Serving Iowa, the Conservation Learning Group continues to pursue its mission of providing relevant and useful information about natural resources, conservation, water quality and best practices through its Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs.
The mission hasn’t changed, but both programs have quickly adapted to social distancing, school closures and other radical changes the state has experienced in recent months. Conducting virtual field days for farmers and launching an online youth education video series with Water Rocks music and classroom content are some of the changes made to keep information and education in front of our communities.
While these new programs may seem to be a radical departure from the norm in outreach and education, in reality they represent minor adjustments to delivery that attest to the robust content and flexible thinking of the CLG teams going back over a decade. All CLG programs place a high value on both personal engagement and on-demand access. The quick hits launched this spring were made possible by the strong foundation these programs are built upon. The Conservation Learning Group is based at Iowa State University and is an outreach effort of ISU.
Library of resources
The new program delivery options were quickly organized in response to changes imposed by COVID-19-related restrictions, but in retrospect they are simply extensions of CLG’s highly successful online programming legacy. Extensions that may become permanent parts of the comprehensive menu of offerings.
While a fully virtual field day might be a new approach, ILF has an extensive library of online how-to videos, podcasts and webinars covering some of the same topics and concerns often discussed during field days. In some ways, the how-to videos featuring farmers sharing their experiences are a precursor to both the ILF field days and virtual field days. The biggest difference is the interaction with the audience enabled at live field or online events.
Offering anyone a chance to select, download and enjoy some 50 podcasts and more than 100 webinars and videos when and where they like — including from the tractor cab — is a free, but not new, service from ILF. And the virtual field days are available for download as well.
Since March, ILF has seen a significant uptick in live webinar attendance and views of archived webinars. Recent webinars have hosted some 100 attendees and seen as many downloads within a few weeks.
Looking to the next school year, Water Rocks is ready to get back into schools with classroom visits and assemblies when possible. It is also exploring the prospect of virtual classroom programming and is considering different hybrid models that might enable hands-on and on-your-feet activities while complying with social-distancing guidelines adopted by schools.
From its early days, Water Rocks has hosted an online repository for videos, music, teaching resources and games that is free for anyone to access and use for personal or classroom (traditional or virtual) education. The breadth of subject matter and appeal to different age groups facilitates adaptation to new uses and delivery methods.
Putting the pieces together to directly deliver lessons to online viewers this spring with Water Rocks’ Unplugged musical series and Out of the Box elementary-focused science lesson series certainly got a jump-start from this base. And credit must be given to the substantial experience gained from previous ILF and Water Rocks content development efforts that sped the processes along.
Online is the emphasis for now, and it will always be a part of CLG programs, but there is also a substantial need and audience for offline outreach.
Effectively delivering information
Offering materials and information in the virtual world and in the tactile world are not mutually exclusive. That is, presenting it visually online via the internet versus an in-person meeting or field day. Both can facilitate excellent usability and convenience.
Many people learn best when they can see and feel things in the real world. For example, watching a video of farmers talking about cover crops in their fields is not the same as standing out in the field looking at the soil together with other people, asking questions and building relationships. These experiences cannot and should never be entirely replaced by virtual events, but according to feedback, the virtual field days have been an effective substitute under current circumstances.
Materials such as the recently published Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual lend themselves to both paper and online formats. This guide provides a rich foundation of practices and options farmers may consider for starting out new soil and water conservation activities on their farms. As an information resource, online access provides excellent portability. In practical application, with the hard-copy book, farmers can tear out and use its worksheets and questionnaires to help determine which practices are the best fit for their farm.
The same can be said for the Emerging Farmers project resources available from ILF. While convenient for online study and reading, the Talking with Your Landlord series of pamphlets will likely be more persuasive if delivered by hand as a part of business discussions between a tenant and owner. But the business templates designed to aid emerging farmers in creating an achievable plan for their operation are probably best used online.
An example from the Water Rocks program is the worksheets designed to accompany the Adventures of the Conservation Pack video series. Easy to share and print, the worksheets help young people grasp and retain the vocabulary and lessons presented in the videos.
Where do we go next?
CLG will continue to distribute information and resources in formats that meet the needs of Iowans. To this end, the CLG team is exploring direct mail options for distributing books and reports that would have typically been handed out at field days and other events. It’s not a perfect substitute for talking through the literature in person, but it should help keep information flowing and in the hands of those who need it.
There is no right way or best way to reach every Iowan. While some may prefer online options, others will be best reached with printed materials they can hold or in-person contacts such as traditional field days. Conservation Learning Group programs have offered such choices for years and will continue to do so.
Comito is program director of Iowa Learning Farms, executive director of Water Rocks and Conservation Learning Group team leader.