After a year with no county fairs and other venues for public conservation and water quality outreach, the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms teams from Iowa State University were chomping at the bit to get out and meet people across Iowa this past summer. And, they had the newest addition to the Conservation Station fleet of educational trailers to draw in the crowds.
Conservation Station Marsh Madness, dedicated in May 2021 with a focus on Iowa’s wetlands and their relationship to agriculture, water quality and biodiversity, was a star attraction at many stops.
Marsh Madness features original artwork depicting Iowa landscapes, ambient marsh sounds, a range of three-dimensional exhibits of Iowa wildlife and plant life, and three wetland models that demonstrate how water moves across and through common Iowa landscapes.
“We are very excited that not only were we able to get back to working with the public this past summer, but we had a new platform that drew attention at every appearance,” says Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms director. “Marsh Madness made 28 stops this summer, and we logged more than 3,000 visitors. The trailer seems to have something for everyone, with younger visitors drawn to the animals and models, while the adults were intrigued with the water quality story and the different wetland landscape models.”
Wetland models at work
Kay Stefanik, assistant director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center housed at ISU, helped design and create the wetland models for the trailer. The three-dimensional models of wetland ecosystems incorporate modeled vegetation that includes row crops; prairie plants; submerged aquatic vegetation and emergent vegetation at the edge of water bodies; and scaled landscapes, to demonstrate how water flows across and through the models — just as it does in the real world.
DEMONSTRATION AREA: Calaysa Mora (left) and Nicole Haverback helped demonstrate the Treatment Wetland model in the Conservation Station dedicated to wetland education.
The Prairie Pothole (a common wetland in Iowa) model includes simulated rainfall that hits the ground and flows through the vegetation to get to the wetland. The Oxbow model simulates a multipurpose oxbow that is filled by flooding from a river, as well as receiving tile water. The third model is a Treatment wetland, a constructed wetland that is typically found between farm fields and waterways, designed specifically for improving water quality.
“The models really draw the attention of visitors and work as conversation starters when we are out at events,” says Stefanik. “One farmer spoke with me about his farm and how he had converted part of an existing pond to a wetland to help filter nutrients; but after seeing our models, he was giving serious consideration to expanding his wetland areas.”
Visitors are encouraged to observe the different models and ask questions of the staff to learn the basics of different wetland functions and practices, or to how wetlands may apply to a particular farm or landscape.
Inside the Marsh Madness trailer, visitors can experience full sensory immersion into Iowa’s wetland ecosystems. The combination of audio and video elements and original artwork transports visitors into the heart of a wetland, while life-sized, touch-friendly plant and animal models encourage visitors to further explore the incredible diversity found in Iowa’s wetlands.
“One particularly rewarding part of being out with the public is the connections young people make between a Water Rocks presentation at their school — in-person or virtually — and the conservation stations at a county fair or farmers market,” Comito comments. “It is nice to see this reinforcement of our messaging, and often, to see young people bring their parents and grandparents to the trailer and explain what they learned from Water Rocks in school.”
Having an impact
Water Rocks director Ann Staudt echoed that sentiment, relating the story of a fourth grader from Northstar Elementary in Knoxville, Iowa, who was very enthusiastic about the models and trailer. “After this young man listened to our team members talk about the different landscapes and models a few times at the Marion County Fair, he actually started helping to teach others about the different creatures found inside the trailer. By the end of the day he says, ‘I just need a Water Rocks T-shirt so I can be like the rest of you!’ It is very rewarding to see such an impact on even one child, and it reinforces our commitment to the mission of educating Iowa’s youth about their environment.”
Several appearances drew more than 250 visitors in the space of a few hours each, and the Clear Lake Farmers Market topped 350.
Andrea Evelsizer, co-chair of the Clear Lake Farmers Market, notes that they always try to incorporate youth activities during the market to help encourage younger people to attend, and learn about the market and local agriculture. “Helping our youth learn about the environment is one of our goals, and the Conservation Station is a great way to engage visitors to the market in learning,” Evelsizer says. “Our team reported that the Conservation Station and its staff provided a great experience with engaging and hands-on activities, and the big trailer attracted a lot of attention. We are already making plans to bring the Conservation Station back next year.”
“Feedback from event organizers has been very positive, and enthusiasm and interest from the visitors has been a great reinforcer that we are providing useful and necessary content and information,” Comito continues. “Everywhere we’ve gone, the trailer was appreciated and well-received.”
Elizabeth Sturgill, secretary for the Monona County Fair, comments that they have had the Conservation Station trailers for several years and will continue to have them back. “People really enjoy visiting the trailers and they provide a great way to visualize and learn about important topics,” Sturgill says. “When I had opportunities to walk by the wetlands trailer, I saw numerous visitors that were amazed by what they were seeing and doing.”
With fair season behind them, the outreach teams continue to make school visits and will be featuring the Marsh Madness trailer at field days and other educational events that target farmers and landowners.
“This summer was a great restart to our public appearances, and we are looking forward to utilizing our Conservation Station trailers to continue bringing science- and research-based information about water quality, natural resources, biodiversity and conservation to Iowans of every age and background,” Comito concludes.
To learn about outreach events and Conservation Station appearances in your area, visit waterrocks.org/calendar.
Stevenson is a visual outreach specialist and conservation educator with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks. Water Rocks is Iowa’s unique, award-winning statewide youth water education program.