Building Youth Leadership Capacity Through Project-Based Learning

“ The world needs people who can lead others to make a change for the better if anything is gonna change for the better.”

This is a reflection from a Davenport North High School junior, one of the first students to experience environmental science education through a pilot program called “The Watershed Project,” sponsored by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and administered by the Iowa Water Center (IWC).

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Meet Joe Otto

Otto_Profile pictureJoe Otto joined the Iowa Water Center in November of 2018 as the Communications Specialist. His duties include academic researching, copy writing and editing, contributing to the Iowa Water Center blog, and engaging the public via meetings, educational presentations, and other professional outreach efforts.

From Jasper County in central Iowa, Joe grew up on an acreage near the city of Colfax. Growing up in rural Iowa allowed Joe to develop an appreciation for those unique places where land and water come together – ponds, creeks, swamps, strip mines, quarries, and the timbered bottomlands along Skunk River.

Joe holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from Iowa State University, a Master’s degree in History from Appalachian State University, and is in the final stages of a PhD in History from the University of Oklahoma. He specializes in the agricultural history of Iowa with a focus on water management. His Master’s thesis was a case study of drainage district formation and administration in his home county of Jasper. His dissertation is an expanded history of drainage throughout Iowa from statehood to the 1920s. His research has taken him to county courthouses and small-town public libraries across Iowa, as well as several state and federal archives, and a few private collections.

As the Communications Specialist for the Iowa Water Center Joe looks forward to connecting Iowans to water-related research, conservation techniques, and meaningful stories in an accessible way. He also hopes to advance interdisciplinary collaboration and cross-pollination between social scientists and agronomic researchers who share an interest in conserving Iowa’s soil and water resources.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes–Book Review

Post written by Hanna Bates, Program Coordinator for the Iowa Water Center

I remember the first time I visited one of the Great Lakes. I was 14-years-old on a family vacation to Chicago, Illinois. Like everyone who goes to the Windy City, I took a trip up the 100-story John Hancock Tower in an ear-popping elevator to the observatory deck to look out on to the expanse of the city as well as the endless blue of Lake Michigan that expanded for miles and miles. To me, it was like seeing the ocean. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was indeed, seeing a little bit of the saltwater seas because invasive species have been carried along with cargo ships from around the world and released them into the lakes. For years, their presence has been disrupting the aquatic ecosystem and destroying native species. These processes of changing ecological habitats were spurred by short-sighted policies and a race to compete in a global economy.

In Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, decades-long investigative reporting for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has culminated into a book that reveals how the Great Lakes changed over time for the worse. This evolution was created by changes in the hydrology to accommodate the shipping industry and the varied approaches to natural resource management to remediate the unending cycle of invasive species. From lampreys, that act as vampires of the sea who drain life from native species, to pipe-clogging mussels, the Great Lakes’ aquatic ecosystem and those who use its resources for fishing, recreation, and shipping commerce have had many problems to contend with throughout the last century.

The bulk of the book serves as a historical review of the reoccurrence of invasive species that cost lake managers, coastal municipalities, and fishermen billions of dollars. This started with a major event – the adaptation of the St. Lawrence Seaway to be a navigable water for cargo ships for seaway commerce and the belief that the canal could compete with other global river highways. Although the Great Lakes naturally flow to the Atlantic Ocean, invasive species have found their way against the current of the channel by hitching a ride on ships either on deck or below in ballast water, which is water stored on a ship to maintain stability in choppy waters and unfavorable weather. Ships carry sea water into the Great Lakes and then discharge millions upon millions of gallons of this water into Great Lakes ecosystem that carry bacteria, plant life, and fish organisms. Invasive species that have phased through the lakes during the last century include Lampreys, Alewives, Zebra and Quagga mussels, and Carp. The invasive species started killing the top of the food chain in the lakes, but newer invasive species started to do something more dangerous to the ecosystem, according to Egan. They began to consume vast quantities of bacteria and algae that form the entire foundation of aquatic ecosystems, which creates a ripple effect to larger aquatic life in the lake.

Egan’s book includes many notable stories of municipalities and agencies who changed watershed hydrology to solve short-term problems for urban development and expansion. In doing so, they created long-term negative impacts on regional natural system. Originally, problems within the lakes were sealed from the rest of the US. They were isolated from regions like the Mississippi River Basin where 31 states rely on riparian systems for fishing, recreation, and public drinking water. In 1900, the City of Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River to no longer exit in Lake Michigan. Rather, it was routed to drain into the Des Plaines River that leads to the Mississippi River. The purpose of this was to not only find a new route for the Chicago sewage system to flow, but to also prevent flooding in urban areas next to Lake Michigan. Doing so opened up the maelstrom in the lakes to the entire Mississippi River system. In my own further research after reading Egan’s book, species such as Zebra Mussels and Asian Carp are present in Iowa, according to the Iowa Great Lakes Association (Iowa Great Lakes Association 2018).

I highly recommend this book for water professionals and the layperson who wants to know the risk nonnative species pose to our water system and the history of our evolving waterscapes in the U.S. Not only this, but Egan also describes water access in an age of climate change where cities across the US are running low on water supplies.

Overall, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes demonstrates that local changes can have regional impacts to those who do not always get a say in the matter, such as those in Toledo, Ohio or downstream on the Colorado River. During a PBS New Hour Interview, Dan Egan states that it’s not likely that we can ever restore the lakes back to what they used to be before their use as riparian highways for goods. Rather, we should better appreciate the majesty of the lakes as well as approach our relationship with the lake with more humility when it comes to natural resource management.


Iowa Great Lakes Association. 2018. Fish Barrier/Asian Carp. Web accessed:


Reflecting on the Iowa Water Center

Tianna Griffin (left) at the 2018 Iowa Water Conference

[Editor’s Note: We would like to thank Tianna for all of her hard work while at the Iowa Water Center. We wish her the best on her next endeavors!]

Post submitted by Tianna Griffin, the Iowa Water Center’s Special Projects Assistant

As my time with the Iowa Water Center comes to an end, I would like to reflect on my experience. I have enjoyed working with and getting to know Hanna, Melissa, and Rick. I have learned skills that will stick with me on my future endeavors. Starting at IWC I had goals to learn more about water related issues and to improve my writing skills, and I was able to accomplish both of those.

Working at IWC was different than any job that I had. Prior to IWC, most of my job experience was working with plants directly. As Special Projects Assistant, I spent a lot of time on a computer doing various projects related to water issues. One of my favorite yet most challenging projects was summarizing scientific articles. I am glad to have gained this skill because it helped me to figure out how to read more challenging literature, process the information and summarize it.

Working at IWC I learned a lot about watersheds and what people are doing to improve Iowa’s waters. Getting a glimpse from behind the scenes on the communication and challenges that goes into making a change in Iowa’s waters was by far my favorite part of my job. I admire the different ways that IWC does to educate, communicate, and organize with other organizations to make a difference. My time at IWC has opened my eyes to the issues and challenges Iowa faces with water. As my experiences grow, I hope to one day make a difference with issues that face water and/or agriculture like IWC.

Now that I have graduated, I will be moving on to work at a greenhouse in North Carolina as an Assistant Greenhouse Grower where I will work with ornamentals. I can only hope to continue to gain new knowledge and experiences to find my niche.



Tianna Griffin was the Iowa Water Center’s Special Projects Assistant. She recently graduated with an undergraduate degree in agronomy with emphasis in agroecology and and a minor in horticulture with an emphasis in fruit and vegetable production.


Meet our new Special Projects Assistant

Hello all,

My name is Tianna Griffin and I am excited to announce that I am Iowa Water Center’s new Special Projects Assistant!

I am pursuing an undergraduate degree in agronomy with an emphasis in agroecology and minoring in horticulture with an emphasis in fruit and vegetable production. I am from Davenport, Iowa, and I have had a strong interest in agriculture since middle school. My interest stemmed from wanting to learn and teach people about the food they ate and how it was grown. I wanted to know more about the beginning stages of growing food, and I knew that there was no better field for me to start with than agriculture. My interest in sustainable practices of water management and soil conservation led me to believe that the Iowa Water Center (IWC) was the perfect place for me to further my knowledge.

I appreciate IWC’s efforts to educate youth and communities on Iowa’s water and to unite Iowa women to have a voice and make a difference in the well-being of Iowa waters and the environment [editor’s note: IWC Associate Director Melissa Miller is a steering committee member for Women for Water]. In the span of my employment, I hope to learn more about Iowa water issues as well as improve my writing and communication skills. I also hope my time with IWC will lead me to improve my ability to work on a team and to get me out of my comfort zone of working independently. Upon graduating I would like to continue working towards the efforts of sustainability related to agricultural practices. Or, I would like to work for a company that produces fruit or vegetable crops in a warmer climate. Eventually, I would like to have my own business where I grow my own fruit and vegetable crops. There are so many options for me because my interests are so broad. I can only hope that I have a spiritually fulfilling and a purposeful career.

Tianna Griffin is Iowa Water Center’s Special Projects Assistant. She is pursuing an undergraduate degree in agronomy with emphasis in agroecology and minoring in horticulture with an emphasis in fruit and vegetable production.

Bringing citizens together to make a change

Post submitted by Rick Cruse, Director of the Iowa Water Center

The Citizens Water Academy meets for four four-hour educational and participatory sessions.  This seems a somewhat unique approach to addressing Iowa Water Quality issues.  Bringing together diverse community members in an educational environment, particularly when addressing a somewhat controversial and divisive topic, seems to stretch the comfort zone and knowledge space of those attending.  One unique outcome of this approach, when complimented with an audience participatory format, takes the thought process outside ones normal beliefs or thought patterns.  The process is important because we are constantly trying to find new and innovative ways of addressing water quality problems.

We are using approaches that could potentially be adopted and lead to improved water quality when implemented by a variety of interested stakeholders.  In contrast, many of our traditional approaches to develop new ideas and innovated approaches involve diverse meetings populated by recognized water quality experts; different meetings organized by different conveners with a desire to develop new solutions that typically include the same water experts and produce the same ideas.  These traditional approaches have not led to ideas that have achieved progress towards improved water quality. For us to make a switch in regard to water management, somebody in the system has to do something different. According to Chip Heath and Dan Heath in the book Switch, it is important to find successes already occurring. It is also critical to motivate people to grow in their mindset and shape a positive and inclusive path forward to successfully make a change.

The culmination of the Citizens Water Academy requires the participants to put on an assigned hat, that of a farmer, agency, water utility, or water recreation participant.  With the perspective of the assigned ‘hat,’ each group develops policy targeting water quality.  Will this ‘out-of-the-box’ approach yield water quality related policy ideas that will move us forward? We will find out at the conclusion of the Academy sessions.

There is a popular quote that states, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result.” Doing more of what we have already done is likely to get us more of what we already have.  Process is important; taking the process ‘outside the box’ may be our next and best option to improve water quality before the regulatory toolbox is unlocked.

24596986998_c1f3eee89d_oRick is a professor in the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University where he has administration, research, teaching, and extension responsibilities focusing on soil and water management; he is also Director of the Iowa Water Center. He earned his BS from Iowa State University and  MS and PhD from the University of Minnesota.

Summer Update from the IWC Graduate Student Research Grant Program: Nathan Young

Post submitted by Nathan Young, a PhD student co-majoring in Geology and Environmental Science here at Iowa State University.

Over the past 30 years, computer simulations of groundwater flow have become a standard tool for investigating water quality and quantity issues across the globe. Because of a number of limitations, ranging from data availability to available computer power, these simulations (or “models”) contain a number of simplifying assumptions that prevent them from being perfect representations of the location being studied. For instance, if the subsurface was composed primarily of sand with some gravel mixed in, we may tell the model that the subsurface is only composed of sand to simplify the model and make it run faster. While these assumptions may be acceptable under most circumstances, several common assumptions made about the subsurface in Iowa may in fact impede our understanding of how water and nutrients are moving throughout the state. In Iowa’s till dominated watersheds, the subsurface is commonly treated as a fairly homogenous low-permeability material, while in reality, ultra-small-scale cracks (or fractures) present in this material provide pipe-like pathways through which water and nutrients can move very rapidly. These fractures are often omitted from models due to the massive amount of computer power required to include them in the type of watershed-scale investigations that would be conducted for the purposes of evaluating regional water quality.

In spring 2017, I was awarded funding in the Iowa Water Center Graduate Student Supplemental Research Competition for my project titled, “Simulation of Watershed-Scale Nitrate Transport in Fractured Till Using Upscaled Parameters Obtained from Till Core.” My research seeks to accomplish two goals: to develop a method to include fractures in watershed-scale models, and then to evaluate the extent to which these ultra-small-scale fractures enhance groundwater flow and nutrient transport at the watershed scale.

This past summer I have made significant progress on my project on a number of fronts. My laboratory experiments on a series of 16x16x16 cm sediment samples excavated from the Dakota Access Pipeline trenches are ongoing, but they are progressing forward. I am currently conducting flow experiments on the samples using groundwater spiked with a chemical tracer. These samples contain small-scale cracks, called fractures, which provide pathways for very rapid movement of fluid and tracer in what would otherwise be a largely impervious material. By measuring the flow rate of fluid coming out of the sample, as well as the concentration of tracer that this effluent contains, I can quantify to what degree these fractures are enhancing flow within the sample. Early results of this work show that as we move deeper in the subsurface, water moves through the samples more slowly (which is what we would expect to see) yet these flow rates are still higher than we would find if the samples did not contain fractures. Furthermore, tracer concentrations in the sample effluent indicate that the fractures are providing preferential pathways for the tracer to flow through, resulting in tracer exiting the sample much sooner than if it were unfractured. I have been fortunate to have the assistance of two undergraduates, Jay Karani ’19, and Kate Staebell ’17, in setting up these experiments and analyzing the resulting output. This work would have taken much longer without their help!

I have also been working to develop a set of new computational methods that will allow for the role that these fractures play in groundwater flow and solute transport to be included in watershed-scale computer models. Previously, accounting for groundwater flow in fractures was too computationally intensive to include in models larger than the size of a small field. Yet the early results of my work suggest that we may have found a method to circumvent this computational limitation by computing a new set of flow parameters using sophisticated, small-scale groundwater flow simulations and field data.  I presented some preliminary results of this work at the 2017 MODFLOW and More conference in Golden, Colorado, this past May, and was awarded 2nd place for graduate student presentations. A short paper on this work was also published in the conference proceedings. I am currently finalizing my results in preparation for a talk I will be giving at the Geological Society of America’s National meeting in Seattle later this month. I am also in the process of writing up the results for publication, and hope to have one of two manuscripts ready for submission by the end of the semester.

Finally, I was invited to visit Laval University in Quebec City, Canada this past August to work with Dr. René Therrien, a professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering who developed the groundwater model I am using in my research. With the help of Dr. Therrien and his research group, I was able to accomplish in two weeks what would have likely taken me three months on my own. I have already been invited back to work with them again in summer 2018. We are working together to write a grant proposal to secure funding for that visit. I am confident that continued work with my collaborators at Laval University will enable me to include more detail in my study area, Walnut Creek watershed, into the overall model of the watershed I am currently building.

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.

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.