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 Iowa Watershed Academy

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Jamie Benning | Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Water Quality Program Manager

Watershed coordinators are key players in improving water quality in Iowa by providing farmers and landowners technical and financial assistance to implement soil health and water quality improvement practices on their land.  Prior to the initiation of the Iowa Watershed Academy by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (ISUEO), there were no comprehensive training events focused to develop the skills and technical knowledge of watershed coordinators in the state.

To better understand the skill areas, topics, subtopics, resource needs, and format of a comprehensive training, ISUEO facilitated a roundtable discussion in December 2014. The group included state and federal agency, agricultural, conservation, and environmental organization representatives. In early 2015, watershed coordinators provided feedback on the topics and subtopics generated at the roundtable and were asked to rank them in order of their needs and interests.

Through this needs assessment process and a successful grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and North Central SARE, the first academy was held in May 2016.  With continued funding from NRCS, NC SARE, and sponsorships and in-kind contributions from Soil and Water Conservation Society, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Conservation Learning Group and the Iowa Watershed Approach projects, two Watershed Academy sessions have been held each year.  A highlight of topics addressed through interactive and hands on training during the seven academies include cover crop management, conservation sales strategies, grant writing, preparing for media interviews, project management, water monitoring, wildlife habitat value of conservation and water quality practices, managing pasture for improved water quality

The spring 2019 Iowa Watershed Academy training event was held May 14-15, at the ISU Field Extension Education Lab farm near Boone. This event featured nitrogen management and nitrogen application decision tools, manure management and manure application distribution and calibration methods, reaching women and non-operator landowners, and successful methods and tools for field day and event outreach.

“It’s beneficial to have trainings like this so we can meet with other coordinators and exchange struggles and ideas.”

Pre and post self-assessments are used to evaluate change in knowledge and self-efficacy after each academy, selecting a level of knowledge from 1- minimal knowledge of the indicator and not confident of their skills related to the topic to 4-exemplary indicating a high level of knowledge and confidence applying the skills in the topic area.  On average, the coordinators have identified their pre-academy skills in the needs improvement category, and after the academy, their skills improve to the proficient category.

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“You got my mind thinking of other ways to really look at my watershed and maybe expand my focus area.”

Qualitative questions have also indicated that the watershed coordinators value the Iowa Watershed Academy, particularly with sessions that include hands-on in-field training.  Coordinators indicate that they would recommend that the training continue and the two event per year format held at locations that provide hands-on learning opportunities, time to dig in to important topics through dialogue with the speakers and other coordinators.

“Overall, an amazing training opportunity”

The Watershed Academy will continue each spring and fall and has already begun to address specialized skills and topics including the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework and Reach Middle Adopters with partners from Iowa and the North Central Region.  To stay up to date on future Iowa Watershed Academy events, contact Jamie Benning  to join the mailing list.

Jamie Benning

Conservation Stations Crisscross Iowa to Deliver Conservation Messages

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If you’ve been to an Iowa county fair or attended a field day covering water quality, conservation, cover crops, edge of field practices or a range of other topics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or even visited a Conservation Station operated by Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms. Last summer we hit the milestone of attending all 100 county fairs in Iowa – (yes 100, Pottawattamie County holds two.) They also make appearances at community events, farmer’s markets and other settings.

The Conservation Stations are traveling resource centers and classrooms, staffed by the ILF and Water Rocks! team members and interns, providing water quality and conservation outreach activities built on a foundation of science, research and best practices.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Wash our Soil Away

The idea for the first Conservation Station was germinated in the early years of ILF – which is celebrating 15 years in 2019. The precursor was a trailer equipped with a simple rainfall simulator for demonstrating soil erosion. It was a good start, but frankly, it was a limited demonstration and the team quickly realized that they needed a more sophisticated rainfall simulator. In addition, ILF saw the potential to expand its impact by providing a broad canvas for education through visual, interactive and multimedia displays.

“We were awarded funding to purchase and develop a larger trailer and knew how to make a better rainfall simulator,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks! and ILF program director. “We just didn’t know how to realize our vision of a traveling and flexible unit. Ann Staudt joined the team to help us, and with her fresh ideas and creativity the Conservation Station was born.”

The trailer, dubbed the Big Conservation Station, allowed space for an improved rainfall simulator as well as a walk-through learning lab. Inside the learning lab, visual and multimedia presentations are designed to engage audiences in conversations and to elicit questions about conservation practices. The learning lab was updated in 2018 to incorporate mixed-media artwork and enhanced messaging with the purpose of eliciting visitors’ hopes for Iowa.

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ILF faculty adviser Matt Helmers developed the new rainfall simulator which more accurately models both surface runoff and subsurface flow or drainage in tiled environments and uses soil blocks extracted from field environments to best parallel actual soil conditions in Iowa fields.

“The complexity of the new rainfall simulator was a challenge, but it also enabled us to tell a much more realistic story that farmers in Iowa could relate to,” noted Staudt.

img_2012.jpgA smaller trailer referred to as Conservation Station 3 was built specifically for outdoor classrooms and other youth activities. Along with a rainfall simulator, it is also equipped with the space to carry enough tables and chairs for students as well as a full complement of displays and activities resources.

Edge of Field Practice Demonstrations Expand Education Opportunities

InCSOTE-01 2018, the original rainfall simulator trailer (which we called the Lil’ CS) was redesigned to become the Conservation Station on the Edge, addressing best practices for nutrient runoff mitigation at the edge of tile-drained fields. Equipped with working saturated buffer and bioreactor models, this trailer takes the story of field runoff to a deeper level. The demonstration stations allow the audience to see what happens within structures –that when implemented in a field are completely underground and out of sight.

Each Conservation Station includes interactive demonstrations that appeal to all backgrounds, ages and walks of life. Games such as the Poo Toss tend to appeal to youngsters but provide tangible lessons about waste runoff that pertains to everyone –whether they live on a farm or in a city. The Watershed Game is another highly visual interactive game that helps make the concepts of a watershed and how pollution moves with water easy to grasp.

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“The Conservation Stations are filling a tremendous need by providing easy-to-understand information about water quality, conservation, agricultural best practices, and other topics of importance to all Iowans,” concluded Staudt. “We intend to continue to share this knowledge as frequently and in as many venues as we can.”

Find out where to see a Conservation Station near you!

The Conservation Stations are used April through October. Click here for the schedule of appearances or to request a visit. In most circumstances, a Conservation Station can join an event at no cost, due to the generous funding received from our partners.

Liz Juchems

February 20 Webinar: Farmed Prairie Potholes – Consequences & Management Options

ILFHeader(15-year)On Wednesday, February 20th at noon Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar with Dr. Amy Kaleita, Professor of Agricultural & Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University about the consequences of farming prairie potholes and management options for these common Iowa landscape features.

feb webinar potholeskyIn Iowa, many of the features known as prairie potholes are actively farmed. Because of their position in the landscape and their topographic and soils characteristics, prairie potholes flood frequently after rain events, even with artificial drainage. Kaleita will explain this flooding behavior, and the effects it has on crops and watersheds. She will also discuss options for managing these features to decrease the frequency of negative impacts.

“Some research has shown that farmed prairie potholes lose money more often than they make a profit. Because they also have significant environmental impacts, conservation-minded management of these features may provide benefits at a lower cost than changes in more productive parts of the field,” said Kaleita, whose research on precision conservation focuses on how to use publicly available or low-cost data to improve conservation decision-making within production agriculture.

Don’t miss this webinar!
DATE: Wednesday, February 20, 2019
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website:
https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Hilary Pierce

We All Live in a Watershed

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.

The work that the Water Rocks! crew performs is truly amazing. Traveling to schools and teaching young students about ways to protect our natural resources is such a great thing.  Every single one of our modules is on a different topic of conservation. Over the next several months, I’ll be sharing some insight into the different modules that we teach to our target audience of upper elementary and middle school students, to give you a behind the scenes look into how our classroom outreach programs roll!

Our best module is our watershed presentation. We start off with introductions and a trivia/evaluation question, then we get right into it by explaining the definition of natural resources. After we have explained the definition, we ask the students to give some examples of different natural resources. When that is complete, we introduce our major word of the day which is watershed.

We usually ask the students if any of them know what a watershed is. We then show them the definition and break it down in a couple different ways. First we have them cup their hand in front of them and we explain that the crease in the palm of their hand is a river, and their hand around it represents the land making up the watershed. We then have them “make it rain” on their hand/watershed and we ask them where all the water sheds off to. Another way to explain watersheds is with the concept of a cereal bowl and how the milk always flows to the bottom.

Next we show the students that watersheds come in many different sizes. After that we show them a map of the US which contains the 4th largest watershed in the world by the name of the Mississippi River Watershed. This map helps the students see how all our waterways are connected and that everything we do on the land eventually affects our water. This concept is the main thing we are trying to get the students to understand.

At this point we allow for the students to be creative with our game called We All Live In A Watershed! We give students a piece of riverfront property and an imaginary $5 million to build whatever they would like on their piece of land. When the students have completed their drawings, we go through a tour of the watershed and see what everyone had drawn. We continue on to then show them what the river water might have looked like in Iowa approximately 200 years earlier, and that our landscape was much different, primarily covered with tallgrass prairie.

Fast forward back to today. We then discuss with students pollutants that could get carried into the water, such as trash, soil, chemicals, oil, and dog poop. We then start the second part of the game which involves the students picking the most prominent pollutant coming off of their piece of land. They then come up to the front and we give them a cup of water with our biodegradable example of the pollutant. After everyone has acquired their cup of water, we have the students one by one pour their cups into the jar representing the river, demonstrating that all of the water drains to one common point in a watershed, and to show how all the pollution has really affected our water. We then talk with the students about some of the different things they could do to help the current water situation – we’re all in this together and it’s really encouraging to hear their ideas of ways to keep the land and water around them healthy!

We close with the same trivia/evaluation question that we asked in the beginning in order to gauge students’ change in comprehension after just a short 45-minute presentation. From our Water Rocks! 2017-18 School Visits Evaluation Report, 36% of students could correctly define a watershed prior to our classroom presentation. After our Water Rocks! lesson, 95% of students could correctly define a watershed.

Joshua Harms

Water Rocks! Conservation Education Programs Reach 36,000 Iowan Students

The annual report from Water Rocks! highlights increases in comprehension scores and curriculum adoption of watershed concepts across the state

Water Rocks! recently published its 2017-18 Annual Evaluation Report, detailing the impacts Water Rocks! visits had on students, teachers, and conservation education during the 2017-18 academic year. Reaching a cross section of Iowa’s youth, Water Rocks! delivered classroom presentations, outdoor classroom programs, and school assemblies to audiences comprised of more than 36,000 students. Feedback and evaluation metrics gathered during the year show significant increases in student comprehension as well as more adoption of conservation topics in classroom discussion both before and after program visits.

Water Rocks! delivers lessons about watersheds, wetlands, soil, pollinators and biodiversity to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Within each 45- to 50-minute program, Water Rocks! strives to achieve its educational goals through a combination of hands-on games, interactive activities, music, plays, discussion and energetic presenters.

“Together with Iowa’s classroom teachers, Water Rocks! is helping students increase environmental literacy on timely natural resources issues, with high-energy programs that make a lasting impact,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “In compiling the annual report, we were also delighted to note that more teachers reported introducing students to watersheds and water quality topics before our visits and indicated desire to promote follow-up discussion and activities with their students.”


Key findings in the report include:

  • Presented in 180 schools and 12 outdoor classrooms, reaching over 36,000 students
  • Watershed identification comprehension increased from 36 percent before, to 95 percent after, the lesson
  • Some 88 percent of teachers planned to hold follow-up discussions with students covering the Water Rocks! materials and information

The report also includes the results of new evaluations conducted with peer helpers, students selected by school principals to assist in Water Rocks! assembly productions. These students were asked a more detailed set of before and after questions. The results reinforced the general trends in comprehension noted in the large groups, but also provide new insights which may help enrich future programming.

“Through Water Rocks! lessons, it is evident that the peer helpers are learning much more than just vocabulary, they are learning about the interconnectedness of natural resources and possible solutions to the environmental challenges in the world around them,” noted Staudt.

To learn read the report or to view comments from students and teachers, please visit https://www.waterrocks.org/201718-water-rocks-evaluation-report.

Water Rocks! Amps Up Conservation Conversation with Rap Music Videos

New videos pop to the top of the Water Rocks! charts enabling audiences to learn about conservation while having fun!

Water Rocks! has released a series of new rap music videos created to engage audiences with music and messages about conservation topics ranging from soil health (“Royal Soil”) to understanding watersheds (“Watershed Rap”). The videos are available to view and enjoy on www.waterrocks.org.

Through classroom visits and school assembly programs, Water Rocks! uses a combination of science, music, games, audience interaction, and videos to deliver information, engage with students, and teach the upcoming generation about the importance of our natural resources and ways to improve the environment. Topics include biodiversity, land management, water quality, the importance of pollinators, and things every person can do to contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable ecosystem.

“Music is a powerful teaching tool that helps us learn faster and remember more. Through song, students learn key vocabulary and get a solid grasp of environmental issues,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “Our creative team had fun writing and producing these quirky videos which are designed to appeal to an upper elementary and middle school audience, but we know everyone will enjoy them. We wanted them to be fun and we wanted the science to be solid.”

The rap video series includes “Royal Soil,” “Wetlands,” “Watershed Rap,” “Monarch Milkweed Magic,” “Biodiversity Rap,” and “When We Waste Food.” These six new clips join some eighty-plus Water Rocks! video selections available on www.waterrocks.org. Video content from Water Rocks! ranges from short animation clips to full-length documentaries, offering science-based education for audiences ranging from kindergarten students to adults.

Iowa City videographer Andrew Bentler directed and edited the rap series. Bentler has worked on national television programs such as Z Nation and Mountain Men. The songs featured in the videos are also performed live during Water Rocks! assemblies at schools across Iowa.

To inquire about bringing Water Rocks! and its music-driven conservation education to your school, please visit www.waterrocks.org/wr-school-assemblies