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WATERLOO — Mason Lange picked up some tips on how to conserve water Tuesday during the Cedar Valley EnviroFest at Hawkeye Community College.

“Don’t use, like, 30 minute showers,” said the Poyner Elementary School fifth-grader. “When we brush our teeth, we shouldn’t leave the water on.”

He also learned about how a watershed drains and that materials that end up on the ground such as fertilizers, oil and various chemicals wash into rivers.

Lange said what he heard will “totally, definitely” change his behavior. “Especially the showers, because I usually take 20-minute showers.”

He was among 830 Waterloo Community Schools’ fifth-graders who learned about topics like wildlife, habitat protection, Iowa’s native prairie, trails and recycling during the first-ever daylong festival organized by the Black Hawk Soil and Water Conservation District.

“We in the (conservation) district always want to do outreach,” said Jeri Thornsberry, chairwoman of the group’s board. The event was patterned after the Iowa Children’s Water Festival in Ankeny with a large assembly, exhibit hall, stations and games. More than 20 organizations and over 70 volunteers were part of the event.

“A day out of the classroom is quite an investment, but I believe it’s an investment for our future,” said Thornsberry, noting there are “not many opportunities” to talk to students so directly about the environment.

Fifth-graders from all 11 Waterloo Schools’ elementaries participated through its new LifeLab program, which is designed to provide experiential and service learning opportunities to students at every grade level. The program, announced a year ago, is funded with a three-year $1.5 million grant from the R.J. McElroy Trust. Events and activities for elementary school students have been held throughout the year with plans to debut the middle and high school programs during the next two years.

Madelyn Ridgeway, LifeLab coordinator, said they are developing a “peak experience” for children in each grade, preschoolers to seniors. She said the experiences are designed to be much more equitable for students compared to a field trip or other special event that involves a single class, school or other group.

“We create these opportunities for every child to experience the same thing,” said Ridgeway. “Each grade has a theme based on their core (academic) standards.”

The theme for fifth grade is the environment. Some of the other themes include transportation, agriculture, Waterloo history and travel.

Preschoolers rode the Snowflake Express holiday train in December, kindergartners will visit a farm before the year is over, first-graders experienced a “living history” timeline of Waterloo at the Grout Museum, second-graders went to the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, third-graders participated in a Native American cultural workshop lead by a Meskwaki Nation member and fourth-graders are going on a Mississippi River cruise.

Next year, all elementary students will attend a play at the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center through its Kaleidoscope program, available to the schools at a cost of $1 per child, in addition to the themed activites. The school district also plans to roll out the program’s service learning component.

he organizations that participated in EnviroFest created interactive exhibits, presentations or games.

Performance group Water Rocks! and the Iowa Raptor Project held assemblies for students in Tama Hall Auditorium. They also visited exhibits and went to classroom presentations in the hall. Outside on the campus’ grassy courtyard, stations were set up for games and demonstrations.

Green Iowa Americorps taught students about watersheds — an area of land that drains into a body of water — through a three-dimensional tabletop model of a swath of land including farms, roads, rivers, homes, forests and businesses. Presenters asked students to deposit Kool-Aid and coco powder, candy sprinkles and soy sauce on the landscape to represent possible water pollutants like pesticides, manure, dog poop, oil or trash. Then students took turns with a spray bottle of water, making it “rain” on the model.

Peter Della Porta with Americorps pointed out how the materials all washed into the waterways and how the pooled water looked.

“Would you drink that water? Is that something you would swim in?” he asked the students.

Kamrin Graham enjoyed the hands-on exhibits in Tama Hall. Among those were displays of animal pelts and skulls by Black Hawk County Conservation naturalists from Hartman Reserve as well as Black Hawk Gem and Mineral Society members’ collections of geodes, agates and other rocks.

“A lot of it’s new and I never knew that learning could be this cool,” said the Fred Becker Elementary School fifth-grader. “I think everyone’s so interested in learning all this stuff they don’t even know they’re learning.”

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