Project-Based Learning for future water leaders

Student project from the Bluestem Institute (left). Image of the Southfork Watershed Alliance sign (right).

Story submitted by Melissa Miller, Associate Director for the Iowa Water Center

In fall of 2015, I met with a group of 60 high school students at the headwaters of the South Fork of the Iowa River, right off the shoulder of Hwy 69 in North Central Iowa. It was a beautiful (but cold) fall morning, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that a class from Ames High School (AHS) was out to define a list of water quality terms, and they were doing so through experiences, including this on-site interview with my local farmer-led grassroots watershed group.

What I found out about this group of students was worth my shivering out in the cold while corn-loaded semis blasted by the school buses at 60 mph. These students and three teachers were part of the Bluestem Institute, an integrated capstone seminar based on project-based learning and extended inquiry frameworks. As I built a relationship over the next several months with teachers Mike Todd, Joe Brekke, and Chad Zmolek, we discovered more ways for the class and the Iowa Water Center to interact, culminating in a gallery showing of the students’ final projects at the 10th annual Iowa Water Conference.

I wasn’t the only one transfixed with the students’ high level of engagement and understanding of complex water issues. Pat Sauer, with the Iowa Stormwater Education Partnership, came to me in early summer of 2016 with a vision of packaging the Bluestem Institute and making it accessible for all schools in Iowa to implement.

Serendipitously, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture had recently received a bequest from the estate of Iowan Robert Margroff designated for youth education about the environment. With the help of the AHS teachers that created the Bluestem Institute, we submitted and were subsequently awarded three years of funding to develop the framework and pilot it in two Iowa schools.

Now nearly a year into the project, dubbed “The Watershed Project,” we have discovered that we are always learning. Davenport North High School faculty Laura McCreery and City of Davenport Public Works employee Robbin Dunn are nine weeks into implementing the project in McCreery’s classroom. Over the life of the project, we will blog about the process of designing the framework and the experiences of our implementation schools.

The immediate outcome of this project will be an educational framework for teachers to implement project-based learning in Iowa high schools that address intersections of science, government, sociology, economics, and art as they relate to decision-making regarding water and land use at local levels. We hope to inspire more than that – we hope this program inspires students and communities to take greater interest in environmental sustainability issues. We hope the students in these programs consider entering STEM fields post-graduation, armed with interdisciplinary knowledge so they can inspire new solutions. We hope to develop emerging generations of citizens and civic leaders that value and implement environmentally sustainable policies and strategies. Ultimately, we dream of engaged, resilient communities that proactively and collaboratively address soil and water conservation issues.

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Melissa Miller is the associate director of the Iowa Water Center. She earned a BS in Kinesiology from Iowa State University with an emphasis in Community and Public Health. She is currently pursuing a MS degree in Community Development with an emphasis in Natural Resource Management, also from Iowa State University.
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Summer Update from the IWC Graduate Student Research Grant Program: Emily Martin

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Post submitted by Emily Martin, MS Environmental Science student at Iowa State University

Intensive farming and heavy nutrient application in the Midwest coupled with an extensive subsurface tile drainage network frequently leads to excessive nutrients in surface waters. As a result, heavy amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus has become a critical issue for policy and water research.

In spring 2017, I was awarded funding in the Iowa Water Center Graduate Student Supplemental Research Competition for my project titled, “Enhancing phosphate removal in woodchip bioreactors.” This project is conducted under advisement of Dr. Michelle Soupir at Iowa State University. A bioreactor is a subsurface trench along the edge of the field that can be filled with a range of different carbon sources. They are identified as a practice to help mitigate nutrient loss to flowing water systems, and so they deserve further research to understand their full capacity to capture water nutrients.

The goal of the project is to evaluate the ability of woodchip bioreactors to remove phosphorous by adding biochar as a phosphate (P) amendment to bioreactors. Objectives of the study are (1) to assess the effectiveness of different amendments on P removal in bioreactors and (2) to analyze the effect of influent P on overall removal.

We broke the project down into two main parts: a P sorption study and a column study. We completed part one during the month of June using 18 different types of biochar. The biochar was made by Bernardo Del Campo at ARTichar using three different temperatures of slow pyrolysis, 400°C, 600°C, and 800°C. We used six different types of biomass provided by the BioCentury Research Farm and the City of Ames, which are: switchgrass, corn stover, ash trees, red oak, mixed pine, and loblolly pine. The goal was to test a variety of biomass to see which would perform best as a P amendment and under which pyrolysis conditions they would function best.

Biochar is made using a process called pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is the burning of plant materials in a low to no oxygen chamber in order to “activate” the carbon structures that exists naturally within plants. The highly structured form of carbon rings in plants is desired for its stability and potential to adsorb or bind with chemicals, including phosphate and nitrate. There are two main types of pyrolysis: fast and slow, which refers to the amount of time the biomass remains in the pyrolysis chamber. Fast pyrolysis can be used to create biochar, but the yield is lower than slow pyrolysis. The temperature of pyrolysis can impact how the biochar interacts with different chemicals. In order to test these effects, we used three different temperatures when making our biochar.

Results from the P sorption study showed a few patterns. The main take away is that none of the biochars we tested adsorbed P exceptionally well; however, of the biochars we tested, the following were our top five P adsorbers:

  1. Corn stover @ 800°C
  2. Loblolly pine @ 600°C
  3. Red oak @ 600°C
  4. Switch grass @ 800°C
  5. Mixed pine @ 400°C

Because none of the biochars performed well in our P sorption test, we had to make a decision for the second part of the project. We came up with two options: (1) find new biomass and run the P sorption test again, or (2) test how well all 18 biochars remove nitrate from water. We chose option two and have begun nitrate batch tests, which will run throughout July. The batch tests are being run in one liter flasks and are tested at 4, 8, 12, and 24 hours to simulate woodchip bioreactor residence times found in the field.

After the nitrate batch test is complete, we will analyze results and decide if we will move forward with option one and see how other biomasses perform in a P sorption test.

Check back later on to learn more about the progress of this project!

 

2018 Iowa Water Conference – Call for Abstracts!

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Success in water-related work, whether it is out in the farm field, a backyard, or in city infrastructure, cannot be achieved alone. It is done by a community and for a community. With that in mind, the Iowa Water Conference Planning Committee is happy to announce the theme for the 2018 Iowa Water Conference: “Our Watershed, Our Community.” This theme was inspired by the large, complex network of water-related professionals in Iowa that support local watershed work.

We invite water professionals, researchers, and graduate students to submit presentation abstracts centered around the theme of community in water. Through these presentations, applications should share success stories, challenges, and research that supports a foundation of community at the watershed-level.

The call for presentations, including instructions for submission, can be found here. Questions can be directed to Hanna Bates at hbates@iastate.edu. We look forward to learning about your watershed experience!

Watershed Management Authorities of Iowa

Cultivating a Community of Practice for Watershed Management

Submitted by Melissa Miller, Associate Director of the Iowa Water Center

The word is starting to get out on one of our latest Iowa Water Center initiatives: Watershed Management Authorities of Iowa (WMAs of Iowa). This is a statewide organization to unite the ever-growing numbers of Watershed Management Authorities in the state. The goal of this group is to create a network for WMAs to connect with each other, give WMAs a voice in the state, and serve as an information resource for all watershed management stakeholders. WMAs of Iowa helps cultivate a community of practice for watershed management in Iowa.

Let’s be honest here – we did not come up with this great idea. The need for this group came from the WMA stakeholders themselves, and they are the ones who will drive it. Multiple work sessions this winter with the WMA community resulted in a strategic framework that needed one thing: implementation. IWC proposed to act as a catalyst for implementation by offering administrative capacity – organizing meetings, managing a timeline, maintaining a listserv, coordinating all the work that has already gone into creating a presence for this group.

Right now, we’re in the process of inviting WMAs to join us, and we’re looking for board members from those existing and newly forming WMAs to drive the organization forward. We hope to have a board in place by this fall with a website, newsletter, and other outreach and resource activities to follow.

Why is IWC involved?

Great question.

I’ve confessed before to being the president of the WMA fan club, and waxed poetic about the effectiveness of watershed-based planning. I’ve also been using the admittedly odd metaphor that IWC can act as caulk for water groups in the state – we seek to fill gaps and build capacity that connects groups to use resources effectively and efficiently.

By building up WMAs in the state, we’re promoting a research-backed method of natural resource management that will lead to better water resource management and implementation of creative and practical solutions to water resources related problems. That is the reason we exist, you know. (Need proof? Read the Water Resources Research Act as amended in 2006!)

A Race to the Lake (essay)

In honor of publishing the 2017 Spirit of the Water Essay Contest, the Iowa Water Center staff have decided to join in and answer the chosen essay prompt for the contest.

This year, the prompt was: Think of a body of water that you are familiar with and the different kinds of benefits that it provides to the surrounding area. Why are places like that worth protecting?

Photo left: An Iowa 3A Cross Country Race after the starting line, Hanna Bates in a Cross Country Race. Photos from 2007.

A Race to the Lake

Story submitted by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center

“This wouldn’t be so bad, I told myself. But secretly, I knew that I was quite wrong.” ― Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

This was my initial thought at the beginning of each cross county race in high school. Heck, even at the beginning of each practice run when I was dusted from the start by each of my teammates. Our running paths would take us through country golf courses, down empty gravel roads in the countryside, and through state parks that were isolated natural oases among the patchwork of cities and crop fields that make up Iowa. Regardless of where we were running, the path always ended with water, which would be my respite.

I was never very athletic growing up. Scratch that. I was not athletic at all. My athletic career prior to long distance running was a brief stint in volleyball in which I was the substitute for the bottom team (no joke). I sought out running, rather it sought me out, because I was looking for a sport that excluded flying balls and included getting a little lost out in nature. Being out in the woods also provided a break from the pressures of school work and other extracurricular activities.

As Bryson says in A Walk in the Woods:

”Most of the time I am sunk in thought, but at some point on each walk there comes a moment when I look up and notice, with a kind of first-time astonishment, the amazing complex delicacy of the woods, the casual ease with which elemental things come together to form a composition that is–whatever the season, wherever I put my besotted gaze–perfect.”

I was never in it for the race, but for the benefits of green exercise. I was never first, but never last. In my best race I came in 24th out of about 120 racers in the junior varsity heat. During this race my coach sounded kind of surprised and cheered, “wow, you’re actually racing!” along the sidelines of the trail. My intelligent response as I ran by was “what??” in disbelief. Up to that point, I thought he let me on the team just for fun.

As Bryson also notes, the hardest part is discovering that there is always more hill. And that’s where water enters my story. Prairie Rose State Park near Harlan, Iowa is one of my favorite places to run. Almost an island in the middle of farmland, it is a collection of trees, grassy paths, and a good-sized lake. In the muggy heat of August, I would run up steep hills and down winding paths leaving myself a little dazed and directionless. The lake would always be my guide. It was what would keep me going on the trail. I couldn’t go backwards. I couldn’t stop and sit on the trail and wait for the end of the path to come closer. I only had to think of the lake as punctuation mark at the end of a hard run. It served as an exclamation point to the end rather than a simple, banal period.

I would trudge on and it would appear and disappear from a distance. If I could make it to the sandy shore of the lake, I could do anything. As it appeared more frequently and came closer, I knew I was at the conclusion of the trail. When I would reappear from the trees and through the clearing, I would go straight towards the water. I couldn’t peel off my sweat soaked socks fast enough as I would stumble across the sandy beach to the swimming area of the lake. My shoes and socks would be abandoned on the shore without care – I just wanted the cool touch of lake water on my tired legs and feet. I would take in the lake’s embrace as it cooled the heat from a tough run in the woods.

I would often be close to last to emerge from the woods and into the water on group runs, but I was accepted as if I was the first. Places like this are worth protecting because they are welcome to you no matter who you are and why you came. It’s just more than glad that you did. The lake was more than just a finish line, but something worth the trouble when struggling through the challenging terrain. The lake serves so many benefits to the community by providing habitat and and being a popular camping spot, but to me, it served as a milestone for overcoming the large hurdles in long distance running.

In the years since my cross country days it has been emptied of its contents and dredged. I have run a little less and had to trade in dirt paths for tough concrete. I visited the lake once when it was undergoing repair. It looked like a crusty pockmark waiting to be a healthy habitat again. It has since been refilled and back to its old glory, which has been a reminder for me to come back to nature on my runs. I can’t wait to visit home, put on my running shoes, and race to the lake.

SWCD Internship Available (Greene County)

2017 Greene Soil and Water Conservation District Summer Internships

Duration: 10-12 weeks, 40 hours per week

Locations available: Jefferson, Iowa (Greene County)

Pay: $12.00 per hour

Qualifications: Open to any students currently enrolled in college or recent graduate majoring in a field of study related to agriculture, conservation, engineering, construction trades, GIS, communications, public relations, urban planning, or environmental sciences.

Duties: The Intern will assist the Greene Soil and Water Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service with duties including, but not limited to:

  • Working with local landowners and partners to develop interest in and commitment to implementation of conservation programs and activities
  • Water quality monitoring through the collection of water quality samples
  • Assist field office staff with the development of conservation plans and implementation of conservation practices
  • Working with Palmer Amaranth in CRP plantings.

Work environment: This position includes both office and field work. Successful candidates will work as part of a local team as well as independently, be able to traverse rough terrain on foot, spend time outdoors in the summer months, be able to work with the public including landowners and customers, use GPS/GIS tools, work in extreme temperature or inclement weather as required, work around large equipment, and complete work in a timely manner. A valid driver’s license is required.

Reporting: The Intern will report to the District Conservationist on a day-to-day basis. A background check of the student will be required.

The student Intern will also make a formal presentation at the end of their internship to report on their experience and work completed over the summer. The student is expected to coordinate the planning of this meeting and present findings to interested conservation partners.

Deadline to apply: Applications must be received (not postmarked) by 4:00 p.m. on Monday, May 8th, 2017

Application Process: Submit a Cover letter and Resume or attached application to: Greene Soil and Water Conservation District, 1703 N ELM ST, Jefferson, Iowa 50129

SWCD Internship Available (Boone County)

2017 Boone Soil and Water Conservation District Summer Internships

Duration: 10-12 weeks, 40 hours per week

Locations available: Boone, Iowa (Boone County)

Pay: $12.00 per hour

Qualifications: Open to any students currently enrolled in college or recent graduate majoring in a field of study related to agriculture, conservation, engineering, construction trades, GIS, communications, public relations, urban planning, or environmental sciences.

Duties: The Intern will assist the Boone Soil and Water Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service with duties including, but not limited to:

  • Working with local landowners and partners to develop interest in and commitment to implementation of conservation programs and activities
  • Water quality monitoring through the collection of water quality samples
  • Assist field office staff with the development of conservation plans and implementation of conservation practices
  • Working with Palmer Amaranth in CRP plantings.

Work environment: This position includes both office and field work.  Successful candidates will work as part of a local team as well as independently, be able to traverse rough terrain on foot, spend time outdoors in the summer months, be able to work with the public including landowners and customers, use GPS/GIS tools, work in extreme temperature or inclement weather as required, work around large equipment, and complete work in a timely manner.  A valid driver’s license is required.

Reporting:  The Intern will report to the District Conservationist on a day-to-day basis. A background check of the student will be required. The student Intern will also make a formal presentation at the end of their internship to report on their experience and work completed over the summer. The student is expected to coordinate the planning of this meeting and present findings to interested conservation partners.

 Deadline to apply

Applications must be received (not postmarked) by 4:00 p.m. on Monday, May 8th, 2017

Application Process

Submit a Cover letter and Resume or 2017 Boone SWCD Summer Intern Application to:

Boone Soil and Water Conservation District, 1602 Snedden Drive, Boone, Iowa 50036

For more information about a specific position, contact:

Boone, Iowa (Boone County) – Jayne Smith, Conservation Assistant, 515-432-2316 Ext. 3