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

Working with Nature!

I spent this summer traveling to field days around Iowa as well as driving back from our American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan. One of my purposes in attending the ASABE meeting was to accept for the team the Blue Ribbon Award in the Educational Aids Competition for our revised version of the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! online game (read more about it in our previous post Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon). Part of our revisions included adding more diversity to the land management choices that players can make and clearly showing the environmental benefits of diversifying our watersheds. Driving around the Midwest and Iowa really brought home to me how important this is and how far we need to go to still achieve the kind of diversity that will make a difference.

Prairie restoration and wetland west of West Lake Okoboji

But last week I traveled to the Iowa Great Lakes area for a field day and then stayed up there for some vacation time with my family. The field day near West Okoboji Lake focused on prairie and wetland restoration to clean the water before it enters the lake. The side benefit would be increases in wildlife including pollinators of all sorts. The next day we visited our prairie strips site that is directly east of Big Spirit that was installed a few years ago for the same purpose of protecting local water quality and increasing habitat. In both cases, local stakeholders came together to diversify the land to help protect a local asset. I could hear the pride in their voices when discussing the changes they had put into place.

I am an engineer and spend a lot of time writing and talking about new technology. However, this summer really highlighted to me that many of our fixes cannot be solved by technology alone. Instead, we need to strategically restore or implement more diverse natural systems where they can do the most good in terms of water quality, wildlife and overall land health. We are able to do these practices such as prairie strips and wetlands by combining technological advances with a solid understanding of the natural ecological system that was replaced with row crop agriculture and other development. Modern technology helps us know where to place the natural system for the greatest benefit. After that, the natural system will do all the work.

Both of the restored areas I visited near the Iowa Great Lakes are less than five years old. The local folks are doing a good job of ensuring diversity in the perennial plantings. I have seen other areas in Iowa under perennial vegetation that opted for monoculture grasses, mainly cool-season grasses. While the diverse native prairie restorations are more challenging to manage, the beauty alone makes it worth it to me. Factor in water quality, wildlife and land health benefits and it is a home run.

Prairie strip east of Big Spirit Lake

If this is something that interests you for the land you own or manage, there is assistance and information available to you. We are really fortunate in Iowa to have organizations such as the Tallgrass Prairie Center that have spent years figuring out how to support landowners in planting and managing prairie restoration on the land. For my part, I am going to continue to work to understand how to best manage these systems and what technology is needed to allow diversity to flourish. I would encourage you to go online to www.waterrocks.org and play the Rock Your Watershed! game to learn how we can work with better with the natural systems.

And also, take some time to find those natural areas around you and think about how we can use natural systems such as wetlands, prairie strips, oxbow restoration, riparian buffers, and others to help clean our water, diversify our landscapes, increase wildlife and enhance the beauty on the land. I know I felt a little “restored” after my time in these natural settings.

Matt Helmers

Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon

Interactive Rock Your Watershed! game takes top honors in the Educational Aids Competition for novel approach to teaching players of all ages about watershed science and ecosystem impacts

Water Rocks! received a Blue Ribbon Award in Educational Aids from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) at the ASABE 2018 Annual International Meeting held in Detroit, Michigan July 29 through August 1, 2018.

“Rock Your Watershed!: A Game of Choice and Chance” is a browser-based game that engages players in applying various land uses, both agricultural and urban, conservation practices, and runoff mitigation techniques, then offers immediate feedback regarding the impacts of these choices. Players quickly see the environmental and cost impacts of conservation and learn about the natural ecosystem along the way. The game can be found and played online at http://www.waterrocks.org/ Players can see their scores immediately under multiple rainfall scenarios, play again as many times as they like, and the top twenty-five are included in the leaderboard.

“We are honored to be recognized by a prestigious global organization such as ASABE with a blue ribbon for Rock Your Watershed!, and are excited to share the game with colleagues from around the world,” said Matthew Helmers, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University and faculty advisor to Water Rocks!. “The Water Rocks! team has done extensive research into the appeal of previous versions of the game to different demographics. We’ve incorporated that research to make this latest edition rewarding to players of all ages and backgrounds. Animals play a much more prominent role with a new biodiversity scoring metric and the option to add grazing livestock on the land, plus there are also four new urban development choices. Playing this game can be a significant learning tool and we look forward to seeing many new names on our leaderboard.”

Teachers attending the Water Rocks! Summit compete in the Rock Your Watershed! game and discuss ways to utilize the interactive game in their classrooms.

Developed in partnership with Entrepreneurial Technologies, a web development firm in Urbandale, Iowa, Rock Your Watershed! moves the science and research spreadsheets to an accessible and engaging learning environment for all ages.

“The game is as simple or complex as the user wants to make it, and it’s really catching on,” concluded Helmers. “Since its launch in 2012, the game has been played more than 48,000 times, with some 20,000 of those plays taking place within the past year.”

Insect Armageddon: Are Insect Populations Declining?

30mon2-master768Recently, the New York Times published an interesting opinion article about new research from the University of Sussex. Researchers found a 76% decrease in flying insects over a 25 year period. The study collected flying insect biomass in nature preserves in Germany in order to identify the decline. Researchers, however, are uncertain about factors that may be causing the decline:

“The reasons for the decline are not entirely clear — and only flying insects were collected, so the fate of crawling insects, for example, is not known — but the scientists suspect two main culprits: the use of pesticides and a lack of habitat in surrounding farmland.”

The article provides interesting food for thought: are insects on the decline in other parts of the world? Other studies in recent years report insect populations in other parts of the world also declining. More research is needed to better understand the extent and potential causes of the problem. What do you think?

Julie Whitson

Outdoor Adventure + Exploration with Water Rocks! Camps

Today’s guest blog post comes from summer intern Elizabeth Schwab. Originally from Levittown, PA (just outside Philadelphia), Elizabeth is a senior at ISU, double majoring in Environmental Science and Agronomy. She is also a radio DJ at 88.5 FM KURE on the side!

Monday, June 26, we held our first of a series of three Water Rocks! Summer Day Camps, this one in the beautiful Winterset City Park in Madison County. I saw my first of the famed Madison County covered bridges (the Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge) on the drive to the shelter where we set up camp, but unfortunately the bridge didn’t appear to be designed to handle the fifteen-passenger van we were traveling in. I’ll have to return to Madison County to tour the covered bridges some other time.

After organizing our supplies and activities, we were ready to begin our day; shortly thereafter, the campers began to arrive. The 23 campers, ages nine to fourteen, were organized into two packs, each led by two Water Rocks! team members. My fellow intern Andrew and I spent our day with the blue pack, who soon named themselves the “Blue Ferrets,” while Jenn and Josh led the red pack.

We kicked off the morning with some music and dancing led by Todd. I’m not much of a dancer, as anyone who saw me “on stage” on Monday morning can confirm. However, I was excited that some of the more exuberant campers soon joined our staff up front to show off their moves (and prove that they have much more talent than I do). This was a great high-energy start to the day! After we were all welcomed to camp, we split up into our packs for some icebreakers and time to get to know each other, and then we were able to dive into the lessons!

One of my favorite aspects of the educational modules that the Water Rocks! team presents is that they make education a lot of fun, both for the presenters and the audience. For the first part of the morning, Jenn and I led each pack through sessions on wetlands, which involved playing such games as Habitat Hopscotch and Wetland Bingo.

Throughout the day, campers also learned about watersheds, contemplated biodiversity (while playing Biodiversity Jenga and Musical Oxbows), and participated in a “game show” with our Dig Into Soil module! In times like these, I sometimes wish to be an observer rather than a presenter at our outreach events. I have learned, however, that leading students or campers through these activities is just as fun, even if it means that I can’t win prizes in Wetland Bingo or develop my own piece of lakeside property during the Watershed module.

What better way is there to reflect on why we should conserve and appreciate our water resources than by playing a few water games? After lunch and a quick trip to the playground, the packs competed against each other to play a few games, with bucket relays and water balloons proving to be the stars of the show. It just wouldn’t be summer camp without water sports, and these activities were certainly a memorable part of the camp experience!

It was a busy day in Winterset, and by the end of the camp day everyone was ready to take things a little more slowly. We ended our day by making “edible soil” to complement the afternoon’s lesson about soil, and then spent some time reflecting and writing in the nature journals that we created during arts and crafts time earlier in the day. This was a great way to wrap up our day—I’m excited about nearly any opportunity that involves either chocolate pudding or crafts, and being able to tie both of these to other topics that I’m passionate about was an added bonus.

As the campers departed at the end of the day, many of them expressed interest in returning for future events or camps. I am proud to have been a part of making this day memorable for so many young people, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to return to our next two Water Rocks! camps in Des Moines on July 6 and 7. Every time I go to an event or camp I discover something new about communicating scientific information in a way that is engaging to the audience as well as to me as an educator. And I get to have fun doing it! There really is no better way to learn.

Elizabeth Schwab

NOTE: Limited spots are still available for 9-14 year olds in our upcoming Water Rocks! Summer Day Camps at Greenwood Park in Des Moines – choose from Thursday, July 6 or Friday, July 7!  Do you have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbor that might be interested?  Camps are FREE of charge; we just require registration in advance. Registrations are being accepted through NOON tomorrow – Friday, June 30.

Inger Lamb: On a Mission to Support Biodiversity With Prairies

Inger Lamb, landowner, PhD, and owner of Prairie Landscapes of Iowa, has a passion for prairie! She puts this passion for native prairie into practice with both her business ventures, and on the agricultural land she owns and co-manages in western Iowa.

Inger inherited her family’s century farm in Monona County in 2000. She entered into a crop-share agreement with her first cousin, who lives on the land and facilitates the daily farming operations, while together they handle land management decisions. The century farm, which has been in operation since 1894, is located in a flood plain. This means that the land contains heavy soils that aren’t well-suited for methods like no-till, paradoxically mixed with sandy areas. After a couple years, Inger and her cousin made the decision to begin transitioning the acres that were least suited to agricultural production into the Conservation Resource Program (CRP). A few years later they discovered that some of her land was eligible for the Wetland Resources Program (WRP) as well. Eventually 80 acres were converted to a permanent easement through the WRP, with an additional fourteen in CRP.

Inger made sure the land taken out of production was put into high quality, diverse prairie. She took advantage of some U.S. Fish & Wildlife cost share dollars available for the permanent easement acres but paid for the remainder of the improved seed mixes out of her own pocket. While Inger admits that farmers are sometimes cautious with new practices and methods, she vehemently disagrees with the idea that farmers are disinterested in conservation. She points out that farming is a business, and every farmer must balance the economic impacts of their decisions with ecological concerns. Establishing conservation practices on the land has to make economic, as well as ecological, sense for farmers to buy in.

The local farming community was a bit reticent of the prairie conversions when they first went in. But as the prairie established, wildlife populations soared. With increased populations of marsh hawks, deer, pheasants, owls, and other wildlife, locals have been eager to enjoy those abundances through hunting. Inger and her cousin are now learning to navigate the many requests for access to their CRP and WRP land for hunting activities, as the local community increasingly appreciates the benefits of their prairie habitat!

Inger has always had a deep connection with the land, and a love for plants especially. She received her undergraduate degree in botany at San Diego State University, and went on to graduate school. Inger completed her PhD at Ohio State University with a focus on plant physiology, specifically the symbiosis of legumes. After graduation she completed a year-long Post Doctoral position before moving with her husband and young son to St. Louis. Once in St. Louis, Inger took a break from the academic world to focus on her family, and to apply her knowledge and interests in plants in a more hands-on way. She began volunteering with the Missouri Botanical Garden, where they were putting in a native landscaping for the home garden demonstration area. This was her first exposure to the idea of using local, native species for gardening, and it is in this way that she started to familiarize herself with native plants.

When her family moved to central Iowa and her son began elementary school, Inger discovered that the school was badly in need of someone to take on the management and upkeep of its outdoor classroom and butterfly garden. Already devoted to volunteer work, Inger took on the role and spent the next six years shaping the native prairie beds into vibrancy, and taking classrooms of elementary students out into the gardens to learn about prairie plants and the wildlife they support. She balanced this volunteer work with her job with Prairie Rivers Natural Resources Conservation Service and Development. Her devotion to the work at her son’s school led Inger to start dreaming of a business model that would allow her to translate her love and knowledge of native prairie into a career.

In 2007, Inger started her own business, Prairie Landscapes of Iowa. Her clients include cities, schools and universities, businesses, homeowner associations, and individual landowners who want to utilize native landscaping on their properties. Prairie Landscapes of Iowa is currently managing sixty projects, including one for a private company in Ames that was started by planting nearly 8000 native plants, now in its fourth year of growth.

What is Inger’s primary motivation for spreading the word about planting native prairie in Iowa? To answer this question, she pulled an autographed book out of the backseat of her vehicle. “Bringing Nature Home,” by Douglas Tallamy, tells the story of how installing native plants in backyards all over the country can save many of our waning wildlife populations from mass extinction. Inger wholeheartedly agrees with this approach to sustaining biodiversity through re-building native habitat, and she routinely gives copies of the book out to her clients.

Iowa Learning Farms is grateful for Inger’s mission to bring native prairie back to Iowa’s landscape in both rural and urban landscapes. From her work to convert portions of her own farmland to CRP and WRP, to sustaining a thriving business that helps others learn how to support native plants on their land, Inger is bringing back a piece of the prairie in Iowa; supporting the survival and biodiversity of our state’s migrating bird and insect species along the way!

Brandy Case Haub

Exploring conservation + ecology at Yellowstone

During our trip to Montana last week to deliver the Wetlands Screening Tool Training with USDA-FSA, we also had the opportunity to take a day trip to Yellowstone National Park. America’s first national park, Yellowstone is truly a gem – a real national treasure!

We started the morning by watching the sun rise over the Absaroka Mountains on the ~2 hour journey from Bozeman, MT.

We followed the winding path of the Yellowstone River as we approached the park entrance, stopping to get our binoculars and scopes out for a close-up view of a large bald eagle along the banks. Did you know?  The Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing river in the country, at 691 miles long.

DSCN9642c

Once inside the park, there are a multitude of vastly different ecosystems present, from grasslands to wetlands to the subalpine forest.

DSCN9670c

DSCN9712cWe requested that our guided tour be focused on wildlife, so our guide Will took us on a drive through Yellowstone’s northern loop, stopping at several “hotspots” to try and scope out wildlife.

DSCN9767cThe bison were abundant (there are approximately 5,000 in Yellowstone) and Will told us that “bison jams” like those shown below are a frequent occurrence on the roads winding through the park…

DSCN9700cDSCN9731cNumerous pronghorns also made themselves known…

Pronghorn-ii

In terms of other wildlife, here’s how we did…

Jackie had her eyes to the sky and was definitely our A-Team in terms of spotting cool birds.  The best finds of the day were the golden eagle and Swainson’s hawk – some spectacular raptors!

SwainsonsHawkLiz deserves a gold star for spotting large creatures. As Will, our guide, instructed us, keep your eyes out for the dark blobs and watch their movement. Many of the dark blobs are bison, but occasionally you spot something else…  Liz successfully found both a wolf and a black bear!

DSCN9710cI (Ann) really geeked out over the unique microorganisms in the park – thermophilic bacteria like Sulfolobus acidocaldarius that create other-worldy scenes like the Roaring Mountain shown below.

RoaringMountainOur guide, Will, did a great job explaining to us the balance of different creatures in Yellowstone’s ecosystem, and the population dynamics of how creatures both large and small are reliant upon one another. It’s all so interconnected! And then factor in the plant life, the microorganisms, migration patterns, corridors of habitat, invasive species, wildfires, as well as the interactions with people (both local landowners/ranchers adjacent to the park, let alone the tourists)… and you have a highly complex, interconnected system.

I know that each of us will be integrating many of the things we learned at Yellowstone when we go into classrooms this fall teaching young people about biodiversity and ecosystem balance!

While we did not visit Old Faithful, we did make a stop at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone…

GCofYellowstone

GCofYellowstone-Selfie

Jackie, Liz, and Ann enjoy the spectacular views at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — quick break for a selfie with our excellent guide Will!

Despite the millions of visitors the come to Yellowstone each year from across the globe, I was surprised to experience the quiet sense of wonder there – it really didn’t seem busy or congested at all, as people took in the amazing grandeur all around them. Our tour guide Will also knew where he was going and helped navigate the park, minimizing congestion and maximizing our time there to  experience as much as we could in a day trip.

Also, an interesting sign of the times to share – of course there were signs and information about how to stay safe around wildlife, but the National Park Service and tour guides have also begun educating visitors on how to appropriately and safely take selfies around wildlife. Don’t disrespect the bison!

IMG_20160814_130638399One day was certainly not enough to experience all that Yellowstone has to offer, but it gave us a taste and left us hungry for more!

Finally, a quick shoutout to the National Park Service celebrating its 100 year birthday this week. Happy Birthday NPS – here’s to another 100 years!

Ann Staudt