To teach land conservation to a generation of tech-savvy elementary students, Iowa Learning Farms (ILF) opted for old-school tools — felt boards, sing-alongs, card games and dog mascots.
Of course, the organization also built a colorful website around the new youth programs, where children can watch videos and stream the original songs.
It’s a multimedia appro-ach ILF team member Ann Staudt said has been well-received by students and educators.
Staudt, ILF’s Conservation Station coordinator and water-quality specialist, said the group began in 2005 and partners with farmers, state ag groups and water districts to demonstrate sustainable land management to farmers.
ILF staff attends water district conferences. Several years ago, the commissioners brought up a gap in their land-advocacy programs.
“We were working exclusively with farmers, working on no-till, reduced tillage, cover crops,” Staudt said.
“The commissioners said, ‘We’re concerned about who’s educating the next generation.’ ”
With help from this and other partner organizations, ILF expanded its outreach to K-12 students and colleges.
“We saw a definite need,” Staudt said. “With our school systems today, we’re seeing budgets for field trips being cut.”
So, ILF staff built a mobile “Conservation Station” trailer to bring fields to the schools. The station features a rainfall simulator that mimics ag practices like intentionally tilled fields, no-till or buffer strips.
“It almost teaches itself because you see where the water’s moving,” Staudt said.
“And, you can see the water quality with living plant material.”
To add to the appeal, the ILF pursued what it at first thought was a crazy idea. In 2010, Staudt said staff pitched the idea of canine mascots, calling them the Conservation Pack.
“It started as a joke among the staff — we’ve got some dog lovers,” she said.
“So, it started as this crazy, out-there idea, but then it started to make sense. The idea was what if we used dogs as the mascots, the spokespeople for conservation?”
She said the program has been popular.
After the actual presentations, kids can check out a website to keep up with Stewy the Boston Terrier and submit pictures of their own pets to the pack.
They also can listen to original songs online, such as: “We All Live in a Watershed” or “What Does a River Want to Do?”
The newest program began this past March in Warren County, where ILF staff worked with an ag department grant and farmer partners Harold and Kay Whipple of Lacona.
Harold is the county water district commissioner. The Whipples have been visiting schools for several years and hosting other farmers to showcase their 20 acres of restored prairie.
For this project, the couple teamed with ILF staff to talk to fourth-graders about prairies, wetlands and croplands and how the placement of buffer strips and other management practices affect Iowa’s ecology.
“We explained what each (ecosystem) was and how the three work together to make a better, cleaner environment,” Harold said.
They brought in prairie grasses for the students to touch and used a felt-board map — something many of the kids hadn’t seen before — where they learned to stick streams, buffers and crops in the best places to protect soil.
“They’re very receptive,” Kay said. “They enjoy having people come into their classroom.”
“It makes you feel good when you go in a classroom and constantly there’s 25 hands in the air,” Harold added. “At fourth grade, those kids are like sponges.”
After the presentations, students broke into groups to play an original card game, “Creature Cache.”
The cards featured different plants, animals and organisms. Students had to collect and match each with its proper home in wetlands, croplands or prairie.
Harold said the program will be presented at the conservation districts of Iowa annual meeting for other counties interested in adopting it.
Staudt said these classroom visits and all of ILF’s youth programs to promote conservation have become more important as kids move away from farms.
Even those in rural schools are often one generation removed from farming, she added.
“We think it’s important to reach all — future landowners, farmers, scientists, legislators and decision makers,” Staudt said. “They’re all going to have a role to play. They’ll all have a stake.”