Biodiversity Bonanza

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.

Biodiversity Bonanza is another one of our awesome classroom presentations with Water Rocks!. As we start all of our presentations, we introduce ourselves and then we ask the students a (pre-assessment) multiple choice trivia question: “What is biodiversity?”  After everyone has answered the question, we then explore the term biodiversity, asking the students to break the word into two parts, bio- and diversity. When the students define what bio- and diversity are, we then put the full word back together, explaining that biodiversity is all the different living things in a certain area.

We then transition to another important science term, ecosystem, which is a community of living organisms and their environment. At this point, it’s time for another game, our ecosystem guessing game, where students identify ecosystems from around the world.

After the game, we define the next amazing science term which is niche, defined as the specific job that each creature does within the ecosystem. We then continue by asking the students what it would be like if everybody in their school did the same job. The answers are usually like it would be boring or maybe a bit crazy. A diversity of niches keeps a school operating properly, and the same holds true for ecosystems! Then we play another guessing game where we show them a poster with a zoomed-in picture of an airplane wing. Students must try to guess what they’re seeing. After they eventually guess it, we then ask them what would happen if each of the rivets were a different species and what would happen if the rivets were to be pulled out one by one. The wing would eventually collapse, which ultimately represents the collapse of the ecosystem.

Next we use a banner to show the students the trophic level pyramid. After we explain the pyramid, we play a game of Biodiversity Jenga. In this competitive game, the Jenga blocks are painted in different colors that match the colors of the previously seen trophic level pyramid. We then pull situations out of a jar that determine which blocks are to be pulled out each round. It’s survival of the fittest – which team can keep their ecosystem standing the longest? We continue the game until one of the Jenga towers has fallen. We then recap some of the situations that took place during the game.

We want to be sure that students are thinking about biodiversity right here in Iowa, not just faraway places like the Amazon Rainforest, so we like to bring local species and examples into the conversation. In particular, we focus on the Topeka Shiner, a native fish (endangered species) whose habitat has been altered. They prefer to live in oxbows, with slow-moving water and surrounded by trees and other plants that keep the water temperature cool. Yet many of the oxbows have gone through a process called channel straightening, which makes the living conditions much harder for the Topeka Shiner.

So to allow the students to walk a mile in the Shiners’ shoes, we play a game called Musical Oxbows. This game is very similar to musical chairs except instead of using chairs we use carpet squares, painted to represent the meandering bends in rivers. This game also has situations that affect the available habitat for the Topeka Shiner – each round, a new situation is read which means 3-4 habitat spaces are removed. When the music stops, Topeka Shiners must find a spot in the oxbow or they are eliminated! As this game continues, eventually there will only be a couple Topeka Shiners remaining and then the game is complete. Again, we ask the students to recap the different situations that affected the Topeka Shiner, to help solidify those concepts in their minds.

The last few things that we talk about are few different solutions/ideas of what we can all do to protect nature around us. Lastly, we have them answer the same trivia question that we asked at the beginning of the presentation, which helps us to evaluate our effectiveness in the classroom. We then send the students on their way and reorganize our posters, rebuild each Jenga tower, pick up Musical Oxbows, and more — resetting for the next class which usually starts in just 3-5 minutes!

Joshua Harms

Conservation Chat Podcast Returns!

Water quality takes center stage in the Conservation Chat podcast’s long-awaited return!  The Chat debuts its new format, featuring multiple guests on the program together for a roundtable-type discussion. In the newest episode, Improving Water Quality, host Jacqueline Comito visits with two rockstars on Iowa State University’s water quality scene, Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning.

Tune in to this latest episode for an engaging discussion on timely topics related to water quality and agricultural production here in the state of Iowa, centered around the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Having been released five-plus years ago, Comito, Helmers, and Benning discuss the progress made thus far, but also the immense scale of implementation needed to achieve tangible progress in terms of nutrient reduction and improved water quality. Tune in as they bounce ideas about the interwoven relationships between dollars spent, practices implemented, nutrients reduced, policy structure, and progress towards true paradigm shift.

In addition, Helmers and Benning both emphasize the importance of translating pure scientific research to more accessible, digestible outreach materials for general public consumption through such means as short videos, webinars, field days, and infographics. Helmers shares a great anecdote about the power of video to reach broad audiences around the world – he is currently hosting a student intern from Honduras, and this student had recently seen the Iowa Learning Farms’ Rainfall Simulator video in one of her engineering classes back at her home institution!

Tune in to Episode 40 of the Conservation Chat to hear the full interview with Matt Helmers and Jamie Benning. You can also download or listen to any of the previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt

The Fabulous World of Wetlands

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.

As a continuation from last month’s blog, I will be explaining another one of our great modules with Water Rocks!. Our presentation over wetlands has many interesting and important facts along with a few games as well. The module is meant to feel like the students are on a game show and we are their game show hosts. This presentation, like all the others, has been fine-tuned by our team to make it run super smoothly in the classroom with elementary and middle school students.

Our Fabulous World of Wetlands module starts with an audio “field trip,” where we have all the students close their eyes as we play some sounds from out in nature. We then ask them what different sounds they heard. After they have given us some of the different creatures they heard, we ask them where they think the sounds were recorded, hoping that they eventually answer wetlands. We then ask them to answer a trivia/evaluation question to establish their baseline understanding of the subject.

We then continue into our first game, a guessing game in which the students have to try and guess what the three main characteristics of wetlands are (hydric soils, presence of water, and water-loving plants). After the students eventually get all three things, sometimes with the help of some hints, we move on to show them three objects that represent the three main jobs of wetlands. The first object is a coffee filter and we explain that wetlands filter the water and leave it cleaner after it passes through the wetlands. The second object is a sponge and we explain that hydric soils store water like a sponge would if it was dropped in a bucket of water. The third and final object is a small house, which we use to explain that wetlands are a habitat to many different creatures. After we get done explaining the three jobs we have the students repeat them to lock the knowledge into their brains.

We then transition to talking about some certain creatures that rely on wetlands, particularly migratory birds and butterflies. We ask the students to think about if we were all to get on a bus and take a long journey down to Texas, what would be some reasons that we would stop on our journey? They usually answer with things such as food, water, bathroom, sleep, etc. We then explain that for those same reasons that we would stop, birds and butterflies need those same things and they stop at wetlands to take care of all of it along their journeys. This leads us into the next game which is Habitat Hopscotch. This game involves different states that are on the birds’ and butterflies’ migratory paths, as pictured above. But there is a twist—there are some situations that remove wetlands in certain states, which means we remove that state from the game. We then go through all the situations one-by-one, and by the end of the game, there are only three of the original ten squares remaining. That means there are not many wetlands left for the birds and butterflies to stop at!

After the completion of Habitat Hopscotch, we show two maps of Iowa, one of what Iowa looked like 200 years ago and the other one of present day Iowa. What we are showing the students is that our state used to be almost all prairie and wetlands but now the state is mostly covered by corn and beans. We then let them know that 90% of our original wetlands have been converted into other things. We also tell them that 99.9% of our state’s prairie land has also been converted. But it’s not all bad news—there has been good work with farmers to restore both prairie and wetlands on part of their land, which is great for all the creatures that call wetlands home.

This leads us into our game of Wetlands Bingo, which allows the students to see many more of the creatures that live in wetlands. After each wetland bingo, we ask that student a trivia question that gives them a chance to win a prize. When we have had multiple winners, we then finish with the same trivia/evaluation question that we did near the beginning of our presentation. We also leave each classroom teacher with a set of Wetland Bingo cards, so they and their students can continue learning about the Fabulous World of Wetlands and all the amazing creatures that call wetlands their home!

Joshua Harms

Give a Little, Learn a Lot

As the end of the year approaches, please consider a tax-deductible gift to Water Rocks!, investing in the next generation of Iowans, inspiring them to protect our state’s water, land, and wildlife!

Water Rocks! and the Conservation Stations have fanned out across Iowa for years to raise awareness for water quality and conservation issues among growing audiences. We’ve won awards and gotten lots of cheers, but as they say, that won’t put dinner on the table—or clean water in your glass.

While our music video “It’s All About That Bog” delivers a message about wetlands, for today “It’s All About That Green”—the green that we need to keep the programming moving forward. We’ve got a top-notch education program, and we need your help now more than ever before.

Please help us continue to bring Iowans from every walk of life these important messages about the water and natural resources we all share.

What makes Water Rocks! and the Conservation Stations work:

  • Hands-on demonstrations and practical educational sessions
  • Using music and the arts to attract, engage and teach audiences of every age and background
  • Combining science, research and fun to build understanding of land management, biodiversity, watershed dynamics, conservation challenges and solutions
  • Financially attainable by schools with shrinking or nonexistent budgets—enabled by financial support to Water Rocks! from donors across the state

Please “Give a Little”, to help bring high-quality conservation outreach and education programming to schools, outdoor classrooms, fairs and community events so the next generation of Iowans can “Learn a Lot.”

To contribute, visit the Iowa State University Foundation’s Water Rocks! gift portal, www.foundation.iastate.edu/waterrocks.  Thank you so much for your consideration!

Water Rocks! Launches New Pollinator Classroom Presentation

The Power of Pollinators classroom education module extends the Water Rocks! portfolio designed to assist teachers in teaching about environmental science in Iowa

Water Rocks! has announced the launch of “The Power of Pollinators, its newest conservation-focused, interactive classroom presentation for upper-elementary and middle school classrooms. The new Pollinators module was developed with assistance and input from Iowa State University experts as well as classroom teachers across Iowa. Water Rocks! piloted the programming with Turkey Valley Schools fourth and fifth grade classes in late October.

“Turkey Valley Schools have shown leadership in conservation thinking through the establishment of native prairie and butterfly garden projects, and inclusion of critical conservation lessons in multiple grade levels across the district,” said Ann Staudt, director of Water Rocks!. “The pilot experience allowed us to learn as much as we taught. The teachers and students were very motivated to help fine-tune the learning modules.”

Turkey Valley 4th grade students and teacher Robyn Vsetecka show off their school garden plot. The students chose to plant a mix of vegetables and flowering plants to attract pollinators.

Conservation takes center stage at Turkey Valley Community Schools; their native prairie plot was established over twenty years ago on school grounds.

Water Rocks! classroom education modules are designed primarily for grades four through seven. Content is adjusted in collaboration with each classroom teacher to ensure the best outcomes. And, each module is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.

“The Water Rocks! team really grabbed the attention of the students and helped them quickly learn new vocabulary and scientific concepts in a high-energy and fun way,” said Robyn Vsetecka, fourth grade teacher at Turkey Valley Schools. “They covered a lot ground, but the approach wasn’t overwhelming for those students unfamiliar with pollinators, yet still informative and engaging for the ones who already had some experience.”

Students eagerly listen to instructions as they prepare to compete in the Monarch Migration Madness game.

Pollinator Jenga was quite a hit with the students and teachers alike at Turkey Valley!

The Pollinator module uses a variety of visual aids, interactive games and on-your-feet activities, to facilitate age- and grade-appropriate learning for all learners. Favorites among the students were the Pollinator Jenga game, Monarch Migration Madness game, and seeing bee houses.

“We were delighted to see the students’ faces light up when we helped them realize that each could make an impact on supporting pollinators by doing things a simple as planting wildflowers or even adding potted plants on a patio or balcony,” noted Staudt.

To learn more about Water Rocks! classroom education modules, or to request a free school visit, please go to https://www.waterrocks.org/classroom-visits/.

 

A Legacy of Conservation

Conservation is a legacy that runs generations deep with the Whitaker family. Go back 165 years, and there were Whitakers farming this same ground, now recognized as a Heritage Farm, in southeast Iowa.

As nearly 50 farmers and landowners gathered in Hillsboro earlier this week for a conservation field day, area farmer Clark Whitaker shared the importance of conservation to the family over the years, and how that has carried through to their farming operation today. His father had been a district conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service in the 1970s, brother John has been actively involved with conservation through USDA-FSA and Conservation Districts of Iowa, and today Clark is the “boots on the ground” guy making conservation happen on their land.

Clark commented, “The land needs to be cared for and maintained.  Part of that care is trying to keep the soil on the farm instead of road ditches and waterways.”

Back in the 1970s, that meant installing broadbase terraces. In the 1980s, the Whitakers’ conservation focus transitioned to no-till. Today, the Whitakers’ approach to conservation includes variable rate technology, prescription planting, cover crops, and they have also recently installed a saturated buffer to help reduce nitrate levels in drainage water.

Cover crops were the main focus at the Hillsboro field day, where Clark shared that his goals in using cover crops are two-fold: keeping the soil in place, while also raising levels of organic matter in their soils. He has experimented with cereal rye, oats, and radishes thus far.

For best results with cover crops, Clark made several recommendations to the group based on his experience in southeast Iowa:

To learn more about cover crops and how to integrate them into your farming operation, check out Cover Crop Videos and Cover Crop Resources on the Iowa Learning Farms website.

Ann Staudt

This field day was a partnership of Iowa Learning Farms, Lower Skunk Water Quality and Soil Health Initiative, and Henry County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Conservation: Investing in the Land for Years to Come

Farmers and landowners pulled in to West Iowa Bank in Laurens earlier this week for a cover crop + conservation field day.  Wait, a field day at a bank?!  That’s not a typo.

A regular trip to the bank might involve a deposit transaction, reflecting how we invest our money.

This trip to the bank was all about how we invest in the future of our land—reflecting how conservation practices are an investment in our land and our water for generations to come.

Cover crops and no-till, in particular, were at the heart of the conversation during the field day. Out in the field, after lunch, we saw some nice fall growth of cereal rye, thanks to host farmer Dick Lund.

 

Back to thinking in terms of investments, that theme ran deep as area farmers shared the following thoughts in the farmer discussion panel:

 

Investing in conservation practices like no-till can mean saving money, too:

This field day was a collaboration of Soil Health Partnership, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Farmers Union, Iowa Seed Association, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Clean Water Initiative, Iowa Corn, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, and Iowa Learning Farms.

Iowa Learning Farms has a handful of additional field days still coming up this month, now that harvest is just about wrapped up. Visit our events page to find one near you and RSVP today!

Ann Staudt