AmeriCorps intern helps to expand Conservation online

Diana Reuber has been serving as a naturalist intern for Jones County Conservation since April. Due to COVID-19, programming had to move online, allowing Reuber and Naturalist Michele Olson to expand Conservation’s virtual offerings. (Photo by Kim Brooks)
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     It seems like everything is either on hold, postponed, or cancelled due to COVID-19. That includes educational, recreational, and fun activities hosted by Jones County Conservation.

     In April, Conservation welcomed Diana Reuber to Jones County. Reuber, of Dubuque, is serving a naturalist intern through the AmeriCorps program.

     Jones County Naturalist Michele Olson applied for the intern position earlier this year, before COVID-19 hit. She thought it would be a great way to increase school programming, especially with the School of the Wild program.

     Now that the majority of Conservation’s in-person programs are on hold for the time being, Reuber has changed her focus to developing unique digital and virtual programs.

     “We’ve been flexible in trying to think outside the box with the constantly changing situation,” said Olson.

     Conservation still plans to welcome fifth and sixth graders from Sacred Heart and St. Patrick schools, in Monticello and Anamosa, to Central Park yet this school year. They will take part in School of the Wild. Olson said the public schools have opted out for the year.

     The students will visit Central Park each day for a week and learn about a different topic in conservation such as prairie, woodlands, insects, wildlife, etc. The idea is to fully immerse students in the world of nature.

     “We’re pretty excited about it,” said Olson, noting that Jones County Conservation was chosen as a pilot program. “The curriculum was designed by teachers with guidance from the University of Iowa.”

     Once Olson started planning for School of the Wild, she realized she was need of additional help. On top of planning for a new program, Olson was also organizing all of the annual programs she does for schools and community groups, such as the public libraries. The work quickly piled up. That’s when she realized an intern would be a needed position.

     Once COVID-19 hit and impacted Conservation programming, both Olson and Reuber decided to explore creative ways to still keep the public and families engaged.

     “We can’t do much with large groups and still social distance,” explained Olson. “So virtual programs were an alternative.”

     In July, Reuber started posting the online videos to the Conservation website. Some of the topics include: sidewalk chalk art, campfire cooking, fishing, purple martins, pet rocks, salamanders, and more.

     Olson regularly appears at the Monticello Public Library’s Summer Reading Program, reading a book to the kids and showcasing an animal or two. With libraries closed this summer, the alternative was to record Reuber reading a book and talking about the topic.

     The process entails more than simply recording a video and posting it online. There’s editing involved as well, adding still photos or video from outside the Nature Center around the park.

     This is the first single AmeriCorps volunteer Conservation has worked with. In the past they’ve welcomed AmeriCorps teams out to assist with various projects.

     Reuber’s assistance is a partnership with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and 4-H.

     “We want to see more kids get involved in the outdoors,” urged Reuber.

     Olson the online programs have also helped to raise awareness about Central Park and all that they offer: camping, swimming, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, etc.

     “We’ve been able to reconnect families to nature,” she said. “Helping them rediscover something new is a good thing.”

     Both Olson and Reuber said it can be challenging to make the online videos fun and engaging without a live audience present. Another challenge is to see how many people watch the videos.

     “We’re not able to see the impact firsthand,” explained Reuber.

     With the first day of school right around the corner, Olson said she would like to continue offering virtual programming for schools throughout the year, noting that visitors will be prohibited for the time being. “Minute with a Naturalist” is something Olson would like to offer. These would be mini videos about a certain topic in nature. Then, the kids would be encouraged to head outside to investigate the topic on their own or take a quiz on what they learned from the video.

     Overall, throughout the pandemic, Olson said Central Park has remained busy because people wanted to escape the confines of their homes for some fresh air.

     “People wanted to get out and do something,” noted Reuber.

     Olson said having Reuber’s expertise and background has been wonderful in expanding Conservation’s programming.

     “She’s been a God-send,” praised Olson.


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