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.”

Future Farming for the Greater Good

My name is Dawn Henderson, I am a senior in Agronomy here at ISU and this summer I am an intern with the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms programs. This opportunity has combined two of my passions: conservation agriculture and educating the public. Throughout the summer I have already had many opportunities to work with people of all ages and backgrounds in many different venues, but the message has remained the same: we must appreciate and protect what we have while we have it. In this blog post I wanted to highlight one of the more recent events I had the privilege of attending.

This past Friday, June 22nd, I and two other interns took the newest ILF Conservation Station trailer to Sioux Center, Iowa. This trailer, “On the Edge”, focuses on two of the newest edge-of-field practices farmers have the option of implementing in their fields. Saturated buffers and bioreactors are both relatively new ideas that work to reduce the levels of nitrate in our water by allowing the natural process of denitrification to take place, rather than routing all of the tile drainage water directly into ditches, streams, and waterways. The struggle is, these systems operate entirely underground, and once they are installed observation is not possible, making it difficult to understand how they operate. The On the Edge trailer is beneficial because it provides the opportunity to see what is happening below ground, from the main tile line to the stream.

At this event, hosted by Dordt College, a majority of the audience was comprised of farmers with an interest in conservation. Excellent questions were asked and encouraging conversations were had. Many questions were asked, such as, “How long do each of these practices last?” That answer is different for each structure. The saturated buffer is expected to last indefinitely, with minor upkeep on the flow control structure; the bioreactor is expected to need the woodchips refreshed every 10-15 years.

Due to the fact that both of these practices are still in their infant stages many farmers are curious, but cautious. One of the most common questions was, “How do these practices directly benefit the farmer?” This is a simple question with a difficult answer. Edge-of-field practices are meant to improve the health of our water, meaning the reductions that come from bioreactors and saturated buffers are for the greater good, not necessarily the individual. That does not mean there are no benefits to installing these practices. With the right design and vegetation, these areas could become habitat for wildlife and pollinators. In addition to benefitting wildlife, these practices are also typically installed on marginally producing lands. By taking these lands out of production and putting them into conservation, the landowner may end up saving money, in addition to bettering the environment.

These new practices show promise in the field of conservation to aid in reaching the goal of 45% nitrate reduction, put into place with Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Edge-of-field practices are intended to be used in concurrence with in-field practices, such as no-till and cover crops. By combining all of these practices, nutrient transport and soil erosion can be reduced by a significant amount, allowing Iowa to achieve the goal of reducing our nutrient contribution by 45%.

Based on the level of interest and support I have seen at multiple events with this new trailer, I am hopeful that these two new practices will find a firm place in our Iowan farming culture in the future.

Dawn Henderson

Dawn Henderson is a senior in Agronomy, participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University. She is a graduate of Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn Senior High School in northwest Iowa. 

Every Little Bit Counts

What do you know about earthworms? Before this internship, I knew a few basics: they’re useful for fishing and they live underground. But, what do these small creatures have to do with water quality and soil health? It turns out that they are very good indicators. Today I’m going to touch more on our most recent project for this summer, earthworm counting, and how it has shown me that every little bit of information counts.

Before we start each research project, the other interns and I all sit down with our supervisors and discuss what the projects are and how we’re supposed to go about them. When this project was presented to us, I was more than a bit skeptical about how this could help us. So far, through the two weeks of earthworm counting that we have completed, that skepticism I originally had has faded away.

LEFT: I am looking for the middens within the area of our research point. RIGHT: Cutting the cover crop and removing residue to find the middens.

Earthworm counting is exactly what it sounds like. We head to test plots all over the state to take a look at the number of earthworms within a 19” x 30” frame between the rows of crops, corn or soybeans. We count the middens, the tops of the worms’ holes where the organic matter is pulled into the tunnel, closely examining the soil surface looking for the mounds they leave behind. When we think we found one, we dig with a pair of scissors to look at the underside of the midden and find the tunnel. The main variable that we look at is cover crops – are there observable differences in the number of earthworms between strips with cover crops and those without? Earthworms are very good for our soil and the more we have, the better the soil health of that area is.

One of our other interns, Kaleb, found a midden while we were at a farm in southwest Iowa.

The last time that I went home, my cousin, who is in 6th grade, asked me what some of the projects were that I was working on and I told her that I was doing earthworm counting. She didn’t sound very impressed when that’s what I told her, so I decided to have her complete the experiment herself at home. After about a week of testing the fields at home I had my cousin tell me any conclusions that she came up with. She told me that in the places with cover crops, the number of earthworms was higher than places with no cover crops — which is the same exact results we have been getting in the research plots across the state. But, that wasn’t all. To me, the best part about all of this was that I allowed a 6th grader to conduct an experiment that can provide important information about soil health in about 30 minutes of instructions.

Research can come from anywhere and anything and the impact it can have is limitless. It also appeals to me in that it allows for all generations to be involved with the same issues. You can have a 6th grader counting earthworms to find out more about soil health while at the same time you can have a farmer taking core samples to test for the same thing. Research is a big part of my internship, but it’s also a big part of the future. When understanding complex issues such as soil health, every little bit of information counts, and I’m super excited that I get to experience all of this research firsthand this summer!

Donovan Wildman

Donovan Wildman is participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Wildman grew up near West Branch, IA (Clear Creek Amana High School). In the fall, he will be starting his sophomore year at Iowa State University, majoring in Agricultural Engineering with an emphasis in Land and Water Resources.

Meet Our 2018 Water Resources Interns!

We would like to warmly welcome our new crew of interns for the 2018 summer outreach season! These students come from farms across Iowa and Missouri and are ready to share their knowledge with you. Stop by our trailers this summer and say hi. Catch our interns at your local county fairs, farmers markets, field days and more.

For a full list of summer events, see our website. The interns will also be playing a role in field work and data collection for research projects with Iowa State University’s Ag Water Management research group.

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Pictured above from left to right: Wyatt Kaldenberg, Taylor Kuehn, Kaleb Baber, Donovan Wildman and Dawn Henderson

Wyatt Kaldenberg is from a family farm near Indianola in south central Iowa and is majoring in finance at Iowa State. He will be a junior this fall.

Taylor Kuehn is from a family farm near New Hampton in northeast Iowa and majoring in agricultural studies at Iowa State. She will be a senior this fall.

Kaleb Baber grew up on a family farm near Weston, Missouri, just north of Kansas City. He is pursuing a degree in agronomy and a minor in geology at Iowa State. Kaleb will be a senior this fall. We are thrilled to have Kaleb back with our program for a second summer!

Donovan Wildman is from a family farm near West Branch in east central Iowa and is majoring in agricultural and biosystems engineering (land and water resources engineering option) and minoring in agronomy at Iowa State. He will be a sophomore this fall.

Dawn Henderson is from a family farm near Marcus in northwest Iowa. She is majoring in agronomy and will be heading into her senior year at Iowa State this fall.

We are happy to have our interns on board! Watch for their social media posts on Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! pages as well as their reflections on their internship experience on our blog.

 

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

Deepening the Conversation around Conservation

Here at Water Rocks! we are always looking for new ways to reach the youth in Iowa, striving to deepen the conversation around conservation in new and exciting ways. Summer camp is an experience that provides youth a chance to connect to nature in a new way. When I was a camper and later a camp counselor, I saw first hand how camp changes interactions and respect for nature in a positive way. Water Rocks! day camps provide our team an opportunity to partner with extension youth coordinators, naturalists, and other environmental educators to offer the camp experience with a Water Rocks! twist!

We kicked things off with our first Water Rocks! day camp in March at the beautiful McFarland Park Nature Center. Students from Ames and the surrounding area arrived bright and early on March 8th and kicked off the day getting to know each other and getting acquainted with the concept of a watershed. We had students as young as 8 and as old as 12 join us. From the classroom we moved into nature to experience a watershed in real life. This is just one advantage to a full day camp: a way to turn the 2D into 3D.

Students designing their watershed!

Students did a great job transferring what they had learned to the landscape. They were able to determine where the water would flow at different points on the landscape. We were lucky to be surrounded by a small stream and a pond which gave them a visual of the bodies of water that the runoff could drain or shed to.

Jack and students walking the ridgeline between two small watersheds.

The highlight of the day was seeing the students work together on their service project. The Ames Smart Watersheds program donated a rain barrel for us to paint. It was on display at the Ames Eco-Fair on April 21st. Being able to participate in a real life solution to some of our watershed management concerns, such as flooding, helped to make our conversation about conservation relevant to their impact on the land.

At the end of the day the students had the opportunity to see if they could clean the water after it had been polluted. They got to choose what they polluted the water with and then were challenged with how to clean it up. Students noted how difficult it was to clean the water totally. Many filtered the water through several types of filters. We even set up a sand filter to mimic how nature filters our water as it moves through the soil profiles. The students recognized the importance of keeping our water clean to begin with, given how difficult the cleanup job was after the water had gotten dirty.

Students attempt to filter out the pollutants using coffee filters, panty hose, sand and other tools.

In all, students had a blast getting dirty and learning, too! Here at Water Rocks! we are looking forward to our next day camps coming up this summer, where we will get to partner with awesome county naturalists and educators with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach!

Megan Koppenhafer

Apply today for Water Resources Summer Internship!

Do you know a college student with interests in the environment, conservation, and agriculture, particularly water and soil quality?  We are looking for awesome undergraduate students to join our team as part of our summer 2018 Water Resources Internship Program! Interns’ time will be split between research and outreach, all centered around agricultural + environmental issues and challenges in Iowa.

Visit the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program webpage for additional information and complete application instructions. Applications close this Wednesday, January 31 at 5:00pm.

Please share this with any college students you know that might be interested. We are looking forward to a great summer ahead!

Ann Staudt