Weather Permitting: Outdoor Classrooms Return

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Spring has sprung in Iowa, finally. The state is warming up, and (weather permitting) will continue to do so. The transition from January 107th to spring has certainly been abrupt, but it’s finally time to enjoy the outdoors. I got my first chance to go out and deliver our Water Rocks! program outside with an outdoor classroom just recently, and the experience was a blast! But, what makes an outdoor classroom different than our normal indoor classroom visits?

For starters, the visit is outdoors (hence the name). The differences between being indoors and outdoors offer some unique pros and cons. One of the best pros is just being able to be outside and enjoy the weather, especially now that it’s cooperating. However, this can also be a big con if the wind tries to blow our supplies away! The pros of being outside, including having students in a location directly related to the environmental topics discussed in our lessons, greatly outweighs the cons.

Another key difference is how we present. Typically, an outdoor classroom will be in a rotating format with other activities for students to visit throughout the day. This all usually takes place at a local nature center or county park. The students tend to be with us for less time, but that allows us to rotate through and see more youth in a shorter amount of time than usual, and we are always able to compensate on time.

The last main difference is what we bring. We typically bring one of our Conservation Station trailers with us to outdoor classrooms. The trailers have chairs for us to set up for students to sit in, tables to set up our supplies, and other miscellaneous supplies we may need, depending on what lesson we teach that day.

All in all, outdoor classroom events are a great way for our team to get some new scenery for class visits, and is a great way for students to connect with nature in person while learning about the land in their home county, and it’s always a blast to be a part of it.

Jack Schilling

AmeriCorps Week: Doing My Part

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

This month, AmeriCorps Service Members participated in AmeriCorps Week, a week dedicated to raising awareness and promoting AmeriCorps. As a great opportunity to promote the program I have been a part of for six months, I immediately set my sights on my way of promotion: a radio interview in my hometown of Jefferson.

The local radio station, Raccoon Valley Radio, was kind enough to do an interview with me about AmeriCorps at my request. I spoke about AmeriCorps, Water Rocks!, and what I enjoyed about both. I even got the chance to talk about why I joined AmeriCorps: I needed more time to figure out what I wanted to do in life, and AmeriCorps seemed like a great use of time in my gap year.

As glad as I am to have done my part in promoting AmeriCorps, I wish I could have done more to promote the program for the week. I planned on giving a presentation to my county’s schools about AmeriCorps, but sadly their spring breaks were right over AmeriCorps Week! Nevertheless, I’m happy that I and the other AmeriCorps members were able to reach out and promote AmeriCorps to all who are looking for an opportunity just like this.

Jack Schilling

Studio Magic

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Megan Koppenhafer, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

When I was young, I dreamed of being a singer. My friends and I would play “American Idol” for hours. As I became more interested in science I realized I wanted to teach people about science through music. This direction was largely inspired by Bill Nye the Science Guy; he had it all, it seemed, between the music and the education.

As I went through my school years I focused on science more and more. Finally, I decided to go to school for Environmental Science but I still wanted to be in that recording studio! Who knew after two college degrees, neither in music, I would end up getting to live a little bit of that childhood dream when I joined the Water Rocks! team as an AmeriCorps service member! In my position I help with Water Rocks! Assemblies and we use music to help teach science across the state of Iowa. We were in the process of developing the new pollinator-themed assembly when I got the opportunity to come out to the studio to record.

Me singing in the studio — trying to hit the right notes and keep tempo, oh my!

When you walk up to the small chicken coop studio in the middle of a cornfield you imagine it will be quaint and, well, Iowan. Junior’s Motel, the studio, is anything but. When you step through the door you are transported to an Elvis recording room type atmosphere.

Todd rocking out in the eclectic sound proof instrumental room. Note the “A Christmas Story” style lamp in the right corner.

There are moments of history covering the walls as you stare, face to face, at The Beatles and other rock group album covers. The legendary Kirk Kaufman, of Hawks: a rock group from the early 80s, runs the studio and records most of the songs for Water Rocks!. He says his inspiration for his studio came from recording sessions he did all over the country with his band.

I shook hands with Kirk and “fangirled” a bit about how cool the studio was and how exciting it was to finally meet the legend himself. Kirk is a conversational but quiet fellow who is definitely a music nerd to his core. Listening to him and Todd talk about old gigs and bass woes made me feel like I was a part of a band, which I guess I kind of am now!

Kirk at the soundboard marking which track would hold which part.

The recording process involves several steps. First, the instrumental tracks were laid. I listened intently, trying to get my part perfect before it was my turn to record. When it came time to lay the vocal tracks down, I was intrigued that we all had to be in separate spaces. Todd explained this was so each mic could be adjusted to pick up our voices in the best way possible. Rarely had I sung with such a short time between practice and performance, and I was definitely a little nervous.

Luckily, in the recording studio, you have an opportunity to fix mistakes. All of the different parts were recorded on different tracks so it would be easy to manipulate a mistake in one track while leaving the other good ones intact. The tracks are all recorded on a big role of tape which runs through a magnet while you are recording. The magnet arranges tiny metal particles as it goes, which is then output as music.

The recording tape on the left and the soundboard on the right with the tracks identified in dry erase marker.

After recording all three of our new songs, Todd made sure we had a vocal and an instrumental copy of each so that we could use them in our new Water Rocks! Pollinator Assembly. The process of creating music with a message I care very deeply about was an incredibly rewarding experience. Six year old Megan felt very much like an American Idol.

Be sure to follow us on Soundcloud to hear some of our new Pollinator Assembly songs. For more songs created in “Junior’s Motel” studio check out www.waterrocks.org and go to the Music Videos tab, or check out our YouTube channel WaterRocksISU to see full music videos as they are released.

Megan Koppenhafer

Learning about the Water Cycle – Across the Ocean!

During the first part of January, I had the opportunity to travel abroad before returning to the Water Rocks! team. As part of a lifelong dream realized, I took a class with the University of Iowa, called the India Winterim trip, and my section was focused on Water Poverty in Rural India. The class combined my favorite place on Earth (India) with my favorite topic on Earth (water quality). As an added bonus we had the opportunity to learn about strategies for dealing with saline soils from some of the smartest scientists in the field.

Our class partnered with an NGO called the Sehgal Foundation, a group who is doing a lot of work with rural communities in the Nu district (formerly the Mewat district) near New Delhi. While our class was there we had the incredible opportunity to help Sehgal do some wider scale sampling and design work with them.

Our team included Sehgal scientists, engineers and volunteers along with University of Iowa students and professors.

Sehgal serves as the Extension and Outreach department for this district and many others. They educate people on sustainable farming practices and seek to improve water quality for drinking and irrigation purposes.

Drip irrigation in a test plot by the Sehgal radio site.

Our team during the debrief of our tasks for the class. Photo courtesy of Amina Grant.

 I was excited to go out in the field and collect data because with a background in Environmental Science, I felt like I would be the most useful outside. I also wanted to be out in the 70 degree weather!

Our class exploring our site for the first time next to the Aravali Hills.

Being out in the field, I had the opportunity to work with Sehgal water monitors to locate sites and take water salinity samples. Sites were often a bit of a scavenger hunt as wells run dry during the years we are not there or become dysfunctional for a variety of reasons. We worked with the local water monitors to line up our sites to the ones they had been using as best as possible. Then we used a tool called the Solinst to measure water temperature, conductivity and depth.

Me, using the Solinst to take readings. Photo courtesy of Amina Grant.

We went out to the field on three different occasions. My classmates and I worked to efficiently sample as many sites as we could, while making sure we were being accurate about the sites we were testing. It really tested my coordination skills to try and pay attention to what everyone was doing and end up with usable data. I definitely gained some skills in data management because along with my conductivity readings, my friend and classmate Amina Grant had to collect her own samples and that required an entirely different set of numbers to be recorded.

Amina found a Daphnia (small water creature) in one of the wells she was testing. 

We were hoping our measurements would add to the body of knowledge Sehgal and the local volunteers have been building about the water over time. We understood that our measurements were only a small piece of the puzzle, but hopefully some answers can be gained as a result of our cumulative efforts.

Sehgal test plots provide alternative methods for sustainable agriculture in the region. In the back, you can see the drinking water filtration system.

The water challenges in the Nu district are different than ours because their main problem is poor water quality and soil quality due to salinity. But the same principles of hard work, long days, and an interdependency on the water cycle bind across oceans and cultures.

Megan Koppenhafer

 

Opinion: The Iowa Farmer, and the Decay Of the Rural Economy

Today’s guest blog post represents the opinion of AmeriCorps Service Member Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

It’s been almost six months since I first started my service with Water Rocks! and Iowa State University. Throughout this time, I have traveled all over the state of Iowa for numerous outreach events, from Decorah to Council Bluffs, Sioux Center to Cedar Rapids. The bluffs and plains of Iowa offer some truly great views along the highways, but there is another sight that has become all-too-familiar to me: the sight of a small, rural, agricultural town along the way. My home town, Jefferson, was not much different than this when I was a child, but in the last few years gained new businesses, most notably a Hy-Vee and the Wild Rose Casino. However, many small towns do not get an opportunity like this and run the risk of fading away.

Rural areas on the decline is not a new concept: farm income plunged for three straight years since 2014, says Barbara Soderlin of the Omaha World Herald (American farm income to fall in 2018 according to USDA forecast). A combination of low prices and poor weather have made it rough for farmers trying to get by. Some made the tough decision to give up their family farms simply because it couldn’t provide. And as farm family numbers shrink, so do the number of stores, hospitals, and other places of work. Even the factories, a partner with farms as the great job producers of Iowa’s rural economy, will leave, searching for more workers. And as such, rural Iowa, the lands that we are known for, decay.

When you see the same circumstance time and time again, you truly want to help your state find a way to bring jobs, wealth, and prosperity back to how they used to be. And, in a way, it helps you realize why some decisions are made the way they are. At first, it may not make sense for a factory to get a tax credit. But, if they didn’t have the tax incentive, the factory may not have been there in the first place. Bringing one part of the rural economy’s life blood back is a good first step for the state. More jobs lead to more population in the towns, which leads to town necessities like stores, hospitals, and gas stations being built, which leads to more jobs and a better economy. Ideally, this leads to a revitalization of an entire area. But what of the farmers of the state? I can’t give an answer to that.

The future of the Iowa farmer is uncertain. Price lulls, poor weather, and a disappearing rural community all factor in to the life blood of the rural economy. Ideally, the price of corn and soybeans will rise again, and the problem will solve itself, but the future lies at a crossroads. Does the small town/rural Iowa we know rebound and thrive again, or does it become the agricultural equivalent of the Rust Belt, a relic of a better time?

Jack Schilling

Welcome back, Megan!

Hello! My name is Megan Koppenhafer. You may recognize me as the teacher from the Water Rocks! music video “Please the Bees,” and I am excited to officially rejoin the Water Rocks! team as an AmeriCorps service member!

I am a recent graduate of Iowa State University with degrees in Environmental Science and Community and Regional Planning. I grew up on a farm outside Williamsburg, IA.  I developed my passion for sustainable agriculture and living through my years as a camp counselor in Iowa City. At this camp, I learned how to teach kids about being in nature and truly valuing all that the earth has to offer us.

From these experiences, I knew that education was the way I wanted to make a difference in conservation. Amid this realization, I made a comment to my mom about wanting to be a ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ for environmental science. She encouraged me to keep that in the back of my head but focus on some more practical jobs first.

When I saw the Water Rocks! summer internship opportunity come to my inbox during my sophomore year of college, I quickly applied and watched as many of the Water Rocks! music videos as I could. I excitedly showed my mom and told her I had found my chance! After my first summer, I loved it so much I came back a second time ……and now for a third time as an AmeriCorps service member!

This time around you’ll see a lot more of me in assemblies and classroom visits. I will also be working on a project with some of our extension and county conservation partners to bring Water Rocks! day camps to different counties across the state.

I look forward to seeing some of you at assemblies or classroom visits or possibly camps and can’t wait to groove with everyone!

Megan Koppenhafer

MLK Day: A Day of Service

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

When some people see Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the calendar, they rejoice for the three-day weekend that is coming to them. For AmeriCorps members, this day is a chance to help the community through a Day of Service.

For my day of service, I participated in a t-shirt mat-making event at the Ames Des Moines City Church. The mats were made using strips of t-shirts braided together, and sewn in a circle. Since I’m not the most coordinated when sewing by hand, I took on the job of braiding the shirts together. It was certainly a learning experience for me, as my experience with braiding limited itself to watching my sister braid hair.

Thankfully, I picked up on the process fairly quickly and made my own tie. The whole process took two hours, which might be a testament to how slow I am at braiding! When the mats are finished, they will be sent to the Ames Animal Shelter, who will distribute them out to other animal shelters so they all have mats for animals to lay on instead of the cold cement.

There were many people at the event. I saw other AmeriCorps members from programs such as the Reading Corps, a branch of AmeriCorps that focuses on reading skills with students. Students from sororities, church members, and families came together to help create the mats. The sense of community, unity, and purpose were all there, and everyone in that room wanted to be there, and wanted to help on their day off, not because they had to, but because they wanted to.


All in all, I thought this event was a great idea, and I am excited to see the fruits of everyone’s labors really shine through when the animals in the shelters feel a bit more comfortable while waiting for a new home.

Jack Schilling