Aqua Chautauqua - An integrated approach to water resources education

By Karen Terry, Extension Educator, Water Resource Management 

September 2018

Water matters. We all make decisions every day that affect our water resources, such as how we water and fertilize our lawns, how much impervious surface we create in our cities, what pollutants we put in our lakes and streams, and how much water we hold on the land (versus rushing it overland to the nearest waterbody). And, we do not all learn the same way: tactile vs. auditory vs. visual and right brain/left brain, for example, so it makes sense to use an integrated approach to teaching.

Leading with an assumption that better-informed citizens manage their own property more sustainably and exert influence on their local leaders, neighbors, and family and friends to do the same, Aqua Chautauquas are educational events designed to raise awareness, knowledge levels, and conversations about water resources. Modeled after Chautauquas of days gone by, which brought education to rural areas as traveling shows set up under big tents, Aqua Chautauquas bring arts, history, culture, and science – all related to water – to communities across Minnesota. A different watershed is highlighted each year; this year two Aqua Chautauquas were held in the Otter Tail River Watershed.

Aqua ChautauquaThe first was in June in Fergus Falls along the Otter Tail River. Spanning five blocks and three city parks, about 25 learning stations were spread out to create a relaxed atmosphere where participants could move at their leisure without feeling rushed. A similar atmosphere was created at Dunton Locks County Park, between lakes Sallie and Melissa, near Detroit Lakes in August. Learning stations included hands-on, interactive, or demonstration components. These included water quality sampling equipment demos and activities, a hands-on model stream, touchscreen maps of the watershed, arts activities such as water color painting and screen-printing of nature items, water rescue demos by the Sheriff’s department, catching and identifying aquatic insects, painting canoes for the River of Dreams project, 4-H Aquatic Robotics demos, a soil stability activity, and more. The Water Bar, which operates as a bar in Minneapolis where they serve water, was at both events offering flights of water from Duluth, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and either Fergus Falls or Detroit Lakes, which stimulated many conversations about drinking water sources and sustainability. Participants were encouraged to visit a video set to record their personal “watershed story.”

While some activities were geared toward youth, the primary audience was adults. Local leaders, who make many decisions that affect water quality and quantity, were personally invited to attend. About 300 people attended each event, and participants reported learning gains and satisfaction. At Detroit Lakes, for example, 96% of survey respondents said that the event met or exceeded their expectations, and 93% said that they were likely or extremely likely to attend an Aqua Chautauqua in the future. Presenters were surveyed separately, and they all reported that they would be willing to participate in future Aqua Chautauquas.

Partners were integral to the success of these events. These included the local historical societies, soil and water conservation districts, MN Pollution Control Agency, MN Department of Natural Resources, local arts organizations, county environmental offices, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, watershed districts, and lake associations. Partial funding for the Detroit Lakes Aqua Chautauqua was provided by the northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership.

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