An Experience in Learning

When asked to describe my time as an intern with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s been a learning experience.  I’ve learned a lot about myself and my specific interests within environmental sustainability and natural resource conservation.  But with a bit more thought, I think it’s more appropriate to call it an experience in learning.

Everybody has different preferences for learning new things.  There’s visual learners and auditory learners, those who learn by observing and those who learn by doing.  

One of my favorite things about Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms is that these organizations cater to a variety of different learning preferences.  The Water Rocks! music videos help to spread the message of conservation to young audiences by providing fun and catchy sing-along opportunities that kids can enjoy at any hour of the day.  The classroom visits and assemblies provide a unique opportunity for students to learn by watching and listening to our educational materials, and then applying their newfound knowledge through trivia questions and team games.

The team’s Conservation Station Fleet is able to reach both urban and rural audiences with our three trailers, which feature examples of ways that any audience member could improve water quality.  With our rainfall simulators, we can show the impacts of various tillage practices on water drainage and quality.  Our on-the-edge trailer shows how two of the newest edge-of-field practices work (bioreactors and saturated buffers).  Lastly, our Enviroscape and poo toss games help us to show kids of all ages what they can do to improve the quality of their neighborhoods and watersheds.  

The past few weeks with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms have helped me to see that the best way for me to learn is by teaching others.  But that task can’t be done alone – it requires a team of passionate individuals to work together in order to spread our message across the state of Iowa.

Working with a cohort of seven other interns (in addition to all of the full-time staff members) has been a rewarding and interesting experience.  From watching a saturated buffer installation in eastern Iowa to digging a fellow intern out of a mucky mess, I can confidently say that no two days on the job have been the same!

And with each new day, I learn new things about myself, my teammates, and what we can do to improve the quality of the world we live in.  Above all, I’ve learned that it takes a strong team to be able to go out and teach the public about our initiatives.  I’m thankful for all that I’ve learned so far this summer and am excited to continue to add more knowledge as I approach the last month of this internship!

Becca Wiarda is participating in the 2019 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Wiarda grew up near Ackley and is a senior in Agricultural Business and Finance with minors in sustainability and agronomy.

The Awesome Junior Naturalist Adventures

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.

This past month I had the opportunity to help Polk Co. Conservation with two Junior Naturalist Camps at Jester Park. We did many different things to help encourage the 10-11 year old campers to explore nature around them. Each camp lasted four days and was led by Polk Co. Conservation naturalists. I was on site to assist with whatever was needed.


Day 1. Habitat Exploration Day.
The first day of camp started off with the kids making little creatures out of pipe cleaners and UV beads. These creatures would then be used later on for another activity. After they made their creatures, we played some name games to help everyone learn each other’s names.

The rest of the day was dedicated to habitat exploration. The kids got to explore three different habitats: a prairie, a pond, and a forest.

The first habitat we explored was the pond. The kids were given nets to try and catch some aquatic life to observe. They caught lots of different things including mussels, snails, minnows, and dragonfly larvae.

We then went on a hike which would take us through our next habitat of the day, the forest.The first part of our hike started with finding walking sticks. When everyone found the stick that they wanted we stopped at a nearby outdoor shelter where the kids were then able to decorate their walking sticks with colorful tapes. When everyone completed their walking sticks we continued our hike through the forest. We ended up coming across a creek which the campers were all wanting to explore so we stopped and allowed them to look around for a while. Many of them ended up putting mud all over their faces! We then continued on our way to our next stop where we tasked the kids with building shelters for their creatures that they made at the beginning of the day. The goal was to build shelters to protect the creatures from sunlight so that the UV beads would not change color. All of them made pretty good shelters and their creatures were successfully protected.

We continued our hike back to where we started, which was near our last habitat of the day, the prairie. Here the kids were able to use nets again, this time to try and catch bugs and other creatures to observe. They did that for a while and then we played a game of hide and seek in the prairie but this game had a twist. The person that is seeking can not go into the prairie; they must stay at the edge and see if they can see anyone. If they happen to spot someone they call them out by what color they are wearing and then that player is out. When the seeker can no longer spot anyone else they will turn around and close their eyes while all the hidden players stand up and take five steps forward. This game continues on until everybody but one is found. After we played a few rounds of the game we went back to the nature center where each of the kids would be getting picked up at the end of the day.


Day 2. Field Trip Day.
When everyone arrived we piled into a van to drive to Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. This day entailed canoeing and a marsh exploration. When we arrived at Chichaqua we rounded up all of the needed supplies for canoeing. Then Andrew and Heidi, the two naturalists, explained all of the safety rules everyone must follow while canoeing. After they were done, we started on our canoeing adventure. During this time many people were looking out for different aquatic creatures. We ended up canoeing a long way and when we were finally done we put everything away and then moved on over to the marsh. The kids caught lots of different things there, including tadpoles, snails, crawfish big and small, water scorpions, baby bullheads, and a giant frog which they named Biggy Big Big. After a while of searching the marsh, it was time to head back to Jester Park as day two was coming to an end.


Day 3. Fishing Day.
After everyone arrived we started with some practice casting outside of the nature center. This gave all the kids the chance to try and catch some plastic fish and win some prizes. When they finished up with that we went down to the pond where we would be spending most of our day trying to catch some real fish. Several kids caught some fish – a few bluegills were caught along with a few bass. After several hours we went back to the nature center for a short time to do some knot tying. We did a few different knot tying competitions for a chance to win more prizes. And then we went back to the pond to continue fishing until day three was over.


Day 4. Final Day of Camp.
Day four included lots of different things. The first thing that we did was archery where each of the kids got a chance to shoot some targets and also try and shoot some balloons. After archery we went on an orienteering scavenger hunt which allowed the kids to use a compass to help them find different things and answer questions. The next thing that they did was fire building – yes, I said fire building! They worked in small groups to try and collect good materials for a fire. Then they were given different fire starting tools such as a magnifying glass and steel and striker to try and light a sustainable fire. After trying for a while each group had lit a fire, although most did not last as long as they hoped. No worries though as Andrew and Heidi lit their own fire and everyone was able to make themselves some s’mores! And finally to finish off the day the kids went geocaching using GPS devices to help them find the locations of a few different geocaches. When all of the activities were finished each camper was given a certificate and an official Junior Naturalist badge to show that they officially completed Junior Naturalist Camp.


Joshua Harms

 

Faces of Conservation: Jerry DeWitt

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


JERRY DeWITT
Former Director, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU

What was your involvement and role with ILF?
When Iowa Learning Farms first started, I was officed next door to Mahdi Al-Kaisi and thought the ILF approach was quite creative and a great idea for improving conservation outreach and education. In 2006 I became directly involved as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (continuing in that role until 2010). Although I wasn’t part of the initial formation of ILF, I was there during the time when things really took off and the team developed a range of programs and components that took things well beyond the traditional extension-type methodology.

What things did you find to be unique about ILF?
As a seasoned administrator, I’ve always liked to take the approach of providing an organization with structure and foundation, but letting the experts drive the outcomes. With ILF this worked out really well. The team included faculty and staff from different departments, yet when we all gathered to talk about program ideas and goals, the typical hierarchy was left at the door and everyone was encouraged to contribute as a peer. This collegial working environment was not just effective and productive, it was a lot of fun.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
ILF was, and continues to be, an innovative and effective conservation outreach program. Promoting farmer-to-farmer educational opportunities and putting actionable information and practices into the hands of those that will use them, have proven to be very effective in working toward the ILF goal of Building a Culture of Conservation.

After a decade of extension budget-tightening, which brought about changes in the ability to deliver services, and damaged our relationship with farmers, ILF helped reaffirm my belief in the important role extension plays in Iowa. ILF is a great example of how interdisciplinary organizations can function and succeed.


How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
Certainly, ILF’s association with the Leopold Center contributed early credibility to the program within the university as well as with partners in Des Moines and around the state. But in very short order, ILF built its own reputation as a strong partner that consistently progressed toward and beyond its goals.

Working with ILF helped to re-establish my belief in the value of farmer-led one-on-one education in the field. Building these interactive conversations with all stakeholders through direct ‘hands in the soil’ efforts is what extension should be all about.

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
There are many, but two favorites come to mind. The first was watching a farmer lead a discussion about soil with a group of farmers using nothing more than two buckets of soil and a spade. He awed the audience with his knowledge and his presentation on soil quality in the words of a working farmer.

The second was the weekly ILF meetings. The meetings were efficient, but more importantly they were fun. The sense of energy and passion was palpable and infectious. They were always eager to make a difference. It’s hard not to enjoy oneself when working with such a group.


Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
I co-own a farm that’s been in production for over 100 years. It’s imperative to protect the soil and environment so that my children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy and benefit from a productive farm as well.

Iowa has some of the best and most fertile soil in the world. If we lose the advantage of this incredible resource, we’ve effectively lost Iowa. It’s crucial to protect and maintain our collective resources or we will find we’re no longer in the Iowa we love.

If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
I would like to see a totally different landscape in Iowa. USDA-NRCS published a booklet titled “Lines on the Land” which provides a great description of what a diverse and healthy farming landscape can look like: a landscape developed for soil protection, biodiversity, structure, enhanced productivity and cleaner water. If we can make progress toward that ideal, I will be delighted.

In closing…
ILF is showing the people of Iowa and an extension program that’s over 100 years old, how outreach and extension has worked in the distant past and how it should work today—hands-on and farmer-to-farmer.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Faces of Conservation: Ann Staudt

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

Ann Staudt – Assistant Manager, Iowa Learning Farms and Director, Water Rocks!


What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
My involvement with Iowa Learning Farms has evolved and grown since I started with the program in 2009. Immediately after joining the team, I was tasked with “doing something exciting with this new trailer”. It was truly a blank slate! From this broad plan, I applied my background in science, engineering, art, and education to help create the Conservation Stations. As the team brainstormed new ideas and suggested different elements, I coordinated the many moving parts, helping to shape things from proverbial lumps of clay into what I think is a pretty effective, unique and visually engaging learning and teaching tool for natural resources and water quality education.

As a part of the ILF management team, I’ve worn a lot of hats, from coordinating our internship and AmeriCorps programs and field data collection, to producing visually engaging infographic-style publications and serving as fiscal officer for our outreach programs. You’ll also find me out and about speaking at conservation field days across the state, covering topics ranging from bioreactors to cover crops and earthworms (I’ve been dubbed “The Worm Whisperer” on more than one occasion).

What is the mission of ILF?
ILF provides a structure and mechanism to create and curate conversations on-the-ground with and between farmers and landowners, bringing key parties together to build bridges between technical approaches, scientific research and farmers operating their businesses. Our field days and workshops provide an excellent opportunity for farmers and landowners to learn from one another about the best ways to integrate soil health and water quality practices into their day-to-day farming operations.


How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I like to bring creative out-of-the-box approaches to how we communicate issues, practices and solutions. The Conservation Stations are a key example of developing a comprehensive approach to communicating conservation topics and issues. Integrating visual arts and music into projects has afforded me the opportunity to bring my love of these media into our work as well.

One of my favorite contributions to ILF was the idea for The Conservation Pack – using dogs to tell conservation stories. Through The Conservation Pack, we deliver messages about conservation and water quality in a way that’s fun and accessible for kids, to get the next generation excited about the amazing natural resources around us!

I like to think my enthusiasm for teaching and learning comes through in all our efforts, whether that be with farmers at a field day, or with fifth-graders in the classroom. Between 2009 and 2012, ILF received a growing number of requests for youth programming—school presentations and outdoor classrooms—while at the same time, Iowa’s soil and water conservation district commissioners were asking, “Who is educating the next generation on these issues?” The plan for Water Rocks! was hatched, funded and executed at this time, and is now Iowa’s premier youth water education program, in great demand across the state!

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with an amazing group of farmers, partners and experts, learning about what they are doing and why. Learning and seeing others learn has been a great inspiration that I attribute to being a part of ILF – this work has definitely had an impact on my life and career, and helped me reconnect with my family farm roots.


What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
Every day could bring a new favorite, but there are several exciting milestones that stand out.

Launching each of the three Conservation Stations have been significant points of pride for me and the program. With the launch of the Conservation Station On the Edge in 2018, I felt we took a huge step forward in diversifying our educational reach in direct response to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the push for specific practices to address nitrate loads and water quality.

I also learned so much and loved working with Cecilia Comito on the Hope for Iowa mixed media murals and messaging in the relaunch of the Big Conservation Station in 2018.

Something that refuels my energy each year is seeing the growth and transformation of our summer interns. Watching these college students learn –witnessing the lightbulb come on in their eyes – and seeing their ability to communicate their knowledge grow with each encounter fills me with hope for the future.

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
Outreach is critical because we can’t change hearts and minds with science alone. Outreach puts a human face on the science and helps people absorb the message and understand their role in promoting and driving change.

Iowa has amazing natural resources and it’s important to help every person –rural or urban– understand they can have a positive impact on the environment. The state must also continue to nurture and maintain its natural resources to attract and retain Iowa’s human capital. Parks, rivers and streams, and clean water are key contributors to quality of life in both urban and rural communities.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

The Iowa Watershed Academy

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Jamie Benning | Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Water Quality Program Manager

Watershed coordinators are key players in improving water quality in Iowa by providing farmers and landowners technical and financial assistance to implement soil health and water quality improvement practices on their land.  Prior to the initiation of the Iowa Watershed Academy by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (ISUEO), there were no comprehensive training events focused to develop the skills and technical knowledge of watershed coordinators in the state.

To better understand the skill areas, topics, subtopics, resource needs, and format of a comprehensive training, ISUEO facilitated a roundtable discussion in December 2014. The group included state and federal agency, agricultural, conservation, and environmental organization representatives. In early 2015, watershed coordinators provided feedback on the topics and subtopics generated at the roundtable and were asked to rank them in order of their needs and interests.

Through this needs assessment process and a successful grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and North Central SARE, the first academy was held in May 2016.  With continued funding from NRCS, NC SARE, and sponsorships and in-kind contributions from Soil and Water Conservation Society, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Conservation Learning Group and the Iowa Watershed Approach projects, two Watershed Academy sessions have been held each year.  A highlight of topics addressed through interactive and hands on training during the seven academies include cover crop management, conservation sales strategies, grant writing, preparing for media interviews, project management, water monitoring, wildlife habitat value of conservation and water quality practices, managing pasture for improved water quality

The spring 2019 Iowa Watershed Academy training event was held May 14-15, at the ISU Field Extension Education Lab farm near Boone. This event featured nitrogen management and nitrogen application decision tools, manure management and manure application distribution and calibration methods, reaching women and non-operator landowners, and successful methods and tools for field day and event outreach.

“It’s beneficial to have trainings like this so we can meet with other coordinators and exchange struggles and ideas.”

Pre and post self-assessments are used to evaluate change in knowledge and self-efficacy after each academy, selecting a level of knowledge from 1- minimal knowledge of the indicator and not confident of their skills related to the topic to 4-exemplary indicating a high level of knowledge and confidence applying the skills in the topic area.  On average, the coordinators have identified their pre-academy skills in the needs improvement category, and after the academy, their skills improve to the proficient category.

2019 Spring Watershed Academy 4

“You got my mind thinking of other ways to really look at my watershed and maybe expand my focus area.”

Qualitative questions have also indicated that the watershed coordinators value the Iowa Watershed Academy, particularly with sessions that include hands-on in-field training.  Coordinators indicate that they would recommend that the training continue and the two event per year format held at locations that provide hands-on learning opportunities, time to dig in to important topics through dialogue with the speakers and other coordinators.

“Overall, an amazing training opportunity”

The Watershed Academy will continue each spring and fall and has already begun to address specialized skills and topics including the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework and Reach Middle Adopters with partners from Iowa and the North Central Region.  To stay up to date on future Iowa Watershed Academy events, contact Jamie Benning  to join the mailing list.

Jamie Benning

The Epic Outdoor Classroom Adventure


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.

On May 7th Ann and I were tasked with an adventure to go teach 8 We All Live in a Watershed presentations at the Carroll County 5th Grade Outdoor Classroom. This adventure started at 7:15 when Ann and I left the parking lot. Our drive was about an hour and a half which isn’t much compared to some of the other epic journeys across Iowa that we have taken. After we arrived at Swan Lake State Park Nature Center in Carroll, we were met at the door by our contact Anjanette Treadway. She then showed us to the room in which our presentations would take place so that Ann and I could set up.

When Ann and I had finished setting up we made our way to the commons area where orientation was taking place with 170+ 5th graders and their teachers. During orientation Anjanette explained that one of the speakers did not show up. This speaker happened to be someone that was going to talk about bees/pollinators. As Ann and I heard this we started thinking if there would be any way that we could help Anjanette out. Now it just so happened that we had brought one of our pollinator games along with us because Anjanette had requested to borrow it for another event that she was hosting a few days later. So we came to an agreement that we would split up and I would teach a modified pollinator presentation while Ann would teach the watershed presentation. 

Now to be honest I was a little nervous because I had never taught an entire presentation by myself let alone 8. I had around 5 minutes to quickly come up with talking points to accompany the game. After I quickly came up with some talking points, I made my way to the place in which I would be teaching to start the epic adventure of doing 8 presentations all by myself. As the day of presentations went on I started to feel really comfortable with what I was doing plus I was also remembering more things that I could talk about.

I taught the students that pollinators actually complete the process of pollination on accident as they fly to different flowers looking for nectar. I also explained that these creatures are responsible for a lot of the different foods that we as people enjoy. After explaining the process of pollination and how important it is, I focused in on monarch butterflies in particular. I explained the super long journey that they take, known as migration. I emphasized that this journey comes with lots of different challenges and that led right into a game called Monarch Migration Madness.

The Monarch Migration Madness game is all chance-based. There are 10 circles in both the summer habitat (with each circle depicting a milkweed plant) and winter habitat (with each circle depicting an oyamel fir tree). I started off by giving each student a number, which represented which number circle they started on in the summer habitat. After they got to their starting positions, I counted down from 3 and then the students migrated to the opposite side of the room, where the winter habitat was, and at that point they could pick any number circle. The only thing is that there cannot be any more than 3 monarchs per circle. After they made their migration, I read a situation that would affect some of their habitat, removing the designated oyamel fir trees as called for in the situation. This game goes on for several rounds until there are only a few remaining monarchs. When the game was complete I then finished off with some different things that we as people can do to help our pollinator friends continue to thrive.

I was definitely a little worn out after the completion of all the presentations, but all that was left was to pack up and drive back to Ames so I wasn’t complaining. During the drive back Ann and I talked about how we felt our adaptation to the situation went. We came to the conclusion that it went quite well. As we eventually arrived in Ames we knew that the epic adventure had come to an end. It was an exhilarating and successful adventure—the students had FUN, they learned a ton about the environment around them, and I felt a lot more confident after giving 8 presentations on my own!

Joshua Harms

Faces of Conservation: Allen Bonini

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


Allen Bonini – Iowa Department of Natural Resources
Allen Bonini serves as Supervisor of the Watershed Improvement Section at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). As a part of his responsibilities at the DNR, Allen is responsible for funding provided to Iowa Learning Farms through the United States Environmental Protection Agency, Section 319 of the Clean Water Act.

What has been your role with Iowa Learning Farms?
I’ve been a part of ILF’s advisory committee since 2005. In the early years of Iowa Learning Farms, the committee provided guidance and advice, but in recent years, the program has matured, developing a strong sense of purpose and direction, so they don’t need our input as often.

What was the purpose of ILF during your involvement?
Initially, Iowa Learning Farms was focused on offering educational field days around the state. From this foundation, the ILF team listened to participants and began to expand what was being delivered and how it was being presented. ILF has done an excellent job of applying evaluations and data gathering to inform decisions on program impacts. This scientific approach has not only strengthened the program, but led to the creation of innovative programs including the Conservation Station trailers and Water Rocks!.

While field days are still a staple of ILF, they’ve consistently raised the bar on delivering meaningful and actionable information. Enlisting experts to deliver information and fostering involvement from every sector of the state has built credibility for ILF. In addition, providing a forum for innovators and early adopters to share and learn has been very effective. What has allowed the program to remain relevant is the strength of the concept of Building a Culture of Conservation.


How did you impact the program?
Prior to joining the DNR, I spent many years working to educate the public on the benefits of recycling. I was able to draw on my experience in education and public engagement to bring some fresh ideas to the table for ILF to consider. Whether recycling or instilling conservation in the forefront of people’s minds, the goal of the program is to change behavior – a daunting but achievable task.

One proven path to changing cultural behavior is to engage the energy and enthusiasm of our youth. I feel that the Water Rocks! youth education program, which emerged out of ILF, is a tremendous tool in moving the dial on conservation in schools across Iowa. Water Rocks! took the concept of ILF and applied it to the next generation.

As I saw with recycling, it may take a generation for conservation to be an accepted everyday practice, but as young people gain awareness and devote energy to it, we should see greater adoption and commitment from the public.

 What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
The most enjoyable part of working with ILF has been being at the table and participating: offering ideas, refining ideas, and seeing it turn into something that achieves results. An important part of this has been watching ILF gather data and use it to create an impactful message and create change.

Allen was interviewed by Charlie in Episode #1 of the Adventures of the Conservation Pack series! Click the image to see the episode in all its glory.


If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?
It’s a stretch goal, but I would love to no longer need Iowa Learning Farms. We would no longer need to build a culture of conservation because we’ve established a flourishing culture of conservation. Then we can move on to the next big environmental challenge – whatever that may be.

In closing…
The leadership team at Iowa Learning Farms has been a large part of the program’s success over the past fifteen years. The program has benefited from a consistent arc of leadership with innovative team players who are willing to take risks to keep the program alive and moving forward.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series: