. I had considered AmeriCorps, but worried about the year-long commitment given my timeline for a new job. My excitement to join the Water Rocks! team as a part-time service member was unmatched — it fit my timeline perfectly and the work I would be doing was so meaningful. This position ended up doing more for me than just allowing me to work with such a cool program. It helped me to grow as a young adult and paved my transition into full-time working life.


Time Management is the Key to Success

I began my service term during school and quickly learned that time management for a full-time job is different than time management for a part-time job because you want to take your work home with you. I had to quickly learn how to effectively manage my time at work so that I wouldn’t let it bleed into my school/homework time and later my other jobs. Because I was a part-time service member, I had the opportunity to find a second job. It was challenging to orchestrate both schedules and to give both jobs the time I felt they deserved. I gained a new respect for people who work multiple jobs. Even though my service was top priority, keeping my promise to my other employer was also of the utmost importance to me. Learning to balance my schedule helped me to feel confident in giving my best to my service.


Doing Your Best is Up to You

In my new position with Water Rocks! I was given freedom to develop several programs, including a library and day camp program, and run them on my own. In the development process of both programs I worried they would not be good enough or that I had not put in enough work to make them successful. My team always puts out high quality teaching tools and programs that are well-organized, so the bar was high. I got over my anxiousness by putting in the time to make the programs meet my standard. If you work on something until you are proud of it, other people will see that and feedback you get will only help you to elevate the project. I was setting the bar for myself lower than what I could actually do because of the limits I was putting on myself. Being a part of this AmeriCorps service opportunity helped me to gain confidence to push the limits of what I thought I could do and move beyond good to great.


It’s a Bow-Wow World
When We Work Together

Teamwork means more than just the work I put in with my team in the office. My team at Water Rocks! headquarters is amazing and I learn things from each and every one of them each time we are on an event together, but working with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach partners across the state taught me the power of regional teamwork. We are able to reach so many more students and we are better able to connect to the people who live across the state because we have partners on the ground who live in and know these communities.

I have been on 79 events this year and talked to thousands of people about conservation. I have seen the power of song and games and the staying power of the conservation message. No matter how long the travel or how many people we saw, teaching people about conservation was enough to make me feel the impact of the work we do. Watching people’s faces change as we talked about pollution AND solutions to pollution never gets old. Conservation work is the most rewarding work I will ever do. I look forward to bringing these lessons to Nebraska as I continue my journey of public service as a regional planner for the Panhandle Area Development District.

Megan Koppenhafer

Megan Koppenhafer just completed her term of service with the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, having served with Water Rocks! since October 2017 (and as a college intern with Water Rocks! two prior summers). Our record-breaking Water Rocks! outreach efforts this past year would not have been possible without our two awesome AmeriCorps service members, Jack and Megan — many thanks! You both rock!

Hanging Up the Name Tag

All things must come to an end, and AmeriCorps service is no different. In the middle of the winter, going to classrooms on the daily, it never seems that it will end. But, that’s not a bad thing. You continue teaching students many lessons: we all live in a watershed; keep the soil covered; wetlands provide a pitstop for migratory animals; just one block could cause the tower of biodiversity to collapse; pollinators are a really big deal.

And then, you look at the calendar. August. Your last days of service are here. How did it come so fast? You don’t know. What you do know is that the familiarity of your classroom visits, assemblies, and day camps is gone. It’s time to be thrust back out into another unfamiliar experience, not unlike your first day a year ago. But, this time is different. This time, you have the lessons you have learned on your AmeriCorps journey to guide you.

These are the thoughts I had as I came to the full realization that my service was about to end. Over this last year, I have learned so much about conservation, Iowa, responsibility, and communication from my service time in Ames. These are some of the most important I learned throughout my journey.

Own the Problem – Don’t Blame
or Make Excuses

I and the rest of the Water Rocks! team had the privilege to read Speak Up, Show Up, and Stand Out: The Nine Communication Rules You Need to Succeed by Loretta Malandro, a book that teaches different guidelines to improve your communication, whether it be in the workplace or even in your day-to-day life. While all nine rules are important, this is the one that stood out to me the most. We tend to get defensive when we make a mistake, either by blaming someone else or making an excuse about the circumstances. The solution is simple in concept – just own the problem and accept when you made a mistake – but it’s hard for us to take responsibility for our actions. This chapter struck a chord with me as I, like many other people, got defensive whenever I made a mistake, and I took a lot from this chapter with me into my day-to-day life.

Sometimes, you Just Have to Say “Oh, Well.”

This lesson did not come from a book, but from my coworker Todd. In the hectic life that is travelling to schools and assemblies, sometimes things don’t work out how you planned. A wrong turn is taken en route, the contact person tells you the wrong school building, an iPad is left behind. It can be easy to stress out over these things as they come up. However, stressing out after the fact does little to fix the situation. The best thing to do is take a breath and say “Oh, well.” I always admired Todd’s ability to keep himself relaxed and away from stress, and I aspire to have that ability.

Cedar Rapids is in the East

This is something I did not know for certain before travelling all over the state with Water Rocks!. Before AmeriCorps, I lived the stereotypical midwestern life where I only knew my county and the counties around me, not knowing where anything else in the state was. In fact, it was so bad that I didn’t know what quadrant of the state most areas were! AmeriCorps gave me the opportunity to travel all over the state, and even into South Dakota for assemblies twice.

This is a map showing all the locations I travelled to throughout the year. I went all over the state, from Decorah, to Sioux City, to Council Bluffs (many times!). Travelling my home state gave me the chance to become more familiar with it than I’d ever been, and I’m glad I got the chance.

AmeriCorps may be ending, but a new journey is beginning. I am now starting my first semester at DMACC in Ankeny to begin my Video Production Diploma. It is a good fit for me and I hope to meet many new friends when I get there. Even with my completed service, I will take everything I learned with me. And blow people away when I tell them Cedar Rapids is, in fact, in the East.

Jack Schilling

Jack Schilling is now completing his year of service with the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, having served with Water Rocks! since September 2017. Our record-breaking Water Rocks! outreach efforts this past year would not have been possible without our two awesome AmeriCorps service members, Jack and Megan (who you’ll be hearing from soon) — many thanks!