Weather Permitting: Outdoor Classrooms Return

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Spring has sprung in Iowa, finally. The state is warming up, and (weather permitting) will continue to do so. The transition from January 107th to spring has certainly been abrupt, but it’s finally time to enjoy the outdoors. I got my first chance to go out and deliver our Water Rocks! program outside with an outdoor classroom just recently, and the experience was a blast! But, what makes an outdoor classroom different than our normal indoor classroom visits?

For starters, the visit is outdoors (hence the name). The differences between being indoors and outdoors offer some unique pros and cons. One of the best pros is just being able to be outside and enjoy the weather, especially now that it’s cooperating. However, this can also be a big con if the wind tries to blow our supplies away! The pros of being outside, including having students in a location directly related to the environmental topics discussed in our lessons, greatly outweighs the cons.

Another key difference is how we present. Typically, an outdoor classroom will be in a rotating format with other activities for students to visit throughout the day. This all usually takes place at a local nature center or county park. The students tend to be with us for less time, but that allows us to rotate through and see more youth in a shorter amount of time than usual, and we are always able to compensate on time.

The last main difference is what we bring. We typically bring one of our Conservation Station trailers with us to outdoor classrooms. The trailers have chairs for us to set up for students to sit in, tables to set up our supplies, and other miscellaneous supplies we may need, depending on what lesson we teach that day.

All in all, outdoor classroom events are a great way for our team to get some new scenery for class visits, and is a great way for students to connect with nature in person while learning about the land in their home county, and it’s always a blast to be a part of it.

Jack Schilling

Deepening the Conversation around Conservation

Here at Water Rocks! we are always looking for new ways to reach the youth in Iowa, striving to deepen the conversation around conservation in new and exciting ways. Summer camp is an experience that provides youth a chance to connect to nature in a new way. When I was a camper and later a camp counselor, I saw first hand how camp changes interactions and respect for nature in a positive way. Water Rocks! day camps provide our team an opportunity to partner with extension youth coordinators, naturalists, and other environmental educators to offer the camp experience with a Water Rocks! twist!

We kicked things off with our first Water Rocks! day camp in March at the beautiful McFarland Park Nature Center. Students from Ames and the surrounding area arrived bright and early on March 8th and kicked off the day getting to know each other and getting acquainted with the concept of a watershed. We had students as young as 8 and as old as 12 join us. From the classroom we moved into nature to experience a watershed in real life. This is just one advantage to a full day camp: a way to turn the 2D into 3D.

Students designing their watershed!

Students did a great job transferring what they had learned to the landscape. They were able to determine where the water would flow at different points on the landscape. We were lucky to be surrounded by a small stream and a pond which gave them a visual of the bodies of water that the runoff could drain or shed to.

Jack and students walking the ridgeline between two small watersheds.

The highlight of the day was seeing the students work together on their service project. The Ames Smart Watersheds program donated a rain barrel for us to paint. It was on display at the Ames Eco-Fair on April 21st. Being able to participate in a real life solution to some of our watershed management concerns, such as flooding, helped to make our conversation about conservation relevant to their impact on the land.

At the end of the day the students had the opportunity to see if they could clean the water after it had been polluted. They got to choose what they polluted the water with and then were challenged with how to clean it up. Students noted how difficult it was to clean the water totally. Many filtered the water through several types of filters. We even set up a sand filter to mimic how nature filters our water as it moves through the soil profiles. The students recognized the importance of keeping our water clean to begin with, given how difficult the cleanup job was after the water had gotten dirty.

Students attempt to filter out the pollutants using coffee filters, panty hose, sand and other tools.

In all, students had a blast getting dirty and learning, too! Here at Water Rocks! we are looking forward to our next day camps coming up this summer, where we will get to partner with awesome county naturalists and educators with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach!

Megan Koppenhafer

Welcome back, Megan!

Hello! My name is Megan Koppenhafer. You may recognize me as the teacher from the Water Rocks! music video “Please the Bees,” and I am excited to officially rejoin the Water Rocks! team as an AmeriCorps service member!

I am a recent graduate of Iowa State University with degrees in Environmental Science and Community and Regional Planning. I grew up on a farm outside Williamsburg, IA.  I developed my passion for sustainable agriculture and living through my years as a camp counselor in Iowa City. At this camp, I learned how to teach kids about being in nature and truly valuing all that the earth has to offer us.

From these experiences, I knew that education was the way I wanted to make a difference in conservation. Amid this realization, I made a comment to my mom about wanting to be a ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ for environmental science. She encouraged me to keep that in the back of my head but focus on some more practical jobs first.

When I saw the Water Rocks! summer internship opportunity come to my inbox during my sophomore year of college, I quickly applied and watched as many of the Water Rocks! music videos as I could. I excitedly showed my mom and told her I had found my chance! After my first summer, I loved it so much I came back a second time ……and now for a third time as an AmeriCorps service member!

This time around you’ll see a lot more of me in assemblies and classroom visits. I will also be working on a project with some of our extension and county conservation partners to bring Water Rocks! day camps to different counties across the state.

I look forward to seeing some of you at assemblies or classroom visits or possibly camps and can’t wait to groove with everyone!

Megan Koppenhafer

Water Rocks!: The Man

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Another month has passed by, and with it another month of exciting adventures for me with Water Rocks! Assemblies, classroom visits, and lots of fun all along the way. But on top of these, there is one other thing that I have been working on throughout the past month: our new-old video series, Water Rocks! Man.

New-old. What do I mean by that? Water Rocks! Man originally aired on the Water Rocks! Facebook page in the spring and summer of 2016. Some were short music videos, and others were quick messages about conservation, with our superhero, Water Rocks! Man, featured in each video. Then, like all great superheroes, he retired from a life of heroism, and the series was retired with him.

Fast forward to the present day. Water Rocks! Man (Todd Stevens) has finally come back from retirement, and is ready to teach students about conservation once more. But now, Doctor Pollution (Nate Stevenson) has risen to try and spread pollution wherever he goes, and Water Rocks! Man, along with Agent Ag (Megan Koppenhafer), must stop him while educating about conservation practices.

Throughout the process of filming Water Rocks! Man, although the weather has occasionally not been kind to us (superhero and agent clothing is not warm!), everyone has enjoyed themselves and I’m excited to share the first few episodes soon. The project has certainly kept me busy, as I write, direct, film, and edit every episode. I really enjoy working on videos, especially editing, so it’s been a blast!

Keep an eye out for new Water Rocks! Man episodes throughout the next few months. I, along with the rest of the cast, hope you enjoy them!

Jack Schilling

 

Youth Outreach: Updates from Jack

Hi, again! If you read our blog last month, you may remember me as Jack Schilling, the new AmeriCorps service member serving with Water Rocks!. A lot has happened in this last month and a half, and I wanted to share what I have been up to throughout!

To start, I have done a lot of Water Rocks! school assemblies. At assemblies, we teach in front of a large group of students (usually hundreds of them) ranging from kindergarten all the way up to 8th grade. So far at assemblies, I have taught students about watersheds and soil conservation with games and music to help. I also help with behind-the-scenes work such as organizing our posters before we present, setting up the sound system, and scouting for the nearest bathroom.

Thanks to these assemblies, I’ve been able to continue to sing and act outside of school, even getting to play Mr. Raindrop in the assemblies. Having to learn all the songs, lines, and timing was daunting at first, but now that I’ve adjusted, things are going great!

Secondly, I have helped with quite a few Water Rocks! classroom visits. These interactive presentations are given to one class at a time, so it’s a more intimate setting with class sizes ranging from the teens to over thirty. These visits can take anywhere from a few hours to the whole day, but that is mainly dependent on how far across the state we travel. Some days, it could be a school in Des Moines, and other days it could be all the way up to Decorah.

The classroom presentations don’t have singing in them, but I get to help the students participate in fun games like We all Live in a Watershed, where students get to develop a piece of land to put in our watershed. It’s always funny to see the amount of McDonalds that are drawn! I have also taught modules on biodiversity, conservation, soil, and wetlands.

All in all, this last month and a half has been busy, especially with assemblies, but has been fun and engaging as well. In November, the assemblies will become less frequent, but classroom visits will pick up, meaning more time with a smaller, tight knit group of students. I look forward to the coming months ahead and am excited for more opportunities to teach about water and soil conservation.

Jack Schilling

Schilling is a part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Newton Students, Teacher & Iowa DNR Clean Up Name of Local Creek

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens can change the world,” anthropologist Margaret Mead once said. Students and teachers at Newton High School, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff, proved exactly that this summer by raising awareness of the South Skunk River watershed by successfully changing the name of Sewer Creek to Cardinal Creek.

Science teacher Courtney Wolken has worked at Newton High School (NHS) for 11 years. In the summer of 2016, Wolken met with Iowa DNR Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Steve Hopkins, and Jasper County DNR’s Keri VanZante, to brainstorm projects for her Advanced Placement (AP) Biology students that would benefit the Newton community. Hopkins and VanZante proposed the idea of changing the creek’s name from “Sewer” to “Cardinal,” in honor of the NHS mascot. Wolken was immediately receptive of the idea for her students. Wolken wrote the project into her AP Biology curriculum for the year, planning to have students begin water testing and watershed assessment during the project, in addition to facilitating the name change.

The creek lies just west of the school and connects to the South Skunk River. It is one of many creeks in Iowa with the descriptor “sewer” because of their historical use as sewage dumping areas. The practice of waste dumping has since been changed, but many creeks still bear the stinky names of their previous purposes.

Cardinal Creek photo2

Cardinal Creek,
Photo by Courtney Wolken

As part of the creek project, students began organizing trash clean up days. Wolken says:

It was rewarding to see the students take ownership of the project. The students took a day and cleaned up garbage at three site locations. They were always happy to take observations at the sites, and pictures to use for the habitat assessment.

Wolken’s class applied for official approval from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to change the creek’s name in April 2017, and the USGS responded by asking for evidence of local support for the name change. Hopkins says:

When I learned of this from Ms. Wolken, I offered to contact several local agencies to solicit support letters for the effort.  Four local community agencies: the Jasper County Conservation Board, the Jasper Soil and Water Conservation District, the Newton School Board, and the Newton City Council, all responded with enthusiastic support letters. 

Wolken’s students also began talking with community members about the creek, and petitioning both the Newton Community School Board and the Newton City Council for approval of the project. Wolken states that her classes continually received positive feedback:

During the process, I have spoken with many community members who shared their stories about the creek that runs behind the school. Many spent time [there] enjoying nature. They had no idea why it was called “Sewer Creek.”

With support from the school board, the Newton community, and the DNR, Wolken’s class presented several letters of support to the USGS. On July 19 they received notice that the name change had been officially approved.

Wolken and Hopkins are both thrilled by the success of the students, and what it means for the future of the creek and the South Skunk River watershed. Hopkins says:

Making NHS students and local residents more aware of their local creek also fits with the statewide water quality education campaign that the Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement Program is embarking upon. …[M]any Iowans are not only unaware of the water quality of their local lakes and streams, many are even unaware of the name of their local creek…These efforts greatly enhanced awareness of a local creek whose new name bears enormous pride in the Newton community. 

While waiting for official word from the USGS, both AP Biology and AP Chemistry students started actively monitoring the creek to help assess the water quality long-term. “We would like a few more months of chemical assessment before analysis of the numbers [is shared],” says Wolken. In addition to water quality improvement goals, Wolken sees additional possibilities that could follow from this experience:

I would like this project to continue being a collaboration between the two AP science courses. I have an interest in more restorative projects, such as erosion control, native plantings, and [improvements with] urban water runoff from the school. The students would like to involve community members with some of these projects.

Because signage for creeks is not something the Iowa Department of Transportation normally provides, the DNR stepped forward to fund the DOT to create and install a Cardinal Creek sign. Wolken was present at the time the sign was installed to capture that wonderful moment on camera.

DOT installs signage,
Photos by Courtney Wolken & Sara Hopkins

Water Rocks! is thrilled about this example of positive change in support of local water quality improvement, and we are grateful to Courtney Wolken and Steve Hopkins for sharing their stories with us. We congratulate the students and teachers of NHS for showing that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens absolutely can—and will—change our world!

Newton High School AP Biology students & teacher, Courtney Wolken,
Photos by Steve Hopkins

Brandy Case Haub

Nurturing the Seeds of Conservation

In 2009, the Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners challenged us to teach Iowa’s youth about soil and water. The Conservation Station and Water Rocks! program were our answers. Since that time, we have been to every county in Iowa at least twice, reaching over 100,000 people, inspiring the next generation to be thinking about and talking about conservation issues.

Starting this year, we are reaching out to the next generation in a new way, by getting college students out to our field days and talking to college students who want to farm about water quality and conservation issues.

On August 30th, we held a field day at the Gilmore City Research and Demonstration Site. If you want to learn about conservation and water quality practices that work, this research site is the place to be. A few days before the field day, we sent an email out to all the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering undergraduates to invite them to attend. Nine students enthusiastically took us up on the offer and joined us for this excellent event (read more about it in Ann’s blog Cover Cropping on the Lobe).

During the actual field day presentations, the college students quietly listened and didn’t say much. However, the faculty and staff who accompanied them said that when they got back into the van, they were filled with so many questions and were nonstop talk about what they were seeing and learning.

It is very likely that each of these students will either farm someday or work in the agricultural industry. We are doing our part to whet their curiosity about conservation practices such as cover crops and wetlands. We are also fertilizing the seeds that will grow into a lifelong conservation ethic. We plan to offer more of these field days with college students – in partnership with both ISU and our many other outstanding colleges/community colleges around the state —  in the months and years to come.

In addition, with the help of a new grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, we are developing and launching an “Emerging Farmers” program. This program takes a proactive approach to address the need for new programming that reaches out to limited resource farmers, emerging farmers and future landowners. We define emerging farmer as someone with ties to agricultural land, not currently farming but would like to return to the farm or have a voice in its management.

In collaboration with ILF farmer partners, Iowa Beef Center, Beginning Farmer Center and Practical Farmers of Iowa, we will produce a series of emerging farmers conservation publications. Partners will collaborate to create a sustainable business plan template for the emerging farmers. We will host workshops across the state, as well as a two-day intensive emerging farmer workshop. In the years to come, we will present emerging farmer seminars to ISU agricultural student groups, as well as to community colleges and colleges across Iowa to reach those individuals with ties to agricultural land, infusing the traditional agricultural curriculum with a strong conservation focus.

The SWCD commissioners challenged us in 2009 and we continue to listen to that challenge as the Iowa Learning Farms adapts to meet the needs in Iowa for conservation education. We cannot succeed if we are not engaging and inspiring our young people. Send me an email if you would like to get involved in these efforts.

Jacqueline Comito