Partnerships continue to provide students outdoor laboratories

Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Stoffel (right) is pictured instructing a group of her soil and water conservation students during a recent field day at Jensen Farm near Elgin, Iowa.

Northeast Iowa, the Upper Mississippi Valley and the rural and urban landscapes throughout the Upper Midwest offer a wide variety of opportunities to engage students of all ages in action- and service-learning, and problem-driven community-based research activities.  Upper Iowa University’s field sciences program has traditionally taken advantage of the University’s unique Fayette, Iowa, campus location to best utilize the area’s ample “outdoor laboratories.”

(From left) Following her most recent outdoor classroom, UIU Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Stoffel talks with Elgin farmer and SWCD Commission chairperson Richard Jensen, NRCS District Conservationist Aaron Anderson and NRCS Soil Conservationist Roger Erickson.

One of Upper Iowa’s longstanding partnerships has been with rural Elgin farmer Dick Jensen, the Fayette County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Jensen, who also serves as the local SWCD chairperson, has hosted area schools, groups and organizations during field days for approximately 25 years, with some of his past younger guests returning as UIU students.

“UIU students are extremely fortunate to have people like Mr. Jensen and area organizations that help our faculty integrate applied outdoor experiences and field study trips into curriculum throughout their majors,” UIU Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Stoffel said. “During these field-study trips, students witness the practical applications of the instruction they receive in the classroom.  They observe and interact with working professionals and gain knowledge of the realities of field-based employment. All of these UIU program benefits are critical to their success in the careers that follow.”

(From left) Derek Ehrhardt, a freshman conservation management major from Elkader, Iowa; Adam Robison, a freshman agricultural business major from Washington, Illinois; Quentin Mensen, a sophomore conservation management major from Manchester, Iowa; Jamie Gehling (foreground), a junior agricultural business major from Grand Meadow, Minnesota; Tucker Black, a senior agricultural business major from Batavia, Iowa, and Hunter Slifka, a senior conservation management major from Cresco, Iowa, take turns gathering soil health data during the recent field day at Jensen Farm near Elgin.

Stoffel noted that integrating conceptual topics with applied field experiences is paramount to students getting the most from their education. She and many of her colleagues schedule in-the-field demonstrations and discussions that complement future classroom instruction and experiments.

Stoffel’s soil and water conservation class most recently visited Jensen’s farm to learn about field management practices and how they influence the biological, physical and chemical properties of soil health. The class serves majors in conservation management, environmental science and agricultural business. In addition to touring Jensen’s fields and crops, students were provided soil presentations, a rain simulator demonstration, and slake and soil infiltration tests by NRCS District Conservationist Aaron Anderson and NRCS Soil Conservationist Roger Erickson. Following the two-hour educational experience, the students analyzed the impact of the land owner’s different conservation strategies on the local watershed.

Kaitlin Teff, a junior environmental science major from Calmar, Iowa, said she previously knew very little about farming practices and the impact they have on soil and environment. Having broadened her knowledge on the topic during the Jensen field day demonstrations, she expressed that she is a fan of these real-world learning experiences.

Kaitlin Teff (standing, center), a junior environmental science major from Calmar, Iowa, starts her cell phone timer as Signey Hilby (kneeling), a senior environmental science major from Ashbury, Iowa, begins a water infiltration test during the recent soil and conservation class field day. Also pictured are (left) Morgan Meinecke, a senior agricultural business major from Tripoli, Iowa, and Laine Fitzgerald, a junior agricultural business major from Lime Springs, Iowa.

“I find that all of the field days and hands-on experiences offered by UIU faculty provide a great opportunity for students to get out in the community and meet organizations and individuals in various career fields.” Teff said. “I am now more experienced with doing soil tests.”

Hunter Slifka, a senior conservation management major from Cresco, Iowa, echoed the value of the field day.

“I really enjoy meeting the local landowners and seeing what we can learn from them and their everyday experiences,” Slifka said. “The Jensen field day definitely expanded my soil health vocabulary and helped me become more familiar with farm management best practices. The rain simulator especially helped get the point across on how important living cover, minimal soil disturbance, and management really is. It provided a quick and easy representation of what actually happens in real life.”

While observing that other universities have reduced their field-based offerings for various reasons, including liability concerns and costs of transportation and maintenance of additional field equipment, Stoffel said UIU continues to recognize and support the value of field experiences. It is from the partnerships shared with participating individuals, businesses, clubs and organizations that UIU students begin to cultivate their future endeavors.

Additional photos from the recent field day can be found here. To learn more about this class or any of the programs mentioned in this article, visit

Field Science Speaker Series

The Field Science Speaker Series is another beneficial program to help UIU students identify careers in field sciences (conservation management, environmental science, biology – general emphasis, and life science – plant emphasis) that they may not know exist. The speaker series helps students increase their field-based skills and techniques in advance of applying for their initial summer employment. Students are provided information related to applying for internships, seasonal/summer jobs or full time positions.

Current students in the field sciences get an opportunity to meet and network with UIU alumni who return as guests and share their real-world working experiences.  These relationships can be very useful to UIU students, as many alumni hold positions of hiring authority for their respective employers.

“We have been very fortunate that all of our guests involved in the Field Speaker/Activity Series have been willing to take time out of their busy work schedule to travel to Fayette and meet with our students,” UIU Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Stoffel said. “Numerous local, regional, state and federal agencies, as well as private organizations, have been very cooperative in permitting their employees to once again participate in the series.”

The series is open to all UIU faculty, staff and students. To view the ongoing schedule, click Field Sciences Speaker Series.

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