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.

First Experience at My Very Own County Fair

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.


On Friday July 26th I was scheduled to go to the Hamilton County Fair in Webster City with the Conservation Station trailer. Now this fair happens to be my hometown county fair, but the thing is, I have never been to it before. In my time with Water Rocks!, I have worked at a lot of different small town fairs, so I was curious to see how the Hamilton Co. Fair compared, and what it had to offer.

Going to county fairs around Iowa is a cultural experience!  Some of the fairs are pretty small in size, but they’re filled with a lot of pride around the 4-H and FFA exhibits and the livestock, like the Chickasaw Co. Fair. This year I also attended some medium sized fairs, like the Johnson Co. Fair in Iowa City. I originally believed this one would be huge considering the location, but it was still highly focused on livestock with a few other trailers and activities. It did also offer some different food options, including a homemade ice cream stand which really caught my eye.

And of course there have also been a few large fairs that I have attended as well, such as the Great Jones Co. Fair and the Mississippi Valley Fair. Both of these fairs offer lots of different things. Jones Co. offers dirt bike races, fair rides, and concerts. This year they had TobyMac perform along with some other relatively popular artists. And as for the Mississippi Valley Fair, they had an entire building dedicated to kids activities including interesting speakers and a petting zoo. They also had plenty of rides and food stands that span probably close to a half of a mile. Plus they bring in big name artists such as Dan + Shay and Nickelback, just to name a couple.


Arriving at the Hamilton Co. Fairgrounds, what first came to my attention is that it is a relatively small fair, which I expected, but they had a midway and a really nice sized stage for the artists that would be playing the fair. This was quite surprising to me. I did not expect it to have all the different things that it had. There were quite a few livestock buildings, as most fairs have. Another thing that surprised me was the many different food vendors. There were the usual ones like corn dogs, funnel cakes, and lemonade, plus they also had a few that I would say are less common such as smoked barbeque, tacos, and a stand completely dedicated to chicken that went by the name of Chicken City. You know I’m all about the fair food!

Photos from http://www.hamcoexpo.com/fair/photos/ 

Now as for my overall experience at the Hamilton Co. Fair, it was good. One thing that was especially unique was that myself and my coworkers got to teach a 4-H STEM camp that was happening at the fair. We taught students from 3rd to 5th grade all about the Fabulous World of Wetlands!

 

Then after the camp, we were on site for 3 more hours, talking to other fair goers at our Conservation Station trailer and encouraging them to check out our hands-on interactive activities.  While the fair was on the smaller end of those we visit, all the conversations we had with people were great, as they were very interested in what we were trying to teach. Most of the people that we saw were really interested in the Enviroscape (our “Watershed Game”). Even though it was my hometown fair, I did not end up talking to anyone that I knew from high school or my local community.

County fairs seem to be a summer staple here in Iowa. I can now proudly say, at 19, that I’ve finally been to my own local county fair!  Next summer I will have to go back on my own time to experience everything else that the Hamilton Co. Fair has to offer!


Joshua Harms

 

A Time to Celebrate; A Time to Look Ahead

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Matt Helmers | Iowa Nutrient Center Director and Professor of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering

Learning Farms 15 year celebration (8)This year the Iowa Learning Farms turned 15 and one of the highlights was a get together with farmer partners, current and former steering committee members, and others that have contributed greatly to the Iowa Learning Farms. It was a wonderful evening of reminiscing of things that have been done over the last 15 years. In addition, we had a video on loop at the event that show photographs from each of the years.

A couple things stuck with me after the evening—other than I seemed to have aged more than most. First of all, the Iowa Learning Farms is all about people and connection. As I was watching pictures of the various activities and events, it reminded me of many great moments and conversations whether at an event or in travel to and from the event. These helped shape what has been done over the past 15 years and help the team get better at inspiring a Culture of Conservation. We still have much work to do but the ability to work together, listen to others and constantly look for ways to do it better are essential.

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One of my fondest memories related to this is the development of the Conservation Station fleet. Mark Licht suggested we get a rainfall simulator trailer after seeing one in Illinois. There was hesitation by many on whether we wanted a trailer that we would have to haul around to country fairs and other events. Our Steering Committee was worried about who would staff it. Well, that didn’t stop us and the Conservation System Rainfall Simulator was born. When we realized by listening to attendees at events that maybe there were some things about the original trailer (other than its name) that we could improve, we built a better rainfall simulator and expanded trailer, i.e., the Conservation Station.

Today, we have three trailers in the fleet with perhaps a fourth someday dedicated to soil. Along the way, each one has been unique in its own way and the team has continued to listen to our audiences and to work together to improve them. These trailers have now been to all counties in the state, every county fair (some multiple times), and hundreds of community events spreading the Culture of Conservation.

As much as reflecting on the past is important, I couldn’t help but think to the future of Iowa Learning Farms and what it might bring. The strength of ILF has been in its ability to respond to change and grow. When we first started, the program was focused on residue management, which is still important today. A few years later, we added a focus on water quality and cover crops.  As a result, we have seen a dramatic growth in interest around cover crops and the development of new technologies like bioreactors and saturated buffers.

I think these practices and topics will continue to be important as part of the educational program but what new ways will be utilized or what new research information becomes available to help with increasing interest and adoption of these practices and other practices? Are there new practices or concepts that are just seeds or interest right now but will become key to building the Culture of Conservation tomorrow? I am excited to see what those might be and then seeing how the Iowa Learning Farms team takes this information and develops educational material and programming to highlight these new concepts.

The Iowa Learning Farms has been a great learning experience. We have all changed over the last 15 years but a constant with ILF is that the program has continued to engaged partners throughout the state, has continued to listen to Iowans both rural and urban, has continued to look for better ways to spread the message, and has and will continue to educate on new conservation practices.

Here is to the next 15 years!

Matt Helmers

 

Two Months of Adventure

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Over the past couple months, I’ve been having a ton of fun with multiple activities of the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms water resources internship. I started working for them on May 15th and am constantly impressed by how many different things that we do. During the first few weeks I worked, I was assigned to classroom visits and assemblies.

IMG_0073I had a terrific time developing my own style of presenting our information and really enjoyed working with the kids. They tended to grasp the importance of what we taught quickly through the games of the classroom presentations and the songs and activities of the assemblies. My favorite part of working with these kids are the often hilarious answers that they give to questions. I remember during my first week I was telling the kids that we were going to go back in time 200 years, and I asked how long ago that was. One of the kids immediately raised his hand-he looked really confident-and said “1934.” There are tons of answers like that one during our classroom visits.

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Scott as Mr. Raindrop in the watershed assembly skit.

It is also quite fun to see people break out of their shells during our assemblies. They are very participation driven and we ask kids and adults to come up and dance or sing with us. At first, they are hesitant, then once a few of the other kids come up front, they immediately all want to join in the fun. It gets better as the assemblies go on as well, with more kids willing to come forward. At first I was hesitant to sing the song “Scoop that Poop” but once I saw that the kids loved it I found it was much easier to enjoy.

After the first few weeks of the internship, we started doing field work including midden counting, monarch observation, or nitrate level observation. I like almost every part of these activities (except when my waterproof boots get water in them because my jeans are so wet water leaks in through their tops). The field work experience helped the information I had been teaching come to life. As a chemist, I had limited previous exposure to outdoor scientific activities. This allowed me to see how ecosystems function in a way represented by numbers, as opposed to simple observation.

Photo 3I have also recently participated in going around to county fairs and farmer’s markets with our trailers to inform both adults and kids how to protect our environment. These events are fun because I get to directly engage with people who wish to learn about the things we are teaching.

Overall, I have been impressed with the diversity of how we present our information, even though we are presenting very similar information across all of our activities. I have been given the privilege to travel all across Iowa and see the various communities that we have. It is amazing to see everyone so passionate about what we are presenting. If these next few weeks are anything like the last couple months, I can’t wait to see what they have in store!

Scott Grzybowski is participating in the 2019 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Grzybowski grew up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, and graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Chemistry. He is off to the University of Iowa to pursue a graduate degree in the fall.

An Experience in Learning

When asked to describe my time as an intern with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s been a learning experience.  I’ve learned a lot about myself and my specific interests within environmental sustainability and natural resource conservation.  But with a bit more thought, I think it’s more appropriate to call it an experience in learning.

Everybody has different preferences for learning new things.  There’s visual learners and auditory learners, those who learn by observing and those who learn by doing.  

One of my favorite things about Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms is that these organizations cater to a variety of different learning preferences.  The Water Rocks! music videos help to spread the message of conservation to young audiences by providing fun and catchy sing-along opportunities that kids can enjoy at any hour of the day.  The classroom visits and assemblies provide a unique opportunity for students to learn by watching and listening to our educational materials, and then applying their newfound knowledge through trivia questions and team games.

The team’s Conservation Station Fleet is able to reach both urban and rural audiences with our three trailers, which feature examples of ways that any audience member could improve water quality.  With our rainfall simulators, we can show the impacts of various tillage practices on water drainage and quality.  Our on-the-edge trailer shows how two of the newest edge-of-field practices work (bioreactors and saturated buffers).  Lastly, our Enviroscape and poo toss games help us to show kids of all ages what they can do to improve the quality of their neighborhoods and watersheds.  

The past few weeks with Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms have helped me to see that the best way for me to learn is by teaching others.  But that task can’t be done alone – it requires a team of passionate individuals to work together in order to spread our message across the state of Iowa.

Working with a cohort of seven other interns (in addition to all of the full-time staff members) has been a rewarding and interesting experience.  From watching a saturated buffer installation in eastern Iowa to digging a fellow intern out of a mucky mess, I can confidently say that no two days on the job have been the same!

And with each new day, I learn new things about myself, my teammates, and what we can do to improve the quality of the world we live in.  Above all, I’ve learned that it takes a strong team to be able to go out and teach the public about our initiatives.  I’m thankful for all that I’ve learned so far this summer and am excited to continue to add more knowledge as I approach the last month of this internship!

Becca Wiarda is participating in the 2019 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Wiarda grew up near Ackley and is a senior in Agricultural Business and Finance with minors in sustainability and agronomy.

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: Rob Stout

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.


ROB STOUT
Farmer-Partner with Iowa Learning Farms

Rob Stout has been farming near West Chester, Iowa, since graduating from Iowa State University (ISU) in 1978. Rob has demonstrated high levels of interest in conservation and water quality and has gotten involved in a variety of efforts to advocate for improvements. This has extended to his own farming choices which have included no-till for many years as well as participation in multiple research studies with ISU.

What has been your involvement and role with ILF?
I started working with the Iowa Learning Farms team in 2006. The ILF commitment to creating a Culture of Conservation resonated with my own interest in achieving water quality improvement through agricultural practices.

We got in on the first year of the long-term cover crop study and I’m proud to say we recently reported our tenth year of data. But it didn’t take me 10 years to see the benefits. The only parts of my farm fields not in cover crops now are the four test strips I keep for comparison in the ILF study.

The farmer-to-farmer communications element of the ILF outreach is very effective, and I’ve hosted field days, invited friends and neighbors to learn about conservation techniques, and volunteered to speak at ILF-sponsored events and meetings.

Why did you get involved with ILF?
Previously, I had been involved in several ISU research projects to help learn and improve farming techniques. I was also already involved in water quality initiatives. I saw working with ILF as an opportunity to learn more and work with others interested in water quality improvement.

The Culture of Conservation concept captured my interest. The ILF approach to research and outreach fit well with my own passion for learning and doing more to protect and promote the natural ecosystem through better agricultural practices.


How did you change the program, and how did it change you?
I don’t think I individually changed the ILF program, but I’ve always been pleased with the genuine interest they’ve shown in learning from farmers through listening to – and acting upon – feedback and ideas from the farmers. Through hosting and participating in field days, showing others the application of conservation practices, and joining in farmer-to-farmer interactions, I think I’ve provided valuable feedback and helped open new ears to the messages of ILF.

I’ve learned a lot from my involvement with ILF. I loved doing research when I was at ISU, and participating with ILF gives me a chance to continue learning while staying involved in research efforts.

I’ve also grown in my understanding of conservation and water quality issues. In 1983 I was doing no-till and thought I was doing everything I could. I initially thought of conservation simply as erosion control. The ILF cover crop study helped broaden my perspective and knowledge about practices that have changed the way I approach farming and conservation. ILF helped me to become an advocate and a voice of experience for farmers who may be interested in learning about the research from someone who has done it.


What are your fondest memories of working with ILF?
A favorite memory is of a field day we were hosting for ILF. As often happens in Iowa, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate, and we had torrential rains dropping some 3.5 inches on the morning of the event. We quickly cleared the shop to make room for the participants and were able to have a great experience. However, I think the rainfall simulator in the Conservation Station trailer didn’t need to use its own water supply that day!

Why are water quality and conservation outreach important to you and to Iowa?
I care about the environment and the future of our agricultural-based economy. Everyone, including farmers, must take responsibility and do their part to help reduce nitrates in our water. I think the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy‘s goals are critical for the future of the state.

I’ve been learning about watersheds and water quality since the early 2000s when I joined a farmer-led watershed group working to restore a local impaired creek. We secured grants to install bioreactors and a saturated buffer, implemented buffer strips along creeks, and took other positive steps to improve the watershed. To me, this kind of on-the-ground action is a core element to creating the Culture of Conservation which will benefit all Iowans.


Previous Posts in our Faces of Conservation series: