Water Rocks! Annual Report Reflects Impacts on Students Across Iowa

The annual school visit evaluation report from Water Rocks! highlights comprehension increases among youth, outreach to new schools and underserved counties, and accolades from teachers

Water Rocks! has published its 2018-2019 School Visits Evaluation Report, detailing the impacts Water Rocks! visits had on students, teachers, and conservation education during the 2018-19 academic year. Water Rocks! teams conducted 197 school visits, 17 more than the previous year, and participated in 13 outdoor classrooms, one more than the previous year. Having identified 11 priority counties that have had limited exposure to Water Rocks!, the team redoubled efforts to connect with schools in these underserved areas – garnering success in eight of the targeted counties.

Water Rocks! is a uniquely Iowan youth conservation and water quality education program that uses a creative mix of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), music and the arts to connect with students in grades K-12 with science-based information about Iowa’s natural resources and ecosystems. Through high-energy classroom presentations, outdoor classroom programs and school assemblies, Water Rocks! energized nearly 33,000 youth during the school year.

With a keen eye on constant improvement, Water Rocks! uses several assessment tools to gather feedback from teachers and students. Among the teachers’ comments were “engaging to the entire class,” “reinforced the ecosystem unit,” and “retention of the information was amazing!” In addition, assessments before and after lessons showed improved comprehension among students for almost all programs when compared to the previous year.

“This report is a guidepost to improving how we teach these important lessons and assure we are delivering the most value in the short time we are with the students,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “The assessments help us identify topics that need more repetition to plant the ideas and concepts more firmly in the students’ minds. We are working with the future leaders and decision-makers for our state, and we feel our role is crucial to building awareness of conservation and water quality for future generations.”


Key findings in the report include:

  • Presented in 197 schools and 13 outdoor classrooms, reaching 32,800 students
  • Key topic comprehension levels increased 40 percentage points or more in all programs when comparing students’ pre- and post-lesson evaluations
  • Of teachers attending Water Rocks! assemblies, 99% would recommend the program to peers

To read the report, learn about assessment methods or to view comments from students and teachers, please visit https://www.waterrocks.org/201819-water-rocks-evaluation-report.

Faces of Conservation: Jacqueline Comito

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


JACQUELINE COMITO
Director, Iowa Learning Farms

Jacqueline Comito joined Iowa Learning Farms in April 2005, soon after it was formed, and has been a key leader and contributor to the program ever since. She brings a strong background in social science that influenced the development and growth of the program’s highly successful evaluation and feedback initiatives.

As Director of ILF, how do you see your role with the organization?
As ILF has grown over the past 15 years, my roles and responsibilities have changed, but fundamentally, I like to think the most important part of my job is to help ensure the organization stays true to what has made us successful—an emphasis on farmer-to-farmer outreach to put information and best practices in front of those that can make the best use of them.

Sometimes I’m a cheerleader and coach, other times I facilitate brainstorming and conversations among team members to continue to develop and expand the vision for ILF. I want to make sure we are effectively and efficiently reaching as many farmers as we can. As an organization we need to continue to grow and improve how we support farmer conservation implementation. This is where a robust evaluation program really helps; it provides a positive feedback loop that fosters ideas and energy for our efforts to help build a Culture of Conservation in tangible ways.

 

Evaluation and feedback are priorities for ILF. How do you see this part of the program evolving in the years ahead?
Evaluation is an organic thing. It must come out of what you are doing with programming. If it’s an integral part of the planning process, programming and evaluation are seamless elements that support each other. For example, when we were building our recently launched Emerging Farmers program, we included evaluation and feedback in the mix from the beginning. We used these tools to fine-tune the program to the unanticipated and evolving needs of participants. This approach helps us deliver more value to our participants more quickly.


How important is youth outreach—such as the Water Rocks! program—to Iowa making progress on conservation, water quality improvement and the nutrient reduction goals for Iowa?
It’s incredibly important! With youth we are playing the long game. We are planting seeds with these young people about conservation, water quality, and what they can do individually to have an impact. When they become decision-making adults, our hope is that they will have a solid framework and environmental ethic that puts natural resources challenges and solutions in the forefront of their thoughts and actions.

In addressing today’s youth, we are speaking with the future scientists and inventors. Not only are we providing education, we feel as though we are modeling career opportunities in science and research.

 

If you had to choose two, what are the most impactful achievements or lessons-learned from the first 15 years of ILF, and how do they inform the path going forward?
Field days. We’ve developed an excellent process for organizing, promoting, and operating field days that works for everyone involved, and takes a lot of pressure off the host farmer or organization. Field day programs are crucial to facilitating farmer-to-farmer conversations.

The Conservation Station trailers have also been a significant achievement for ILF. Designing and redesigning these mobile classrooms across the years have kept materials fresh, enabled us to respond to feedback, and drawn audiences to learn about conservation, farming practices and water quality. Utilizing the trailers at county fairs, farmers markets and community gatherings, we’ve been incredibly successful in taking the conservation message to the public.


How do you see the next five years of ILF evolving?
ILF will continue to be a strong voice providing education and advocacy for conservation practices at venues from field days to classroom programs. There is no end in sight for the need to continually reinforce the challenges facing Iowa and provide information and education through outreach programs such as ILF.

 

What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
The relationships I’ve formed with colleagues and people throughout the state are very special to me. I’ve particularly enjoyed getting to know many farmers and learning about farming processes, challenges and their conservation efforts. Even if there are long periods between meetings, when I do get a chance to see them it’s like seeing an old friend. Relationships and community are essential to the success of ILF, and we are striving to make the most of advocates across Iowa to help build a Culture of Conservation that will benefit all.


If you could look 15 years into the future, what one thing would you like to see as a result of ILF activities?

My hope for the future of Iowa includes a substantial increase in the number of wetlands. I would love to be a part of finding a solution and resources to make a reality of the goal to take three-to-four percent of cropland out of production and return it to prairie and wetlands. We would also like to build a fourth Conservation Station trailer with an emphasis on wetlands education.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series:

Cover Crop Acres Increase but Rate of Growth Declines in 2018

ILFHeader(15-year)According to the Iowa Learning Farms 15-year Evaluation data, Iowa cover crop acres grew last year by approximately 16 percent resulting in approximately 880,000 total acres. While the positive growth at a time when farmers are reporting shrinking profit margins is notable, this represents a six percent decline in new cover crop acres compared to last year’s estimate and a 19 percent cumulative decline since 2015. A year in which 35 percent of all the cover crop acres were new. This number is still well below the goal of 12.5 million acres of cover crops called for in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Since 2009, Iowa Learning Farms, based at IMG_1800Iowa State University, has been tracking cover crop data reported by farmers and landowners who attend an ILF workshop and field day. In addition, in recognition of its 15-year anniversary, ILF conducted a mailed survey of all farmers and landowners that had participated in field days since 2005. Eight hundred ninety-nine people responded to the survey reporting 131,389 acres of cover crops on their land or 15 percent of the overall estimated cover crop acres in Iowa.

Many of the new acres were planted by experienced cover crop farmers. The majority (85 percent) of respondents to Iowa Learning Farms’ 15-year evaluation questionnaire started seeding cover crops at least three years ago. Only six percent of respondents reported implementing cover crops for the first time on their land last fall. Those respondents with cover crops reported an average of 44 percent of their total row crop acres in cover crops, representing a consistent value over the last three years.

“It is encouraging to see growth in cover crop use among experienced cover crop farmers, even with low crop prices and a fall with less than ideal weather,” commented Jamie Benning, Iowa State University Extension water quality program manager and Iowa Learning Farms adviser. “I am concerned that the rate of growth has declined for the third year in a row and that the number of first-time cover crop users declined significantly this year. For this reason, ILF is already ramping us this spring with cover crop events to reach new farmers.”

All of the respondents who planted cover crops for the first time in 2018 used cost share and planted an average of 100 acres, higher than last year’s average of 89 acres. Overall, 66 percent of the total reported cover crop acres were planted with cost share, while 78 percent of the new acres were planted with cost share.

Iowa Learning Farms has held 265 conservation field days and workshops since 2005 on cover crops, strip-tillage, saturated buffers, prairie strips and more. These events drew an attendance of 13,621 people—72 percent are farmers and landowners. Cover crop field days in 2019 will stress the benefits and best practice management for implementing cover crops.

ILF continues to work with ISU Extension and other partner organizations throughout Iowa to raise awareness of beneficial conservation practices such as cover crops among landowners and farmers. The complete 15-year Iowa Learning Farms report will be released in early April 2019, and will be found at www.iowalearningfarms.org.

Liz Juchems

Why Field Days Matter

Through our evaluation work since 2004, we have found that there is a relationship between attending field days, adopting conservation practices and influencing other farmers. We call this our Field Day Success Loop.

SuccessLoop

Networkingpercentage

Iowa Learning Farms has learned the importance of taking a closer look at who among field day attendees is networking with other farmers and discussing conservation ideas. Since 2013, the number of farmers who attended field days and networked conservation ideas with other farmers continues to increase – from 65% in 2013 to 68% in 2017.

A follow-up question on our year-end evaluation asks “How successful were you?,” and asks if farmers were able to influence zero, one, or two or more people when they networked conservation ideas with other farmers. Of those attendees who networked in 2017, 60% reported that they were successful in influencing at least one other person.

We know that some farmers network about conservation ideas and others do not. Certain factors make respondents more likely to connect with others and network about conservation ideas. Those respondents who have more years of experience with cover crops and those who attend more field days are more likely to report networking conservation ideas. Particularly in 2017, respondents who farm a larger number of total acres were more likely to report networking conservation ideas.

Networking

Multiplier Effect

Field day attendees are networking with their peers, influencing farmers who did not attend the field day, thus creating a multiplier effect. In 2017, 68% of farmers who attended an ILF event said that they networked. As a result, farmers are extending influence to 55% more farmers than attended the event. That’s a $1.55 value for every dollar invested in ILF. Field days make sense!

NetworkingInvestment
Keep up to date on upcoming field days in your area by following us on Facebook and Twitter or visiting our events page.

Hope to see you at a 2018 Field Day!

Liz Juchems

 

Evaluation key to effective field days

You planned your event – lined up the space, speakers, meal – and had a great turnout. Congratulations! You’re done now right?

Not quite…

How do you know if your event was effective in meeting your outreach goals? What could have been done differently to improve the effectiveness? Asking for attendee feedback is a useful evaluation tool that can be used to make decisions on what worked well and what doesn’t. In addition to self-reflection on the event, asking for attendee feedback is one of Iowa Learning Farms’ key tools for planning and holding well attended and effective events.

DSC_1312Through our two-week follow up evaluation we gather feedback on the effectiveness of the field day to help us improve future events. Using a five point scale, attendees are asked to rate the overall quality of the field day, effectiveness of expert presentations (ILF, ISU Extension and Outreach, NRCS, PFI, etc.), and effectiveness of farmer presentations.

All three categories saw improvement over 2016 numbers. The effectiveness of expert presentations saw a 10% increase over last year in the people who considered it excellent and the overall quality of the field day or workshop metric saw an 8% increase over last year in the people who considered it excellent.

Effectiveness

In addition to the information above in our Year End Evaluation Report, we also compiled our Individual Field Day Report. This report breaks out the evaluation responses by event, as well as how far attendees traveled to attend the event to help with field day promotion efforts – see map below.

Summary of 15 16 and 17 Distance Traveled by Crop Dist

An example two-week evaluation is available in our Field Day Marketing Toolkit and we encourage you to modify it and use it for your own event.  We are currently revising the evaluation to add more specific questions aimed at improving program content and format. This will be included in the Toolkit update later this spring.

Stayed tuned for more highlights from our 2017 Evaluation Report and be sure to click subscribe and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liz Juchems

Gathering everyone together to increase conservation efforts

Landowners have a great opportunity to shape how their land is managed. In Iowa, about 40% of agricultural land is owned by women.  It is crucial to have women represented at field days and workshops so they can make informed decisions in their operations and/or with their tenants. women attendees

For the past two years, 27% of Iowa Learning Farms attendees were women. From the 2017 demographic cards, 17% of all attendees who identified as farmers/operators or landowners were women; 40% of those who identified as “other” were women (government employees, agribusiness, students or educators). Since ILF first started hosting field days in 2004, the number of women attending field days has increased. More women are now serving as Extension Specialists, agronomists, and government employees and this is reflected in our data.

dsc_1789.jpgWomen continue to play an active role in the farming operation with 43% of women attendees describing themselves as active farmers/operators and 64% describe themselves as landowners. Nearly 60% reported owning more than three-quarters of their land. This finding is consistent with the trend of increasing numbers of acres owned by female landowners. It is encouraging to see these women taking an active role in the management of their land as both farmer/operator and/or landowner.

In 2018, ILF will continue to seek new ways to increase female attendance, especially female farmers/operators and landowners, at field days and workshops. Women indicated to us that they would prefer to attend events on Tuesday-Thursday either in the morning (41%) or afternoon (57%). This year we are planning to offer events at these times to see if we can increase the number of women attending our events. We also plan to partner with organizations that focus on women farmers/operators and landowners.

Stayed tuned for more highlights from our 2017 Evaluation Report and be sure to click subscribe and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liz Juchems

Reaching out to farmers and landowners

In 2017, Iowa Learning Farms hosted 29 conservation field days and workshops across the state with the goal of reaching out to farmers/operators and landowners. Introduced this year was a new component of our evaluation process – the demographic card. The cards helped provide a snapshot of attendees in terms of their age, gender, role in agriculture and information about their farming operation. The cards also capture preferences on timing and topics of interest for future outreach events.

Midway through 2017, we started to use this information to help us plan better events for the second half of the year. We will continue to experiment with time of day and week for field days to see if we can’t get a better diversity of audience.  Total number of demographic cards collected in 2017 was 915.

Who attended ILF field days in 2017?

Eighty-three percent of the field day attendees identified themselves as either farmers/operators or landowners. Two percent of the attendees were new to farming and four percent would like to start farming. In 2018, we want to explore reaching out to those populations better.2017 ILF Evaluation Report_for blog_attendees

About half of respondents indicate they own over 75% of their land. However, when looking at respondents aged 50 and under, that changes dramatically to 57% of respondents reporting that they own 25% or less of their acres. Faced with many acres changing hands in the next five to ten years, it is important to continue to develop outreach materials and plan events accessible to both landowners and farmer/operators. To reach our goals of increasing conservation implementation, it will be a coordinated effort by both landowners and those who actively farm.

2017 ILF Evaluation Report_for blog-_ageThe average age of farmers/operators attending ILF field days was 55 years, which was slightly younger than the average age of a farmer in Iowa (57 years). This finding has been consistent in the four years that we have been tracking age information. The average age of landowners attending ILF field days was higher at 64 years.

In general, field day attendees indicated a preference for Wednesday field days that were held in the afternoon or after 5 pm.


What about younger farmers?

Seventeen percent of our field day attendees are 35 years or younger; 80% of attendees are men while 20% are women. On average, farmers in this age group farm 739 acres of row crop land (range of 40 – 3,500 acres) and own 25% of their farmland. Nearly 57% of respondents in this category reported that they did not own any of the acres that they currently farm.

Livestock is an early entry point for the next generation to begin or return to the farm. Nearly 60% of this group reported having livestock compared to 45% of respondents in all age groups who identified as farmer/landowner. These younger attendees indicated a preference for events held on Saturdays (48%) followed by Tuesday-Thursday (42%) after 5 pm (50%).

We in the process of updating the ILF Field Day Toolkit and add these findings to event planning best practices.

2017 ILF Evaluation Report_for blog-_younger

Stayed tuned for more highlights from our 2017 Evaluation Report and be sure to click subscribe and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liz Juchems