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