On the Water; Near the Water: Place-Based Extension Water Education Programs

This article was written by Karen Terry and John Bilotta of the University of Minnesota Extension and published in the Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals Newsletter. It has been republished here with their permission.

What happens on the landscape (i.e., land use practices) impacts the quality and quantity of our water resources? Given this relationship, water resource education and training that provides experiences both on the land and on the water are impactful and memorable. The opportunity for participants to use all five of their senses during educational experiences strongly imprints messages and connects knowledge to potential actions or changes in behavior. This summer, Minnesota Extension Educators Karen Terry and John Bilotta co-led multiple programs that accentuate the use of these principles in placed-based interactive education to communicate researched-based information to community members on a variety of scales.

Aqua Chautauqua participants were able to sample drinking water from three communities at The Water Bar, stimulating conversations about sources and treatment of drinking water supplies.

Two Aqua Chautauqua programs were offered in the Otter Tail River Watershed located in West Central Minnesota: Fergus Falls in June and Detroit Lakes in August. Chautauquas of days-gone-by were traveling shows that set up in rural communities and brought education, arts, history, and culture to citizens. Following that model, Aqua Chautauquas are Extension programs that meld the art, history, culture, and science of water to raise the level of knowledge and depth of conversations about our water resources. Each program has 20+ learning stations, each with a hands-on component to engage participants. Examples include touchscreen watershed maps that visitors can explore, the Water Bar at which guests can sample a flight of drinking water from three different sources, a station on aquatic invasive species to see the distribution of various invaders, a model stream with running water that visitors can manipulate to experiment with the shape of the river channel, and a demonstration by the Sheriff’s Dive Rescue Team.

The Fergus Falls program was laid out along the Otter Tail River, with learning stations set up in three city parks connected by a river walk. The Detroit Lakes program was held in Dunton Locks County Park, nestled between two prized lakes in the community. From these vantage points, participants were able to transition from one learning station to the next at their own pace. There were approximately 600 participants at these two events this year.

Presenters at the Aqua Chautauquas represented a range of organizations including Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, county soil and water conservation districts, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, county historical societies, local arts organizations, and nonprofit groups. Extension educators from across centers staffed several valuable stations, as well: educators from the Centers for Ag, Food, and Natural Resources, Community Vitality, and Youth Development all had key roles in the success of these events.

You can learn more about the Detroit Lakes Aqua Chautauqua by visiting the Facebook event page or reading this news article.

Dale Cox, Park Ranger, National Park Service discusses the characteristics of what makes the St. Croix a National Wild and Scenic River during the July 2018 NEMO workshop-on-the-water.

For the ninth year, the NEMO St. Croix workshop-on-the-water program offered a unique vantage point for policy and program leaders in the Lower St.Croix watershed located on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin. In July, more than 115 local leaders and water resource professionals set sail aboard the Grand Dutchess from Hudson, Wisconsin for an afternoon of learning on the St. Croix River. Our St. Croix – Preserving a Natural, Recreational, and Economic Amenity is one of the workshops-on-the-water delivered through the NEMO Program. NEMO (Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials) is an educational program that brings research-based information to elected and appointed community leaders to better inform their decisions on land use and water management. This effort led in part by Minnesota Extension and Minnesota Sea Grant focused on how land use and water management decisions in and along the river affect the health of the St. Croix. Partnering with multiple local organizations and state agencies, each of the three decks featured unique learning opportunities on timely topics and areas of concern including:

  • Educating for Action – putting stormwater education programs to work for you such as the Extension Stormwater U training series and adopt-a-drain programs through the Metro Watershed Partners.
  • One Watershed, One Plan for the St. Croix – collaborating across jurisdictional boundaries – discovering what’s next to move implementation forward in the basin.
  • Into the Wild – celebrating the unique characteristics of the St. Croix as a National Wild and Scenic River 

While the evaluations from this year’s program have yet to be summarized, evidence from the previous years indicated that ~90% of participants find great value and learn much from NEMO workshop-on-the-water programs. In all cases, participants note that WOW or workshops-on-the-water greatly enhance their learning experience.

Placed-based water education programs, specifically those outdoors, truly provide rich learning environments for Extension program participants to increase their knowledge, share experiences, and discover actions they can take to protect and improve Minnesota’s water resources. In these programs, STEAM or science, technology, engineering, art, and math are integrated into the approaches and content to effectively reach participants with a range of learning styles.

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