Water Rocks! Refreshes and Streamlines Online Presence

New county map feature, simplified calendar of events, and a fresh navigation experience optimized for mobile devices and tablets, highlight website updates

Water Rocks!, a unique, award-winning, statewide water education program, recently revealed its updated website at www.waterrocks.org. The site contains a wealth of resources regarding environmental programs, farm and agriculture outreach, conservation efforts across Iowa, and interactive learning activities. The update includes more intuitive navigation and the addition of an interactive county map, calendar of appearances and events, and optimization to ensure compatibility with mobile devices, tablets, and popular web browsers.

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“After six years, and considering feedback from users ranging from elementary school students to retirees, we decided it was time to take advantage of the latest in web technology to redo the website from the ground up,” said Ann Staudt, director of Water Rocks!. “The new navigation buttons on the home page make it simpler for different constituent groups to find what they want, while continuing to provide the resources, videos, games, and music Water Rocks! is known for.”

With the help of Entrepreneurial Technologies, a web development firm based in Urbandale, Iowa, Water Rocks! addressed navigation challenges that had been observed – particularly with young users – by organizing all information and resources for teachers and students under high-visibility banners at the top of the home page.

Visitors to www.waterrocks.org will still find award-winning videos, music, games, and activities geared for all ages. There is also an area of the site dedicated to the fleet of Conservation Station trailers used by Water Rocks! for outreach and education.

The new site also sports an interactive county map feature which enables visitors to click on any county in the state of Iowa to see what Water Rocks! and Conservation Station activities have taken place over the past several years.

In addition, the website provides a single calendar for all Water Rocks! and Conservation Station appearances at schools, fairs, and special events throughout the year. Teachers and administrators are encouraged to review the calendar to see where Water Rocks! will be, and to use the simple online visit request to plan for a visit to their campus.

“The Water Rocks! team is excited about this new portal which makes it easy for visitors to learn about conservation, environmental issues, water quality, and choices that make a difference for all Iowans,” concluded Staudt.

Check it out today at www.waterrocks.org/!

The Most Rewarding Work

When I first began my AmeriCorps term in October of 2017, it was a matter of serendipity. I had been eager to do something meaningful in the space between graduating college in December of 2017 and moving into a full-time job in August of 2018. I had considered AmeriCorps, but worried about the year-long commitment given my timeline for a new job. My excitement to join the Water Rocks! team as a part-time service member was unmatched — it fit my timeline perfectly and the work I would be doing was so meaningful. This position ended up doing more for me than just allowing me to work with such a cool program. It helped me to grow as a young adult and paved my transition into full-time working life.


Time Management is the Key to Success

I began my service term during school and quickly learned that time management for a full-time job is different than time management for a part-time job because you want to take your work home with you. I had to quickly learn how to effectively manage my time at work so that I wouldn’t let it bleed into my school/homework time and later my other jobs. Because I was a part-time service member, I had the opportunity to find a second job. It was challenging to orchestrate both schedules and to give both jobs the time I felt they deserved. I gained a new respect for people who work multiple jobs. Even though my service was top priority, keeping my promise to my other employer was also of the utmost importance to me. Learning to balance my schedule helped me to feel confident in giving my best to my service.


Doing Your Best is Up to You

In my new position with Water Rocks! I was given freedom to develop several programs, including a library and day camp program, and run them on my own. In the development process of both programs I worried they would not be good enough or that I had not put in enough work to make them successful. My team always puts out high quality teaching tools and programs that are well-organized, so the bar was high. I got over my anxiousness by putting in the time to make the programs meet my standard. If you work on something until you are proud of it, other people will see that and feedback you get will only help you to elevate the project. I was setting the bar for myself lower than what I could actually do because of the limits I was putting on myself. Being a part of this AmeriCorps service opportunity helped me to gain confidence to push the limits of what I thought I could do and move beyond good to great.


It’s a Bow-Wow World
When We Work Together

Teamwork means more than just the work I put in with my team in the office. My team at Water Rocks! headquarters is amazing and I learn things from each and every one of them each time we are on an event together, but working with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach partners across the state taught me the power of regional teamwork. We are able to reach so many more students and we are better able to connect to the people who live across the state because we have partners on the ground who live in and know these communities.

I have been on 79 events this year and talked to thousands of people about conservation. I have seen the power of song and games and the staying power of the conservation message. No matter how long the travel or how many people we saw, teaching people about conservation was enough to make me feel the impact of the work we do. Watching people’s faces change as we talked about pollution AND solutions to pollution never gets old. Conservation work is the most rewarding work I will ever do. I look forward to bringing these lessons to Nebraska as I continue my journey of public service as a regional planner for the Panhandle Area Development District.

Megan Koppenhafer

Megan Koppenhafer just completed her term of service with the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, having served with Water Rocks! since October 2017 (and as a college intern with Water Rocks! two prior summers). Our record-breaking Water Rocks! outreach efforts this past year would not have been possible without our two awesome AmeriCorps service members, Jack and Megan — many thanks! You both rock!

Hanging Up the Name Tag

All things must come to an end, and AmeriCorps service is no different. In the middle of the winter, going to classrooms on the daily, it never seems that it will end. But, that’s not a bad thing. You continue teaching students many lessons: we all live in a watershed; keep the soil covered; wetlands provide a pitstop for migratory animals; just one block could cause the tower of biodiversity to collapse; pollinators are a really big deal.

And then, you look at the calendar. August. Your last days of service are here. How did it come so fast? You don’t know. What you do know is that the familiarity of your classroom visits, assemblies, and day camps is gone. It’s time to be thrust back out into another unfamiliar experience, not unlike your first day a year ago. But, this time is different. This time, you have the lessons you have learned on your AmeriCorps journey to guide you.

These are the thoughts I had as I came to the full realization that my service was about to end. Over this last year, I have learned so much about conservation, Iowa, responsibility, and communication from my service time in Ames. These are some of the most important I learned throughout my journey.

Own the Problem – Don’t Blame
or Make Excuses

I and the rest of the Water Rocks! team had the privilege to read Speak Up, Show Up, and Stand Out: The Nine Communication Rules You Need to Succeed by Loretta Malandro, a book that teaches different guidelines to improve your communication, whether it be in the workplace or even in your day-to-day life. While all nine rules are important, this is the one that stood out to me the most. We tend to get defensive when we make a mistake, either by blaming someone else or making an excuse about the circumstances. The solution is simple in concept – just own the problem and accept when you made a mistake – but it’s hard for us to take responsibility for our actions. This chapter struck a chord with me as I, like many other people, got defensive whenever I made a mistake, and I took a lot from this chapter with me into my day-to-day life.

Sometimes, you Just Have to Say “Oh, Well.”

This lesson did not come from a book, but from my coworker Todd. In the hectic life that is travelling to schools and assemblies, sometimes things don’t work out how you planned. A wrong turn is taken en route, the contact person tells you the wrong school building, an iPad is left behind. It can be easy to stress out over these things as they come up. However, stressing out after the fact does little to fix the situation. The best thing to do is take a breath and say “Oh, well.” I always admired Todd’s ability to keep himself relaxed and away from stress, and I aspire to have that ability.

Cedar Rapids is in the East

This is something I did not know for certain before travelling all over the state with Water Rocks!. Before AmeriCorps, I lived the stereotypical midwestern life where I only knew my county and the counties around me, not knowing where anything else in the state was. In fact, it was so bad that I didn’t know what quadrant of the state most areas were! AmeriCorps gave me the opportunity to travel all over the state, and even into South Dakota for assemblies twice.

This is a map showing all the locations I travelled to throughout the year. I went all over the state, from Decorah, to Sioux City, to Council Bluffs (many times!). Travelling my home state gave me the chance to become more familiar with it than I’d ever been, and I’m glad I got the chance.

AmeriCorps may be ending, but a new journey is beginning. I am now starting my first semester at DMACC in Ankeny to begin my Video Production Diploma. It is a good fit for me and I hope to meet many new friends when I get there. Even with my completed service, I will take everything I learned with me. And blow people away when I tell them Cedar Rapids is, in fact, in the East.

Jack Schilling

Jack Schilling is now completing his year of service with the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, having served with Water Rocks! since September 2017. Our record-breaking Water Rocks! outreach efforts this past year would not have been possible without our two awesome AmeriCorps service members, Jack and Megan (who you’ll be hearing from soon) — many thanks!

Every practice has its place

As we consider water quality and land use across our state, every practice has its place. Which conservation practices and land use changes make the most sense where in terms of keeping soil in place? In terms of reducing nutrient export? In terms of building wildlife habitat?

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goals of 45% nitrogen and phosphorus load reductions will only be achieved through a broad suite of practices – including in-field management (reduced tillage, cover crops, and fine-tuned nutrient management) AND edge-of-field conservation practices.  It’s an AND, not an OR!

Farmers and landowners from Dallas and Polk Counties got to see and learn about edge-of-field conservation practices firsthand at last evening’s Iowa Learning Farms field day hosted by Dallas Center farmer Tim Minton. Located in the Walnut Creek Watershed, this area faces unique challenges being at the interface of productive agricultural lands and urban expansion. Walnut Creek Watershed is losing 430 acres of farmland each year to urban development, while clean, healthy waters are needed for an ever-growing population base.



At the end of the day, it’s all about being good stewards out here. How well can we keep that soil in place?  How can we keep the water resources clean?  I’m really taking the long view here – What’s it going to do next year? 5 years down the road? 10 years? 20 years? When it’s in my kids’ hands?  It’s definitely a long-term approach. Tim Minton, Farmer

If you want to protect your investment, you’re got to put money back into it. Working with partners (NRCS and state) is a great way to do that. They want it to be win-win – ease of use and ease of execution. They can help you think outside the box, plus use their resources and expertise to help you do these things you want to do! Practices like these [saturated buffer and wetland] are in our best interest, AND in the best interest of society. Tim Minton, Farmer

I’ve been on this neighboring land for over 70 years. Back in the 1940s-50s, we would go down to the creek and it was always muddy. There were no minnows. You couldn’t see anything – didn’t matter if there had just been a heavy rain or no rain at all. When this [wetland] got put in, right away, it looked just like tap water. – Neighbor Jim

It’s all about finding the right practice for the right place. At just a 40% nitrate removal efficiency, this 5.7 ac wetland is equivalent to taking 567 acres of cropland out of production. PLUS the grasses and emergent vegetation provide wildlife habitat – it’s a definite magnet for waterfowl. It’s really beneficial for the ecology of the whole system!
– Brandon Dittman, IDALS

Every practice has its place, and we’ll continue showcasing these practices at field days and workshops across the state. Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Nathan Stevenson and Ann Staudt

Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon

Interactive Rock Your Watershed! game takes top honors in the Educational Aids Competition for novel approach to teaching players of all ages about watershed science and ecosystem impacts

Water Rocks! received a Blue Ribbon Award in Educational Aids from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) at the ASABE 2018 Annual International Meeting held in Detroit, Michigan July 29 through August 1, 2018.

“Rock Your Watershed!: A Game of Choice and Chance” is a browser-based game that engages players in applying various land uses, both agricultural and urban, conservation practices, and runoff mitigation techniques, then offers immediate feedback regarding the impacts of these choices. Players quickly see the environmental and cost impacts of conservation and learn about the natural ecosystem along the way. The game can be found and played online at http://www.waterrocks.org/ Players can see their scores immediately under multiple rainfall scenarios, play again as many times as they like, and the top twenty-five are included in the leaderboard.

“We are honored to be recognized by a prestigious global organization such as ASABE with a blue ribbon for Rock Your Watershed!, and are excited to share the game with colleagues from around the world,” said Matthew Helmers, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University and faculty advisor to Water Rocks!. “The Water Rocks! team has done extensive research into the appeal of previous versions of the game to different demographics. We’ve incorporated that research to make this latest edition rewarding to players of all ages and backgrounds. Animals play a much more prominent role with a new biodiversity scoring metric and the option to add grazing livestock on the land, plus there are also four new urban development choices. Playing this game can be a significant learning tool and we look forward to seeing many new names on our leaderboard.”

Teachers attending the Water Rocks! Summit compete in the Rock Your Watershed! game and discuss ways to utilize the interactive game in their classrooms.

Developed in partnership with Entrepreneurial Technologies, a web development firm in Urbandale, Iowa, Rock Your Watershed! moves the science and research spreadsheets to an accessible and engaging learning environment for all ages.

“The game is as simple or complex as the user wants to make it, and it’s really catching on,” concluded Helmers. “Since its launch in 2012, the game has been played more than 48,000 times, with some 20,000 of those plays taking place within the past year.”

Future Farming for the Greater Good

My name is Dawn Henderson, I am a senior in Agronomy here at ISU and this summer I am an intern with the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms programs. This opportunity has combined two of my passions: conservation agriculture and educating the public. Throughout the summer I have already had many opportunities to work with people of all ages and backgrounds in many different venues, but the message has remained the same: we must appreciate and protect what we have while we have it. In this blog post I wanted to highlight one of the more recent events I had the privilege of attending.

This past Friday, June 22nd, I and two other interns took the newest ILF Conservation Station trailer to Sioux Center, Iowa. This trailer, “On the Edge”, focuses on two of the newest edge-of-field practices farmers have the option of implementing in their fields. Saturated buffers and bioreactors are both relatively new ideas that work to reduce the levels of nitrate in our water by allowing the natural process of denitrification to take place, rather than routing all of the tile drainage water directly into ditches, streams, and waterways. The struggle is, these systems operate entirely underground, and once they are installed observation is not possible, making it difficult to understand how they operate. The On the Edge trailer is beneficial because it provides the opportunity to see what is happening below ground, from the main tile line to the stream.

At this event, hosted by Dordt College, a majority of the audience was comprised of farmers with an interest in conservation. Excellent questions were asked and encouraging conversations were had. Many questions were asked, such as, “How long do each of these practices last?” That answer is different for each structure. The saturated buffer is expected to last indefinitely, with minor upkeep on the flow control structure; the bioreactor is expected to need the woodchips refreshed every 10-15 years.

Due to the fact that both of these practices are still in their infant stages many farmers are curious, but cautious. One of the most common questions was, “How do these practices directly benefit the farmer?” This is a simple question with a difficult answer. Edge-of-field practices are meant to improve the health of our water, meaning the reductions that come from bioreactors and saturated buffers are for the greater good, not necessarily the individual. That does not mean there are no benefits to installing these practices. With the right design and vegetation, these areas could become habitat for wildlife and pollinators. In addition to benefitting wildlife, these practices are also typically installed on marginally producing lands. By taking these lands out of production and putting them into conservation, the landowner may end up saving money, in addition to bettering the environment.

These new practices show promise in the field of conservation to aid in reaching the goal of 45% nitrate reduction, put into place with Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Edge-of-field practices are intended to be used in concurrence with in-field practices, such as no-till and cover crops. By combining all of these practices, nutrient transport and soil erosion can be reduced by a significant amount, allowing Iowa to achieve the goal of reducing our nutrient contribution by 45%.

Based on the level of interest and support I have seen at multiple events with this new trailer, I am hopeful that these two new practices will find a firm place in our Iowan farming culture in the future.

Dawn Henderson

Dawn Henderson is a senior in Agronomy, participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University. She is a graduate of Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn Senior High School in northwest Iowa. 

Every Little Bit Counts

What do you know about earthworms? Before this internship, I knew a few basics: they’re useful for fishing and they live underground. But, what do these small creatures have to do with water quality and soil health? It turns out that they are very good indicators. Today I’m going to touch more on our most recent project for this summer, earthworm counting, and how it has shown me that every little bit of information counts.

Before we start each research project, the other interns and I all sit down with our supervisors and discuss what the projects are and how we’re supposed to go about them. When this project was presented to us, I was more than a bit skeptical about how this could help us. So far, through the two weeks of earthworm counting that we have completed, that skepticism I originally had has faded away.

LEFT: I am looking for the middens within the area of our research point. RIGHT: Cutting the cover crop and removing residue to find the middens.

Earthworm counting is exactly what it sounds like. We head to test plots all over the state to take a look at the number of earthworms within a 19” x 30” frame between the rows of crops, corn or soybeans. We count the middens, the tops of the worms’ holes where the organic matter is pulled into the tunnel, closely examining the soil surface looking for the mounds they leave behind. When we think we found one, we dig with a pair of scissors to look at the underside of the midden and find the tunnel. The main variable that we look at is cover crops – are there observable differences in the number of earthworms between strips with cover crops and those without? Earthworms are very good for our soil and the more we have, the better the soil health of that area is.

One of our other interns, Kaleb, found a midden while we were at a farm in southwest Iowa.

The last time that I went home, my cousin, who is in 6th grade, asked me what some of the projects were that I was working on and I told her that I was doing earthworm counting. She didn’t sound very impressed when that’s what I told her, so I decided to have her complete the experiment herself at home. After about a week of testing the fields at home I had my cousin tell me any conclusions that she came up with. She told me that in the places with cover crops, the number of earthworms was higher than places with no cover crops — which is the same exact results we have been getting in the research plots across the state. But, that wasn’t all. To me, the best part about all of this was that I allowed a 6th grader to conduct an experiment that can provide important information about soil health in about 30 minutes of instructions.

Research can come from anywhere and anything and the impact it can have is limitless. It also appeals to me in that it allows for all generations to be involved with the same issues. You can have a 6th grader counting earthworms to find out more about soil health while at the same time you can have a farmer taking core samples to test for the same thing. Research is a big part of my internship, but it’s also a big part of the future. When understanding complex issues such as soil health, every little bit of information counts, and I’m super excited that I get to experience all of this research firsthand this summer!

Donovan Wildman

Donovan Wildman is participating in the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program at Iowa State University.  Wildman grew up near West Branch, IA (Clear Creek Amana High School). In the fall, he will be starting his sophomore year at Iowa State University, majoring in Agricultural Engineering with an emphasis in Land and Water Resources.