Experiential learning has proven to be an effective method for Extension educators to teach youths and adults (Bechtel, Ewing, Threeton, & Mincemoyer, 2013; Torock, 2009). Richardson (1994) identified that Extension clients preferred learning opportunities that allowed for a hands-on learning experience. Looking beyond learning preferences to the adoption of practices, Smart, Bauman, Boltz, and Hemenway (2017) evaluated the effectiveness of a demonstration-based agriculture education tool, called the rainfall simulator, in changing producer behavior related to conservation practices.
Researchers have consistently reported that no-till farming techniques, the use of cover crops, and rotational grazing practices improve effects of the water cycle (Fu, Chen, & McCool, 2006; Lyons, Weigel, Paine, & Undersander, 2000; Wilson, Dalzell, Mulla, Dogwiler, & Porter, 2014). However, implementation of these land-use practices remains relatively low (Conant, Six, & Paustian, 2003; Lal, 2002; Lal, Reicosky, & Hanson, 2007). Extension educators who closely work with farmers and ranchers recognize the desire of producers to “do the right thing” when it comes to environmental stewardship (Smart et al, 2017).
Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the South Dakota Grassland Coalition (SDGC), and South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension have collaborated to deliver educational programming on the effects of the water cycle on managed lands in South Dakota by using a mobile rainfall simulator (Smart et al, 2017). The rainfall simulator demonstrates the water cycle by showing runoff, infiltration, and soil particle dislodging (Smart et al, 2017). Prior to the demonstration, the presenter collects intact soil from fields managed by a variety of practices (no-till cropping with and without cover crops, conventional cropping, continuously grazed pasture, and rotationally grazed pasture) and then applies a 30-min rainfall simulation ((Smart et al, 2017). During the simulation, the presenter explains how the water cycle works and encourages the audience to observe, comment, and pose questions (Smart et al, 2017)..After the simulation is completed, the presenter dumps the soil containers to reveal how wet or dry the soil is and discusses the water-holding capacity for plant growth (Smart et al, 2017). The main goals of the simulation are to demonstrate relative differences among management practices, rather than to collect quantitative data, and to encourage discussion around the practices of no-till, cover crops, and rotational grazing (Smart et al, 2017).
These demonstrations have been conducted in South Dakota about a dozen times annually as part of various tours, field days, and farm shows since 2009 (Smart et al, 2017). Over the years, the researchers in South Dakota observed that some producers attending these events have seen the demonstration multiple times (Smart et al, 2017). Therefore, these researchers were interested in whether producers who had seen the demonstration before had implemented conservation practices and taken action to monitor relevant changes on their farms and ranches (Smart et al, 2017).
The researchers in South Dakota conducted a survey of event participants watching the rainfall simulator demonstration at five events in the summer of 2015 (Smart et al, 2017). The researchers distributed a one-page survey (Figure 1) to event participants watching the demonstration (Smart et al, 2017).
The researchers collected 169 surveys from about 350 participants (48% response rate) at the five demonstrations; survey participation rate across the events ranged from 29% to 56% (Smart et al, 2017). Of the respondents across all events, 62% were producers and 38% were non- producers (Smart et al, 2017). Fifty-eight percent of the respondents had seen the demonstration before (Smart et al, 2017). Table 1 provides details related to respondents’ prior exposure to the rainfall simulator demonstration (Smart et al, 2017):
Of the 98 respondents who had seen the rainfall simulator demonstration before, the majority had seen it at an NRCS event (Smart et al, 2017). Additionally, the total number of responses relating to whether participants had seen the demonstration before was 172, indicating that some had seen the demonstration more than just one other time (Smart et al, 2017). Table 2 reports the event sponsors and number who had prior exposure to rainfall simulator demonstration (Smart et al, 2017):
Because the focus of the research team was on addressing the impact of the rainfall simulator demonstration on producers, they isolated this group’s responses to questions about changes in practices (Smart et al, 2017). Producers who had seen the demonstration before were asked whether they had made changes to their operations as a result (Smart et al, 2017). Seventy-six percent (53 out of 70) reported having made changes because of watching the rainfall simulator demonstration, and of these, most indicated having made multiple changes (Smart et al, 2017). The most frequently implemented practices were leaving more residue on cropland (55%), planting cover crops (53%), incorporating livestock grazing on cropland (38%), diversifying crop rotation (36%), switching from season-long continuous grazing to rotational grazing (36%), and switching to no-till (32%) (Smart et al, 2017). Table 3 below reports the management changes made by producers after exposure to rainfall simulator demonstration (Smart et al, 2017):
Researchers were also interested in whether producers who had made changes to their farms or ranches had taken it upon themselves to monitor the effects of the water cycle on their properties (Smart et al, 2017). Sixty percent (32 out of 53) had recorded monthly rainfall, and 25% (13 out of 53) had measured infiltration rates on their fields or pastures using an NRCS single-ring infiltration kit (Smart et al, 2017). The Researchers also found that 68% (36 out of 53) had noticed less water erosion in general and 47% (25 out of 53) had observed less gully formation on cropland and pastures (Smart et al, 2017).
Previous research has shown that simulations and active participation techniques can be effective tools for adult learning (Ota, DiCarlo, Burts, Laird, & Gioe, 2006). These research findings corroborate these results. The rainfall simulator demonstration involved observation, discussion, and questioning in a group learning setting, and producers reported adopting conservation practices because of this learning experience (Smart et al, 2017).
The findings from this research suggest that other hands-on, demonstration-based educational efforts have potential in resulting adoption of practices or changes in behavior.
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