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Geared Up for Learning

NRCS in Texas has two new interactive learning tools for outdoor education - a rainfall simulator trailer and an inflatable soil tunnel. The tools can be taken out for field days or outdoor classroom events around Zone 5 in north central Texas.

Employees have dubbed the rainfall simulator trailer "The Worm Wagon." The Worm Wagon features a rainfall simulator set up that can demonstrate varying rainfall amounts and intensities on up to five different land management practices. Practices commonly mimicked in the soil pans are bare ground with conventional tillage, conservation tillage, continuous cover crop, improved grazed pasture and native pasture. Many soil saving management practices can be visually demonstrated with the Worm Wagon. It can be an important educational tool as conservation shifts from tracking tons of soil saved per year to improving the functionality of soils and their healthy ecosystems.

Gallon buckets are set up to capture surface run off and infiltration. Seeing is believing when the bucket under the bare ground fills up with muddy surface water and little to no water in the infiltration bucket. In contrast the bucket with surface runoff for the native pasture has little runoff and nearly 100% infiltration with very few soil particles in the water.

The Worm Wagon also features two large monitors that can be synced to phones or computers for presentation purposes. The Wagon has speakers all around the trailer to accommodate large audiences. It is equipped with solar panels and water storage tanks for remote use. Employees have named the inflatable soil tunnel, "Earl." Fully inflated, Earl is eight feet tall, eight feet wide and 10 feet long. Earl is easily transportable and inflates in under five minutes, with take down around 10 minutes. The graphic material on the outside and inside of the tunnel provide an interactive learning experience focusing on soil properties, soil health and environmental benefits of soil.

Employees in Zone 5 have received training to use both of these tools. Worm Wagon creator and developer Bud Davis traveled from his home base of Salina, Kansas, where his company, Conservation Demonstrations is headquartered, to provide the training to employees. While Davis has sold the rainfall simulator trailers since 2008 to over 28 states and foreign countries, the Worm Wagon's technology features where the brain child of NRCS Texas Soil Health Specialist Nathan Haile.

"I wanted this to be a learning tool that could be utilized in many different environments, indoor and outdoor, and even in remote locations," Haile says. "The speakers, monitors, GoPro camera and blue tooth features give us so many options to present information in new and exciting ways."

Since the Worm Wagon and Earl's arrival in early April, they have been utilized at over 20 events across the zone.

"Both of these tools are very visual illustrations to show the effects of soil texture, organic matter, root and vegetative systems on the soil," says Laura Broyles, Assistant State for Field Operations for Zone 5. "These new products are innovative, effective ways for us to help producers, students and the public understand the importance of soil health and setting management goals for improvement."

Troy Reinke, NRCS District Conservationist in Albany, has used the two tools as companion products at several events he has worked over the past month, including EarthX in Dallas, the world's largest eco-expo.

"The event organizers were impressed with the amount of information 'Earl' contained, and the ease with which he could be setup and taken down," Reinke said. "They were also impressed as to how Earl could be incorporated into the many different themes that the outdoor classroom events were promoting - Healthy Soil, Water Cycle, Plant Health, Insects and Microorganisms."

Reinke developed a question and answer that works the best for the school age events, in order to give the students a purpose and a goal for wandering in and around Earl. The students are told what to look for and then take 10-15 minutes absorbing the information, and then another 10-15 minutes reviewing the questions and discussing the answers.

"At the end of the day, Earl is a great addition to have at any outreach event, but is a really great companion with the rainfall simulator demonstration," Reinke says. "You can see all the information on Earl really start to be absorbed with people when they not only read it, but can see it happen right before them with the Worm Wagon."

Geared up for Learning, By Dee Ann Littlefield, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist (2018, May)