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Dale Dennler is pictured with his wife, Stephanie, at the conservation district’s awards program this past July.

Northeast Iowa native Dale Dennler is starting his 20th year as an educator at the Crestwood Campus in the Howard-Winneshiek Community School District.

He began his career at Howard-Winn shortly after graduating from Central College. 

“This was my first job. It fit well, and I’ve enjoyed it here,” he said. “This is home.”

Dennler, recently named “Teacher of the Year” by Howard Soil & Water Conservation District, teaches biology for sophomores and anatomy for juniors and seniors in high school. He is also an instructor at Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC), where he teaches Environmental Science in the fall and Natural Resource Conservation in the spring.

“I love biology and the study of life,” Dennler said, adding that although he enjoys teaching high school and college students, there is a special place in his heart for the college atmosphere because it allows him the ability to concentrate more on real-world laboratory assignments and working outdoors.

Dennler is the son of the Virgil and Viola Dennler, Elkader, While the educator, who grew up on a farm along with siblings David, Dwayne and Diane, has long been interested in biology, he recalls taking a course several years ago called “Rain, Rivers, & Runoff,” which further spurred his interest in watersheds and native prairies. At the time he also recalls reading about Neil Shaffer and his Silver Creek Watershed Project, and wanting to get involved. Shaffer has worked with the Howard Soil & Water Conservation District now for about 15 years. He is also a dairy farmer.

Shortly after initiating contact with Shaffer several years ago, Dennler opted to take his Environmental Science students from NICC out to Silver Creek where Shaffer spoke to them about his ongoing project and some of the tests he had been conducting – and the connection grew from there.

The next year for the Natural Resource Conservation class, Shaffer showed Dennler’s students around the Silver Creek Watershed. The project coordinator further discussed with students ways in which people in the area are conducting conservation practices.

“You can see a lot of habitat within short distances around town that are good examples of how people are protecting the land,” said Dennler, who as a biology major in college once had the opportunity to do a backpack electro-shocking project in the trout streams of Northeast Iowa. “Electro-fishing,” according to Wikipedia, “is a common scientific survey method used to [safely] sample fish populations to determine abundance, density, and species composition.”

The project was reminiscent to an experiment led by Shaffer at Silver Creek. With the connection in place, Shaffer invited Dennler and some students who had just completed their classroom requirements, to experience the experiment firsthand.

Bill Kolishek, who then worked with the Iowa DNR, was additionally present to assist in showing the group how to properly use the backpack shocker. “That’s just fun, and hands-on,” recalled Dennler. “You’re standing in the middle of the stream in waders.”

Dennler has more recently volunteered to assist Shaffer with an invertebrates study at Silver Creek, as well as water sampling around the nearby Turkey River. “It’s been fun doing the hands-on projects and getting real, scientific data that can be shared with the kids,” the educator said.

This past fall, Dennler and some of his students traveled to Riceville, Iowa, where Shaffer showed them the soil conservation techniques that have been employed in order to improve the water quality of Lake Hendricks. “It was a cold morning when we went there, but it was really enjoyable and the kids learn a lot because of these opportunities,” Dennler said. “It’s neat to see the work they’re doing. We try to go out to the Prairie’s Edge Nature Center at Vernon Springs, too, to see some of the work they’ve done there, where Jeff Korsmo has also talked to the kids.”

Dennler noted it is important for students to have opportunities to experience the various careers that coincide with biology and/or conservation, especially in regard to students taking college courses, and his connections stretch beyond Howard County.

“A former classmate of mine is the director at Pikes Peak, so in the spring of the year we take a trip there and he talks about different careers, his years working with the DNR, and how he got to where he is,” Dennler said, adding, “We’ve gone to the Yellow River Forest in Allamakee County and talked to a forester there, and I show students the Ion Exchange, which is a native prairie plant greenhouse over by McGregor, Iowa. We go out to Bigalk Creek [north of Cresco] when they’re stocking the fish, and one of the fishery technicians talks to students also.”

 While the conservation district typically hosts an awards program highlighting volunteers every other year, Shaffer notes there has not been a “Teacher of the Year” recognized through the local district for at least 15 years. Dennler was a unanimous choice for the award.

“For the past several years, especially with the Silver Creek Project, Dale has just been wonderful,” Shaffer said. He also talks about the backpack electro-shocking experiment several years ago at the creek when Dennler volunteered to assist, bringing along a few of his most interested students. “It was unanimous with our commissioners that Dale was going to be our Teacher of the Year. He stands out so much with what he’s doing for the students, and how much they appreciate what he does. You can see the respect they have for him, and I have tremendous respect for him, too. I wish he were teaching when I was in school, because he might have sparked my interest in conservation earlier.”

Dennler’s advice for students who would like to get involved with conservation? “Experience it,” he answered. “Go out and volunteer with Neil. It could maybe be just helping out on Arbor Day, where they do some water sampling with the younger students. There’s always an opportunity out there,. We think of these big problems that the world has, but an individual can make a difference.”

He further said, “I enjoy working with students. Just like Neil loves to come to work, I love to come to work also. . . Follow your passion, there’s opportunities out there.”

Shaffer agreed, “You can tell who has a passion for what they’re doing and who’s just there to collect a paycheck. One of the things I learned at a conference long ago is: ‘If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ There’s nothing more true than that.”


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