Smith gains experience through conservation externship

Alisha Smith, a Cascade High School science teacher, gained some valuable knowledge through a recent STEM Externship with Jones County Conservation. One of the many projects she took on included rebranding the Edible Trail at Central Park, as seen here. (Photo by Kim Brooks)

Smith also updated the Bluebird Monitoring Project, started by another extern two years ago. The bluebird boxes are located at several different conservation sites throughout the county. (Photo submitted)
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to so many events and activities this spring and summer, Alisha Smith of Cascade forged ahead to complete her STEM Externship with Jones County Conservation.

     Smith is no stranger to Jones County Conservation. In 2004 when she was attending college, she interned for Naturalist Michele Olson. Now, as a science teacher in Cascade, Smith wanted to spend time gaining additional knowledge she could pass onto her high school students.

     Working with the University of Northern Iowa, Smith took part in a six-week, paid graduate credit course, all in an effort to renew her teaching license. This externship allowed her to earn three credits.

     Typically, as a teacher, Smith would start her externship experience after school ended for the school year in May. But with schools closing down in March, she got right to work in early April.

     “The conservation areas are close to home, and I knew I could do a lot of the work from home,” she said of the preliminary work. Once she became more hands-on, Smith brought her kids with her to various conservation sites, allowing them to spend time outdoors, too.

     “Basically I wanted to find new things I could take back to my wildlife management class,” she said as to why she chose this externship.

     Smith accomplished so much in just six short weeks:

     She enhanced Central Park’s Edible Trail. Smith re-painted and placed QR codes on each of the 10 posts along the trail. She also created a brochure that lists all of the edible plants visitors would come across while walking the trail. The document can be found on the Jones County Conservation website (

     In connection with the Edible Trail, Smith also researched and made a list of books that serve as resources for those who want to venture out and eat wild edibles.

     “It’s been interesting learning about the different edible plants that most would consider weeds,” joked Smith. “But these are weeds that we can actually eat.”

     The Edible Trail contains almost two-dozen edible plants, which Smith researched and identified.

     “There really wasn’t any public awareness about the trail until now,” she said of the project. “It was always here but never identified.”

     The BINGO Challenge Smith came up with encourages Jones County and visitors to spend time outside visiting the many conservation wildlife areas. The BINGO card, which can be found on the conservation website and Facebook page, contains unique landmarks one would find at each site. All you have to do is take a selfie at the landmark and submit your photos and completed BINGO card to You could be eligible for a prize.

     “This was a fun project because there are a lot of different areas in Jones County that people don’t realize,” Smith said. “These are such wonderful places.”

     Smith also created lesson plans for third, seventh, and 10th-grade teachers that meet the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards).

     “The lesson plans are a partnership with Jones County Conservation and the classrooms to help learn about various species of plants and animals along with data collection for conservation,” Smith explained.

     In connection with lesson plans, Smith created a site survey for students to fill out while exploring one of the conservation sites. If they discover a wildlife species, they add the information to the site plan.

     “Conservation would love to see more kids and classes come out and visit the sites,” urged Smith.

     Two years ago, Molly Crock took on a STEM Externship with conservation at the time. She completed the Bluebird Monitoring Project, located at several different conservation sites. Smith picked the project up and repaired the bird boxes at Hale Wildlife Area, Hamilton-Tapken Prairie, and Scotch Grove Prairie.

     “I also created new surveys to go along with the monitoring project, along with updated lesson plans for area teachers, and added updated QR codes,” she said.

     In addition, Smith made new maps showcasing the various locations of the bluebird boxes throughout the county.

     Smith has been a high school science teacher in Cascade for 16 years now. In addition, she also teaches upper level ag classes.

     “This externship has taught me the importance of incorporating soft skills and employability skills into my classroom lessons,” she reflected. “Content is important, but not as important as being able to communicate effectively and be a good employee in their future careers.”

     Olson praised Smith for all of her hard work and dedication throughout the summer.

     “With her persistence in a difficult time, she was able to assist us with completing several projects. Alisha was able to visit many of our county conservation sites to create a fun, interactive digital BINGO challenge activity, which we have rolled out in the month of July.”

     This is the third year conservation has participated in the STEM Teacher Externship program.


Subscriber Login