Getting Conservation in the Hands of Local Citizens

Our newest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast, A Passion for Prairies, features Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s David Stein. He is truly passionate about helping people learn more about their local ecology through on-the-ground outreach across central Iowa. Enthusiastic may be an understatement when it comes to Stein’s zeal and motivation to provide a personal, education-minded, place-based approach to conservation on working lands!

As a Watershed Program Coordinator with the non-profit (former RC&D) Prairie Rivers of Iowa, Stein holds a unique position in that the area he serves here in the heart of Iowa is at the direct interface of urban areas and prime agricultural land. That presents both unique opportunities and challenges when it comes to water quality, soil health, and facilitating corridors of habitat for wildlife.

Stein is particularly passionate about native prairie establishment, and its benefits to reduce runoff, improve water quality, build soil health, and provide habitat/food resources to many species of wildlife. Tune in to the Conservation Chat to hear about Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s targeted efforts to establish corridors of habitat, creating uninterrupted flyways between publicly-owned and privately-owned lands.

Photographs by Prairie Rivers of Iowa

Interested in doing some native landscaping, establishing a pollinator garden, or other native plantings on your land?  Look no farther that Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Native Plant Seed Bank! Tune in to the podcast to learn more about this awesome new initiative, the brainchild of Stein (and his proudest accomplishment on the job thus far). The seed bank is currently offering 10 different species of native plants (flowers and grasses), and they are accepting deposits of native seed, as well—an incredible conservation resource for central Iowa.

Catch this episode and all previous podcast episodes on the Conservation Chat website and through iTunes.

Ann Staudt

 

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.

A Conservation Chat with Daniel Robison

Conservation Chat Header

Robison ISU

Daniel Robison, photo credit: Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

On this new episode of the Conservation Chat, host Jacqueline Comito sat down the Daniel Robison, the new dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. Robison joined ISU from West Virginia University and has degrees in forestry, silviculture and forest influences and forest entomology.

“Iowa has an extraordinary landscape.” – Robison

Dean Robison shared that he enjoys riding bikes with his wife and that they have been enjoying getting to know Iowa by bike (and are appreciating that there are fewer hills here than in West Virginia!). He went on to explain his background and his ongoing interest in forestry, due to enjoying spending time outside as a child with his family and with programs such as Boy Scouts. After growing up in New Jersey, Robison earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in New York and then went on to earn his doctorate in Wisconsin. His career has also taken him to the Ivory Coast in West Africa and to North Carolina.

Robison stressed the importance of travel and study abroad for not just learning about new cultures, but also learning about yourself through the new experiences. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has many study abroad opportunities and Robison also discussed a new idea for “study across America”, which would allow students to learn about different cultures, food production systems and natural resources around the United States. This program would provide interesting opportunities for students to visit places where there have been more immediate impacts from loss of natural resources, such as areas where topsoil has eroded from areas where there was not much topsoil to begin with. Students will be able to see how other people have impacted their landscape and how they cope with these changes. They will be able to see the vulnerability and challenges of these issues bring about and learn how to manage landscapes here in Iowa better.

To learn more about Dean Robison and the role he believes CALS can play in addressing local and global challenges, listen to the full podcast here!

Hilary Pierce

The Ripple Effect

Backpacks and binders. Construction paper and crayons. Pens, pencils, and Post-its. Back-to-school season is upon us! There’s such an excitement in the air as students get stocked up on supplies in preparation for the start of a new school year ahead.

While school supply shopping in August is symbolic of the back-to-school movement, back-to-school preparations have been underway since June for 64 K-12 teachers participating in the Water Rocks! Teacher Summit workshops put on by our team. These teachers descended upon the Iowa State University campus for two days of learning and full immersion on all things water, soil, and natural resources.

Why train teachers? Educating youth on water, land, and wildlife issues in the natural environment is a team effort!  While the demand for agricultural products is ever increasing, as is society’s demand for clean water, the health of our water bodies and our land rests in the engagement of youth as the future decision-makers. At the same time, schools statewide face ever-tightening budgets and elimination of field trips exposing students to these topics. Enter Water Rocks! and our Teacher Summits.

If we can help classroom teachers expand their knowledge, comfort, and confidence in teaching about natural resources issues and science-based solutions for Iowa’s environment, we can build a cohort of passionate, energetic educators that are on the front lines in reaching the next generation. If we can equip teachers with hands-on games, interactive activities, and ready-to-use materials to help convey conservation concepts in the classroom, we can create a ripple effect in terms of youth water education. Training teachers means the potential for directly reaching hundreds, if not thousands, of students statewide as teachers integrate these Iowa-centric natural resources topics, games, and activities year after year. Training is one of the three keys pillars of the Conservation Learning Group at ISU, and the Water Rocks! Teacher Summits help educators make waves when it comes to integrating natural resources topics in creative and engaging ways with their students.

Over the course of each Water Rocks! Teacher Summit, participants are introduced to agricultural and environmental topics through presentations by ISU faculty and researchers working directly in these fields, broadening their understanding of the current science. How is that information translated back into the classroom, whether it be to 4th graders or high school students?  The Water Rocks! team makes it easy, pairing each expert presentation with a fun and engaging hands-on activity or interactive game that teachers can use with their students back in the classroom. For instance, Randall Cass, ISU Extension Entomologist, spoke to participants about the challenges facing bees and pollinators, which was followed by participants competing in the original Monarch Migration Madness game developed by Water Rocks!. Each school team goes home with an activity kit chock full of ready-to-use educational materials for the classroom. Finally, a field tour gives teachers the opportunity to better understand the connections between land management, water quality, and wildlife habitat as they explored conservation practices firsthand on the ground.

Since 2014, Water Rocks! has conducted 13 summits, reaching 263 teachers, 14 high school peer mentors and 62 Extension and environmental educators—multiplying the impact of our engaging youth water education efforts across the state and across generations!


Mikell Brosamle, Galva-Holstein Community Schools, can’t wait for her students to experience the connectedness of the environment around them through the use of games and activities:

“I found the Summit to be refreshing and invigorating. … I received a plethora of useful classroom materials and information on how to present them in a format that kids will LOVE! … With all the hands-on games, intriguing music videos, along with educational activities to support the lesson, the students will be excited about learning how to improve their environment and save habitats by learning that all water is connected. It will teach them that EVERYONE plays an important role and that their choices are important.”


Several teachers acknowledged how much they personally learned about agricultural production, water quality, and the environment around them. Kathy Lynott, from Erskine Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, shared how her personal perspectives have shifted after two days at the Water Rocks! Summit:

“I predict I’m going to drive into a ditch or get pulled over for swerving on the road. This is a result of my participation in the WATER ROCKS! Summit. My erratic driving happened the MINUTE I left the Summit.

 “My eyes are constantly wandering off to corn and bean fields now!? I’m looking at the slope of the fields, if they’re draining into little waterways, what, if any, buffer crops are surrounding the fields, how large the buffer crops are and I’m even noticing the curvature of the fields. My poor husband had no idea what he was in for when I arrived home. … He grew up on a farm so he was already pretty knowledgeable about land and water. He was, however, still open to listen to new ideas especially about the pollution nitrate and phosphorus are causing to fresh water sources.

 “It’s not just nitrate and phosphorus… it’s a combination of trash, poop, loose soil, fertilizers, pesticides, and oil all going into our water. Yes, the same water we drink from. Doing our part by picking up dog poo, recycling and conserving water are small ways we can make a big difference. … Also, the milkweed around our property will now be carefully tended to. I literally mowed AROUND 2 plants I noticed next to the fence line yesterday.”


With back-to-school on the horizon, it’s high time to get those scissors, staplers, and spiral notebooks ready to go. And you can send the kids and grandkids back to school knowing that there’s an amazing cohort of teachers across the state equipped with sound science, brimming with enthusiasm, and ready to rock their students’ worlds when it comes to learning about Iowa’s water, land, and wildlife.

Ann Staudt

The 2019 Water Rocks! Teacher Summits were made possible through funding from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (USEPA Section 319) and Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

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: 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:

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: