Learning Life Lessons as ISU Water Resources Interns

Both Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! owe a lot of their successes over the past decade to the energy and enthusiasm of student Water Resources Interns. Each summer the young people in these positions have become the faces and voices of water and land resource management, conservation, and agricultural practices which benefit Iowa’s environment. The programs are closely affiliated with the highly-regarded Iowa State University (ISU) Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering which provides research opportunities as well as much foundational science for the outreach efforts.

Interns come from different degree programs, backgrounds and even states. (Know a college student who might be interested? Applications are open now through Jan. 31 for our 2019 Water Resources Internship Program!) The common thread among them is enthusiasm for engaging with members of the community through different learning and demonstration opportunities. Forty-five individuals have served in this important role over the years. We asked them to reflect on what they gained and learned from the experience, and were quite pleased with the responses.

Eleven Years and still going strong
From a relatively small beginning as student research assistantships in 2007, the internship program provided resources which enabled Iowa Learning Farms to respond to research needs, programming opportunities and expansions of outreach. From humble beginnings in 2007 with a single trailer-mounted rainfall simulator, to the addition of a second and the launch of the Conservation Station fleet in 2010, interns were integral to the program. Today there are three Conservation Stations in regular use, and the teams of interns go out with them for nearly every visit.

My favorite intern memories were taking the Conservation Station to field days. It was a neat experience to see communities bonding over conservation and their love of the land. –Emily Steinweg, 2011


Jumping in with both feet
As summer interns, there is no warmup period, the work starts on day one and keeps going throughout the ten-week term. Research projects are ready to go, Conservation Station events are booked, and since the university summer overlaps with the primary and secondary school spring semester, lending a hand with Water Rocks! school visits fills up the initial weeks.

Interns are expected to know some, learn a lot of new, and be able to put new knowledge and skills to work immediately. Flexibility and learning on your feet are fundamental requirements. Some interns have noted that it’s about learning how much you don’t know and having fun filling the gaps. Over the years many have contributed to the ILF blog sharing their experiences.

Intern duties include collecting water and soil samples, working under the direction of staff, faculty and graduate students, tabulating data, driving – and parking – trailers, participating in video projects, and staffing the Conservation Station. As representatives of Iowa Learning Farms in many venues, interns quickly become experts at listening, communicating and educating.

The Conservation Conversation
A common theme we heard from our former interns was their development of stronger public speaking and communications skills. Leading or participating in a public event, county fair, or field day would bring them face to face with people of different ages and backgrounds. The audience diversity kept them on their toes in shaping the information to make sure they connected with the audience.

The internship for me was a lot about public speaking and being able to interact with any age group or demographic. – Ryan Nelson, 2009, 2010

The biggest, perhaps most important, skill I developed was communication with the public. As a farmer myself, it’s relatively easy to communicate with other farmers. But with the public, one has to explain the basics in a way that a non-farmer can understand. –Mikayla Edwards, 2015

Working with ILF provided many of our interns with valuable experience that they continue to use in their careers – even in fields beyond conservation and water quality. From teachers to manufacturing engineers, being a part of a team and communicating information, ideas and solutions are universal skills.

I was exposed to people ranging from a farmer who thought cover crops were ridiculous to a sixth-grader learning about soil and water interactions. Understanding how the message needs to be tailored or modified to a specific audience has greatly benefited me in my career. –Brett McArtor, 2012

The majority of problems that I work on in my career necessitate a team to be involved; however, the expectation is that I will be able to problem solve and troubleshoot to contribute toward the solution. The combination of teamwork and independence that I exercised as a student intern for ILF prepared me well for this type of environment. –Patrick Kelly, 2012, 2013

The biggest benefits of being a part of ILF for me professionally would have to be the experience of giving short, informal presentations, and the importance of honestly saying, I don’t know. There is considerable skill in taking a message, condensing it into something manageable, wording it in such a way that others without background knowledge can understand, and presenting it in such a manner to grab and hold the attention of your listeners. This is something helpful for me as a software engineer as pitching ideas to clients or management needs to undergo this process in order to be effective. –Nathan Waskel, 2016, 2017


Making a Connection
One thing we’ve repeatedly observed at Conservation Station stops is that many of our adult audience members will seek out the interns just to talk. They seem drawn to the enthusiasm shown by these young adults in sharing their stories and connecting to people through excitement and hopeful messages. Many of these folks have a genuine interest in learning about the interns’ backgrounds, how they are doing in school, and where they see themselves after graduation. In fact, older citizens seem to prefer watching the young people present than the ISU-based professionals. And the interns truly appreciate the conversations and audience interactions as well.

The knowledge I gained from community members teaching community members helped me make the decision to continue in the course of community education and engagement. –Megan Koppenhafer, 2015, 2016, and 2018 AmeriCorps Service Member

It always felt nice to have people come up and talk about their own experiences with conservation. –Nathan Waskel, 2016, 2017

While visiting the Conservation Station one dad said to me, “I want my kids to know about this stuff; a lot of people don’t realize how important it is.” It was rewarding to make that connection. –Wyatt Kaldenberg, 2018

The other strong connection we see is with children in the audience. At field days and fairs young people are drawn to the goofy games and hands-on activities – but we see the parents and grandparents leaning in and learning along the way. And when they get into schools for Water Rocks! assemblies and outdoor classrooms, the interns have a chance to teach – and sometimes get stumped – by the next generation.

Teaching youth during outdoor classrooms opened my eyes to youth development and education. I loved seeing things click and watching their excitement grow as they understood how their actions could impact the environment either negatively or positively. –Brittney Carpio, 2012

I was caught off guard when a fifth-grade student asked, “What inspires you to do this?” After a long moment of panic, and a room full of fifth-graders staring up at me, I finally came up an answer. The experience made me think and quickly translate my passion for conservation into words I hope made an impact on another generation. –Kaleb Baber, 2017, 2018


Hands-on Research
When not on the road with the Conservation Stations, the interns also spend a good deal of time conducting hands-on research. Tasks range from taking water and soil samples to things such as counting earthworms. While these simple tasks are beneficial to ongoing research, there is also a lot of learning going on. Interns learn research techniques and gain an understanding of the importance of research processes and protocols to obtaining verifiable and repeatable results.

Earthworm counting is exactly what it sounds like. We head to test plots all over the state to look at the number of earthworms within a 19” x 30” frame between the rows of crops, corn or soybeans. – Donovan Wildman, 2018

Understanding the theory or research behind a process is an important first step, but a project is far from complete at this stage. Once the system is operating in the ‘real world’, such as the working bioreactors in the ILF program, there are many unpredictable factors that can arise. –Kate Sanocki, 2016

In addition to the field research, interns have also helped conduct various social science research through the years helping with survey mailings and data collection as well as event evaluations. The event evaluations, in particular, demonstrate to the interns the importance of documenting impact on an event by event basis.


A Bidirectional Impact
Water Resources Interns are crucial to the ongoing success of ILF and Water Rocks! outreach and education activities. Every year they infuse the team with new energy, perspectives and ideas. The interns are there to learn and gain valuable career experience, but their contributions over the years have also helped make the programming and content better and more impactful for all constituencies.

What does it take to become a Water Resources Intern?
In a word, Enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm to learn, enthusiasm to teach, and enthusiasm to engage with Iowans from all walks of life. We can teach them the content, but the spark and passion for sharing what they know and learning what they don’t is what makes for great interns and great experiences.

Interns will be challenged with new ideas, new tasks and some exhausting days. We seek people who are passionate about conservation, the environment, water or soil quality, and agriculture. To learn more about the Water Resources Internship program, and for application instructions, please visit our 2019 Water Resources Internship Program page — applications close this Thursday, Jan. 31!

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This story was first published in Wallaces Farmer in December 2018.

The Most Rewarding Work

When I first began my AmeriCorps term in October of 2017, it was a matter of serendipity. I had been eager to do something meaningful in the space between graduating college in December of 2017 and moving into a full-time job in August of 2018. I had considered AmeriCorps, but worried about the year-long commitment given my timeline for a new job. My excitement to join the Water Rocks! team as a part-time service member was unmatched — it fit my timeline perfectly and the work I would be doing was so meaningful. This position ended up doing more for me than just allowing me to work with such a cool program. It helped me to grow as a young adult and paved my transition into full-time working life.


Time Management is the Key to Success

I began my service term during school and quickly learned that time management for a full-time job is different than time management for a part-time job because you want to take your work home with you. I had to quickly learn how to effectively manage my time at work so that I wouldn’t let it bleed into my school/homework time and later my other jobs. Because I was a part-time service member, I had the opportunity to find a second job. It was challenging to orchestrate both schedules and to give both jobs the time I felt they deserved. I gained a new respect for people who work multiple jobs. Even though my service was top priority, keeping my promise to my other employer was also of the utmost importance to me. Learning to balance my schedule helped me to feel confident in giving my best to my service.


Doing Your Best is Up to You

In my new position with Water Rocks! I was given freedom to develop several programs, including a library and day camp program, and run them on my own. In the development process of both programs I worried they would not be good enough or that I had not put in enough work to make them successful. My team always puts out high quality teaching tools and programs that are well-organized, so the bar was high. I got over my anxiousness by putting in the time to make the programs meet my standard. If you work on something until you are proud of it, other people will see that and feedback you get will only help you to elevate the project. I was setting the bar for myself lower than what I could actually do because of the limits I was putting on myself. Being a part of this AmeriCorps service opportunity helped me to gain confidence to push the limits of what I thought I could do and move beyond good to great.


It’s a Bow-Wow World
When We Work Together

Teamwork means more than just the work I put in with my team in the office. My team at Water Rocks! headquarters is amazing and I learn things from each and every one of them each time we are on an event together, but working with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach partners across the state taught me the power of regional teamwork. We are able to reach so many more students and we are better able to connect to the people who live across the state because we have partners on the ground who live in and know these communities.

I have been on 79 events this year and talked to thousands of people about conservation. I have seen the power of song and games and the staying power of the conservation message. No matter how long the travel or how many people we saw, teaching people about conservation was enough to make me feel the impact of the work we do. Watching people’s faces change as we talked about pollution AND solutions to pollution never gets old. Conservation work is the most rewarding work I will ever do. I look forward to bringing these lessons to Nebraska as I continue my journey of public service as a regional planner for the Panhandle Area Development District.

Megan Koppenhafer

Megan Koppenhafer just completed her term of service with the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, having served with Water Rocks! since October 2017 (and as a college intern with Water Rocks! two prior summers). Our record-breaking Water Rocks! outreach efforts this past year would not have been possible without our two awesome AmeriCorps service members, Jack and Megan — many thanks! You both rock!

Internship offers new perspectives, new direction

Today’s guest post in our Water Resources Internship blog series was provided by Andrew Hillman. Hillman grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, and went to school at Pleasant Valley. He will be entering his junior year at ISU in the fall, majoring in Biosystems Engineering. Read on for his unique perspectives in the internship coming from an urban background!  

It has been a fun, wild ride in a way for me this summer. Coming from a completely urban background in the Quad Cities and starting this internship, I had little to no idea about any of these issues, or really anything about agriculture at all to be honest. But, from the pre-job training to all the experiences I have had this summer, from field work to outreach events, I have learned quite a bit. I never thought before this summer that I would ever be excited to go out and see things like bioreactors and restored oxbows, but here I am!

I have always been somewhat informed about environmental issues, but the thing that I have enjoyed the most about this summer is that I now have more nuanced and informed opinions about issues. And I can actually draw on my own experiences now, which is very neat. I knew that erosion and nutrient loss and runoff were environmental issues on the forefront in Iowa, but now is the first time that I can say that I feel personally connected to these issues, which is always something I felt that as an Iowan I should be doing, but never knew enough about.

Going to Iowa State University for Biosystems Engineering, I quickly was exposed to how little I knew about agriculture in Iowa, and so this summer has helped me fill a gap in my knowledge that was fairly noticeable compared to some of my peers. Now that I have experience going out to a field, seeing cover crops and collecting water samples, some of the things we talked about in my ABE classes are suddenly much clearer to me now that I have the context.

Something specific that I did in my ABE 218 course was build a table-scale system for reducing nitrate levels in water. Now that I have seen an actual bioreactor site, and presented the model bioreactor that Extension has, I have a greater appreciation for that project and the things that I learned while doing it. I even had the opportunity to work with Chase, one of the other interns, to come up with a preliminary design of our own for a model bioreactor to possibly be placed in one of our conservation trailers in the future. Edge-of-field practices like bioreactors are really fascinating to me.

Back on July 12, I had the opportunity to go to my home county for a Scott County soil health and cover crops field day. This was a great event for me, because growing up in Bettendorf, I really did not associate Scott Co. with much farming compared to the other places I had been in Iowa. It was interesting to see all the things that farmers in my area were doing to further soil and water quality goals.

The host location, Cinnamon Ridge Farms in Donahue, Iowa was amazing. It was eye-opening to hear the owner talk about all the strategies he was using, including his methods for integrating cover crops into his operation. Because their operation does tours year-round, including tours to farmers from all around the world, he had a unique perspective on many of the government cost share programs that are available to farmers, noting that there are not very many countries in which the government will pay you to adopt a farming practice. I think that this is very important, and one that people should keep in mind as Iowa communities look to adopt more parts of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in the future.

I am currently in the Biorenewables option right now in Biological Systems Engineering, but after my experiences this summer with the Iowa Learning Farms, I am seriously considering switching my option so I can continue to learn more about the issues that I have been exposed to this summer! As an engineering student, this is where I can see so many opportunities to get involved after graduation.

Andrew Hillman

Join us Nov. 1-2 for Water Rocks! Multi-State Youth Education Summit

Our next Water Rocks! Summit is just around the corner on Nov. 1-2, and this time around, we’ll be bringing together youth educators from across the North Central region! Read on for more information about this great professional development opportunity…

novembersummitgraphic-ilfblogWho can attend the Water Rocks! Multi-State Youth Education Summit?
4-H and extension educators, SWCD youth outreach coordinators, watershed coordinators, naturalists, municipal/public works education personnel, scientists who frequently conduct youth outreach in the classroom, and STEM coordinators are all welcome — anyone who is involved with youth education outside of the traditional classroom setting!  We will be bringing folks together not just from the state of Iowa, but also extension educators from land grant universities in several surrounding states from across the North Central region.

TEACHERS: Visit the Water Rocks! website to learn more about our Teacher Summits, offered during the summer, which are designed exclusively for you.

What is the Water Rocks! Summit all about?
This professional development workshop offers training on a multitude of interactive and hands-on educational lessons covering water, soil, agriculture, environmental science, and more. The November Water Rocks! Summit will cover a wide variety of topics including the water cycle, watersheds, connectedness of agriculture and the environment in Iowa, agricultural management practices, wetlands, biodiversity, and more. Music, videos, technology, and super fun hands-on activities will be woven throughout!

How much does it cost?
The full cost of the November Summit is $800, which includes the WR! activity kit ($800+ of materials), plus lunch and snacks during the day. Financial assistance is available to qualified individuals/organizations.

What’s included in the WR! activity kit?
The Water Rocks! activity kit features numerous original, interactive educational modules that Water Rocks! has developed to help teach classroom lessons on water, soil, agriculture, environmental science, and more. It’s chock full of original hands-on learning activities and games (We All Live in a Watershed, Habitat Hopscotch, Wetlands BINGO, Biodiversity JENGA, Dig Into Soil, What’s In Your (Storm)water?, and more) that can be used time and time again with Grades K-12.

There are several people from our county/organization that would like to attend. Can we all come to the Summit? Do we each have to buy our own activity kit?
Multiple individuals from the same county office or local organization are encouraged to attend the Water Rocks! Summit together (up to 3 people on a team); please apply together so we know you are a team. In this case, only one shared Water Rocks! activity kit would be required.

Ready to apply?
Space is limited, so apply right away!  Financial assistance is available to qualified individuals/organizations; apply by October 12, 2016 to be considered for scholarship assistance.

Ann Staudt

This cooperative project has been funded by the North Central Region Water Network. Partners of Water Rocks! include Iowa Department of Natural Resources (United States Environmental Protection Agency/Section 319 of Clean Water Act), Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Water Center, Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and personal gifts of support.

Water Rocks! Team honored by Governor!

The Water Rocks! team traveled to the State Capitol in Des Moines earlier this week for a special recognition ceremony with Governor Terry Branstad. We were honored to receive Special Recognition Award in the Environmental Education category as part of the 2016 Governor’s Iowa Environmental Excellence Awards!

eealogoThis year, 22 total awards were given out to organizations, businesses and communities across the state working to protect and enhance our natural resources. It was interesting and inspiring to hear about the many great projects that are happening statewide – from the Fighting Burrito’s use of electric cars and bicycles for food delivery, to Spirit Lake’s Pure Fishing establishing acres of pollinator habitat, to high school students in Central Community Schools’ Global Science class establishing a school/community food compost program!

At the awards ceremony, we were recognized for our outstanding efforts to educate youth and adults across the state of Iowa on water quality and environmental issues, whether that be through school visits, county fairs and community outreach events, Water Rocks! Summit teacher training workshops, and our collection of outstanding (and sometimes outrageous) music videos. While handing out the awards, the DNR’s Deputy Director Bruce Trautman even asked when he could sing in a music video!160803-WR!WebsiteGovernorAward

IMG_4490Joining us at the awards ceremony were several of our partners that believed in Water Rocks! early on and have been really instrumental in making this program a reality – Allen Bonini, Steve Hopkins, and Jeff Berckes from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Mark Rasmussen from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and Melissa Miller representing the Iowa Water Center.  Thanks to these folks and all of you out there who have helped to support Water Rocks! in one way or another over the years.

As 2016 continues, we are on track to have another record-breaking year in terms of outreach!  There is a huge need for water quality education in our state, and the Water Rocks! team will continue to do our part to help meet that need as best we can.

Ann Staudt

2016 Crop Advantage Series kicks off today

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Today marks the start of the 2016 Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Crop Advantage Series — these workshops are offered across the state, delivering the latest research, knowledge, and expertise related to crop production.  Topics range from crop weather outlooks for 2016, to soil fertility management, to weed and pest management, conservation practices, and much more!

Several Iowa Learning Farms team members and collaborators will be presenting at select upcoming Crop Advantage Series meetings:

  • Economic benefits of cover crops – Jamie Benning and Liz Juchems
  • Reducing nitrate loss: Scale of practice implementation needed – Matt Helmers and Ann Staudt
  • Genetic selection and seeding rate considerations for tight margins – Mark Licht
  • Spray application strategies beyond glyphosate – Mark Hanna

This year, the Crop Advantage Series meetings are being offered at 14 different locations – 13 across the state of Iowa, plus one in Moline, IL. Check out the map to see which location(s) and date(s) work best for you!

CropAdvantageMapEach Crop Advantage workshop is approved for recertification for Iowa private pesticide applicators, as well as continuing education credits for Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs).

Full registration for each workshop is $60 at the door, with lunch and refreshments included. Many sites still have early registration available online, through the Ag & Natural Resources Extension online portal, for the discounted rate of $50. On the webpage, select the specific meeting location you’re interesting in for additional details and online registration.

Hope to see you there!

Ann Staudt

Snapshots from State Fair

Water quality takes center stage at the Iowa State Fair when you visit the Conservation Station. Dogs, ducks, a rain machine, watershed game, poo, shuffleboard, prizes… what’s not to love?!   It’s all free. And fun. And educational!

While the Poo Shuffle has big curb appeal, visitors to the Conservation Station must “earn the poo” by first completing one of our educational lessons.  There are multiple options to choose from:

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THE WATERSHED GAME – hands-on fun to learn all about watersheds and how pollution works

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THE RAIN MACHINE – yes, we make it rain!

… or visitors can step inside the (air-conditioned!) LEARNING LAB and check out the “What’s In Your Water?” display. Each of these games/lessons is focused on water quality, and includes both agricultural and urban components. We’re all in this together, and everyone has a role to play!

Then visitors are invited to get in line and compete in the POO SHUFFLE…   It’s a head-to-head competition where visitors learn about the connections between pet waste and water quality, while trying out their shuffleboard skills and competing for some fabulous prizes!

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Dog poo meets shuffleboard in the POO SHUFFLE!

Did you know? 40% of Americans do not pick up their dogs' feces.

Did you know? 40% of Americans do not pick up their dogs’ feces.

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Did you know? 1 gram of dog waste (mass of a paper clip) contains 23 million fecal coliform bacteria. If not picked up and disposed of, that poses some serious challenges to water quality!

The Conservation Station offers fun for all: urban and rural, young and old alike…

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Love this little guy on his tiptoes to catch all of the action in the watershed game!

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… and some of them aren’t even walking yet! You’re never too young to start learning about conservation!

Day 1 of the 2015 Iowa State Fair was a huge success!  While we always talk to large numbers of visitors at the Fair, yesterday was exceptional – our numbers at the Conservation Station were up 60%+ from opening day in 2014.

As Carol mentioned in her State Fair Time blog post yesterday, the Conservation Station is located in Farm Bureau Park, directly east of the Varied Industries Building and south of the Grand Concourse.  Look for the big blue Conservation Station trailer, Conservation Pack dog cutouts, and Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks!/Iowa State University Extension and Outreach flags.  You can’t miss it!

Make conservation a part of your visit to the State Fair – we have fun games and activities for all. A big shout-out to Jim and Jody Kerns and their whole crew for being the first Iowa Learning Farms farmer-partners to stop by the Conservation Station at this year’s fair!

Ann Staudt