County Park Adventure Series Promotes Outdoor Recreation and Exploration

Unique guides to county parks and wildlife areas across Iowa provide families and youth with a roadmap to learning and exploration outdoors and close to home

Water Rocks! has launched its County Park Adventure Series, providing activity guides and outdoor adventure suggestions at county parks and wildlife areas throughout Iowa. Covering one park in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, the adventure series guides offer detailed information about each park including amenities and suggested age-appropriate family and youth activities to aid in exploring the natural world in each location.

During 2020, Iowa’s state parks have seen record attendance due to both the centennial celebration of Iowa State Parks and the shutdown of many recreational sites and activities. This project was intentionally focused on county parks to encourage folks to learn about and explore nature’s beauty at these lesser-known, less-visited destinations while maintaining physical distancing without the crowds seen at state parks.

“After spring school closures and a summer of isolation, many families are feeling stifled and cooped up, and as winter approaches, we are excited to help them take advantage of local outdoor destinations that can be enjoyed year-round,” said Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks!. “Every season offers adventure and natural beauty in Iowa. Whether identifying animal tracks in the snow, hunting for the first signs of spring, or enjoying fall colors, these less-traveled parks are a great resource  for all of us. With a guide to a local park in hand, visitors can explore and learn together while enjoying the outdoors – and escaping the indoors.”

Containing park-specific family friendly activities, each original activity guide offers families and youth fun ways to learn about their environment while enjoying the beauty of Iowa’s parks and recreational areas. Visit the Water Rocks! website’s County Park Adventure Series page to select a county and download an activity guide.

During the summer of 2020, the Water Rocks! summer interns imagined, created, and developed the county park adventure project. Fanning out across the state, they explored and developed unique activities for each park they visited. According to intern Riley Wilgenbusch, “While reaching all 99 counties was challenging, getting out across the state gave us all a huge opportunity to see and learn about Iowa’s different landscapes and ecosystems. And we are all very proud that the resulting series of guides are a great asset for those interested in exploring parks near and far.”

“This project came about as we responded to the sudden closures and restrictions related to COVID-19, but we are delighted with the guides and hope they can be a resource for Iowans for many years,” said Comito. “This is one of those situations where a sudden disruption to our summer plans resulted in an unexpected, yet beneficial, outcome. Our interns discovered many of Iowa’s hidden gems and we will all benefit from their adventures.”

To view or download County Park Adventure Series activity guides, visit the Water Rocks! website’s County Park Adventure Series page.

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Vote for the Fall Colors Found Art People’s Choice Winners!

There were so many beautiful entries to our Fall Colors Found Art contest and we need your help awarding People’s Choice!

You can vote for your favorite adult and youth entries on our Facebook page.

To vote, use 👍 and ❤️ for your favorites.

Adult

Youth

Voting ends at 10 am on Friday, Oct. 23—winners will be announced that afternoon!

Hilary Pierce

A Time of Metamorphosis

2020 feels like a metamorphosis year on so many fronts. 

As I reflect on how our Water Rocks! youth education program has adapted/ pivoted/ reinvented itself (choose your buzzword), the idea of a metamorphosis seems most appropriate. Our program is centered on teaching youth about water, soil, biodiversity, and other environmental science concepts, so viewing this transformation from a biological sciences perspective just seems like a natural fit.

Those of you that know me well know I’m a pretty simple person. But occasionally I’ll have these random deep thoughts, like:

  • What does a caterpillar’s transformation to a butterfly really feel like?
  • Does it hurt?
  • Is it true they actually have to eat and digest themselves to kickstart the chrysalis stage of the process?

For Water Rocks!, this time of metamorphosis has meant transforming our youth outreach program from one centered on in-person, face-to-face interactive presentations and music assemblies in schools across the state, to something suddenly and completely different.  We are creatures of habit. Change is hard. (See questions above: What does the caterpillar’s transformation feel like? Does it hurt?). However, in reality, the building blocks were primed and in place for Water Rocks! to adapt, survive, and thrive …

For years now, our Water Rocks! team has been writing music, producing videos, developing enhanced learning activities for teachers, and delivering science-based content in creative, out-of-the box ways … that’s just how we do business!  This is what ultimately equipped us to quickly transition our offerings to meet the unique needs of students, teachers, and parents during the rapid spread of COVID-19. Despite a global pandemic, natural resources, water quality, and environmental education are too important to just put on hold or set aside. 

We are thrilled to have now developed a full “menu” of offerings with Water Rocks!, ranging from outdoor school presentations while the weather permits this fall, to a brand new, puppet show-inspired video series poised to launch later this month. Read on for a glimpse into the unique and multifaceted approaches Water Rocks! is taking to connect with students and teachers across the state, engaging them on timely natural resources topics.


Outdoor School Presentations

Equipped with tables, chairs, face coverings, hand sanitizer, wireless microphones, and a full PA system, the Water Rocks! team now loads up its Conservation Station trailer 3-4 times per week to hit the road for OUTDOOR school presentations! We’ve completely retooled our signature indoor school presentations and assemblies from the ground up to align with physical distancing standards and to ensure a safe outdoor educational experience for everyone involved. Students may learn about watersheds through humorous songs, skits, and raps, or they may discover the plight of pollinators as they compete in the Monarch Migration Madness game.  K-8 students are loving the interactive and outdoor aspects of these Water Rocks! presentations—something refreshing and completely different during school days that are heavy in screen time.


Virtual School Presentations

Just as pollinators are journeying south, the Water Rocks! team will soon be migrating, too—indoors. We are excited to offer our brand new Water Rocks! Live Streaming virtual school presentations beginning November 17! Designed as a hybrid news broadcast/variety show, these presentations will originate from the ISU campus, from our “WR! news studio” set, while also providing the opportunity for students to see conservation practices out on the landscape through “field reporter”-style interviews (e.g. students will “visit” Iowa wetlands, even in the dead of winter, via video footage captured in the field during the fall months). Water Rocks! virtual school presentations will be coordinated with one teacher and classroom of K-8 students at a time to maximize opportunities for (virtual) interaction and to customize the presentation to the local geography and water quality issues.



Entertaining + Educational Videos

What do you get when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood meets Water Rocks!? = HARMONY BROOK WATERSHED!.  Launching yet this month, Harmony Brook Watershed is an original, puppet-show based video series designed to teach elementary school students all about natural resources and the environment around them, featuring characters that are all native Iowa species: Fox, Frog, Owl, and Leo (short for Lepidoptera –> swallowtail butterfly). Each 3-5 minute episode is filled with moments of laughter, learning, and appreciation of the surrounding natural world. Stay tuned to our YouTube channel so you’re ready for the debut of this new series!  While you’re on our YouTube page, check out two other series that we’ve launched in recent months: WR! Out-of-the Box and WR! Unplugged—50 episodes between these two series!



Contests and Challenges

Water Rocks! is all about encouraging Iowans of all ages to get outside and experience the amazing natural resources around them. One of the fun ways we’ve done that is through a series of contests and challenges!  Our Fall Colors Found Art Contest is open now through October 19—get out for a walk, collect interesting nature items (leaves, rocks, feathers, twigs, pinecones, etc.), and arrange them into an artistic masterpiece!  The contest features both youth and adult categories, with prizes awarded in each group. Previous Water Rocks! challenges have included Earth Week Chalk Challenge, Earth Week Found Art, and the TREE-mendous Iowa Tree Challenge.


As this year of metamorphosis continues to unfold, stay tuned to the Water Rocks! website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates on our virtual school presentations, video releases, upcoming contests, and more WR! goodness.

Ann Staudt

 

Water Rocks! Fall Colors Found Art Contest

Water Rocks! and Artworks Studio invite everyone to get outside, enjoy the fresh autumn air, and express their creativity with what they find along the way by participating in the Fall Colors Found Art Contest!

Participants will create works of art from natural items they find in the great outdoors. The contest is open now through October 19 and features adult and youth entry groups. For complete contest rules and to upload a photo of your artistic creation, visit waterrocks.org/fall-colors.

Online voting through the Water Rocks! Facebook page for the People’s Choice winner in each age category and consideration by a judging panel will take place October 20-22. Winners will be announced October 23!

We have lots of fabulous prizes to give away, so get outside, appreciate the beauty of nature, and create your found art masterpiece today!

Hilary Pierce

Water Rocks! TREE-mendous Iowa Tree Challenge

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Enjoy the summer weather and appreciate the trees around you during the Water Rocks! “TREE-mendous Iowa Tree Challenge”! The challenge, which will run August 3 through 17, invites Iowans to get outside and discover the trees that grow across the state by snapping pictures of themselves with as many varieties of trees as they can.

We have awesome prize packs available, based on the number of different trees you find! Prize packs will be awarded to those who successfully complete the challenge, while supplies last!

For full challenge rules and details, visit https://www.waterrocks.org/trees.

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The TREE-mendous Iowa Tree Challenge is being produced in partnership with the Iowa Environmental Council, Iowa’s largest and most comprehensive environmental coalition and dedicated to education and advocacy and working together to protect and preserve Iowa’s environment.

We can’t wait to see your tree photos—be sure to follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook (@waterrocksisu) to see our favorite submissions!

Hilary Pierce

Water Rocks! Amps Up Online Environmental Learning Fun

Water Rocks! is expanding its online portfolio of environmental and water quality education programming with the addition of two streaming video programs. Water Rocks! Unplugged is a weekly studio session featuring Water Rocks! music and associated lessons. Water Rocks! Out of the Box is a series of short natural resources lessons with at-home activities. Both programs leverage the strong science education content typically delivered through the Water Rocks! classroom visits and assemblies which have been put on hold this year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The unprecedented closure of schools across Iowa led us to brainstorm some new ways to use technology and remote learning to continue delivering our natural resources and water quality content and lessons to youth around Iowa,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “Our enewsletter, The Monday Mix, has been well received, and these new streaming options will give teachers, parents, and kids some new options to have fun while learning—all while keeping natural resources, water quality, and the environment around us at the forefront. We are eager to provide resources and support teachers and parents who are facing incredible challenges.”

Water Rocks! Unplugged features Water Rocks! music frontman Todd Stevens, performing acoustic versions of hit songs from the Water Rocks! catalog. Each performance is accompanied by a quick lesson highlighting the key science elements related to the song. New videos will drop on Facebook and YouTube every Tuesday and Thursday at 1 p.m. CDT – beginning TODAY, April 14!

Water Rocks! Out of the Box is a series of virtual video lessons featuring student intern Emma Flemming, sharing fun, hands-on, at-home adaptations of classroom lessons and interactive activities from the Water Rocks! classroom visit program. Each lesson runs 5-10 minutes, and a new video will drop on Facebook and YouTube every Wednesday and Friday at 1 p.m. CDT – beginning TOMORROW, April 15!

Aligned with the new normal of working from home and learning from home, these video projects are being recorded and produced in the performer’s homes.

“Flexibility and innovation are watchwords right now, and Emma and Todd have both come through with creative ideas, effort and content for today’s youth,” continued Staudt. “Emma has shown great ingenuity in adapting the Water Rocks! activities for at-home use. Building on her experience visiting classrooms in our Water Resources Internship Program last summer—she’s truly driving the Out of the Box project. We are excited to launch both of these new video series.”

As Iowa schools implement online programs at all grade levels, the Water Rocks! online resources and online learning modules provide science-based content that is easy to use. All Water Rocks! programming is correlated to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) adopted by most Iowa school districts. Teacher, parent and student links to music, videos, games and educational resources are available free of charge at www.waterrocks.org

Be the first on your block to catch the new videos Tuesday through Friday each week at 1 p.m.! Just follow these links to Water Rocks!’ social media pages:
https://www.facebook.com/WaterRocksISU
https://www.youtube.com/user/WaterRocksISU

Water Rocks! eNewsletter Offers Fresh Science Activities Weekly

Water Rocks! has launched The Monday Mix, a new multimedia e-newsletter providing conservation and water quality education materials and activities for school-age youth who are suddenly “learning from home.”

“In these uncertain times when schools are closed and we’re all social distancing from one other, we here at Water Rocks! want to continue to make science education fun, interactive and accessible for Iowa’s students,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “Water Rocks! has a wealth of fun STEM and science-based educational videos, songs, games and classroom materials that are ready for use by students, teachers and parents. We encourage everyone to explore the site, sign up for The Monday Mix and have some fun learning about our state’s environment and diverse ecosystems.”

The Monday Mix is distributed via email to all subscribers each Monday. Current subscribers to the Water Rocks! newsletter will automatically receive The Monday Mix. To sign up to receive The Monday Mix, click here.

Content each week will highlight Water Rocks! music videos and fun natural resources-related activities that can easily be done at home by students in grades K-8.

Water Rocks! is widely known for its innovative conservation education programming delivered to elementary and middle schools across Iowa through a mixture of classroom visits, school assemblies and outdoor classrooms. With the uncertainty of school furloughs happening throughout Iowa, the Water Rocks! team is extending much of its library of content for individual use in homes.

“We understand the strain the sudden closure of schools is having on parents and teachers, and we are delighted to share our materials in ways that will facilitate fun learning for the whole family,” concluded Staudt.

Here’s a sample of some soil fun facts shared in last week’s edition:

Water Rocks! Annual Report Reflects Impacts on Students Across Iowa

The annual school visit evaluation report from Water Rocks! highlights comprehension increases among youth, outreach to new schools and underserved counties, and accolades from teachers

Water Rocks! has published its 2018-2019 School Visits Evaluation Report, detailing the impacts Water Rocks! visits had on students, teachers, and conservation education during the 2018-19 academic year. Water Rocks! teams conducted 197 school visits, 17 more than the previous year, and participated in 13 outdoor classrooms, one more than the previous year. Having identified 11 priority counties that have had limited exposure to Water Rocks!, the team redoubled efforts to connect with schools in these underserved areas – garnering success in eight of the targeted counties.

Water Rocks! is a uniquely Iowan youth conservation and water quality education program that uses a creative mix of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), music and the arts to connect with students in grades K-12 with science-based information about Iowa’s natural resources and ecosystems. Through high-energy classroom presentations, outdoor classroom programs and school assemblies, Water Rocks! energized nearly 33,000 youth during the school year.

With a keen eye on constant improvement, Water Rocks! uses several assessment tools to gather feedback from teachers and students. Among the teachers’ comments were “engaging to the entire class,” “reinforced the ecosystem unit,” and “retention of the information was amazing!” In addition, assessments before and after lessons showed improved comprehension among students for almost all programs when compared to the previous year.

“This report is a guidepost to improving how we teach these important lessons and assure we are delivering the most value in the short time we are with the students,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “The assessments help us identify topics that need more repetition to plant the ideas and concepts more firmly in the students’ minds. We are working with the future leaders and decision-makers for our state, and we feel our role is crucial to building awareness of conservation and water quality for future generations.”


Key findings in the report include:

  • Presented in 197 schools and 13 outdoor classrooms, reaching 32,800 students
  • Key topic comprehension levels increased 40 percentage points or more in all programs when comparing students’ pre- and post-lesson evaluations
  • Of teachers attending Water Rocks! assemblies, 99% would recommend the program to peers

To read the report, learn about assessment methods or to view comments from students and teachers, please visit https://www.waterrocks.org/201819-water-rocks-evaluation-report.

The Ripple Effect

Backpacks and binders. Construction paper and crayons. Pens, pencils, and Post-its. Back-to-school season is upon us! There’s such an excitement in the air as students get stocked up on supplies in preparation for the start of a new school year ahead.

While school supply shopping in August is symbolic of the back-to-school movement, back-to-school preparations have been underway since June for 64 K-12 teachers participating in the Water Rocks! Teacher Summit workshops put on by our team. These teachers descended upon the Iowa State University campus for two days of learning and full immersion on all things water, soil, and natural resources.

Why train teachers? Educating youth on water, land, and wildlife issues in the natural environment is a team effort!  While the demand for agricultural products is ever increasing, as is society’s demand for clean water, the health of our water bodies and our land rests in the engagement of youth as the future decision-makers. At the same time, schools statewide face ever-tightening budgets and elimination of field trips exposing students to these topics. Enter Water Rocks! and our Teacher Summits.

If we can help classroom teachers expand their knowledge, comfort, and confidence in teaching about natural resources issues and science-based solutions for Iowa’s environment, we can build a cohort of passionate, energetic educators that are on the front lines in reaching the next generation. If we can equip teachers with hands-on games, interactive activities, and ready-to-use materials to help convey conservation concepts in the classroom, we can create a ripple effect in terms of youth water education. Training teachers means the potential for directly reaching hundreds, if not thousands, of students statewide as teachers integrate these Iowa-centric natural resources topics, games, and activities year after year. Training is one of the three keys pillars of the Conservation Learning Group at ISU, and the Water Rocks! Teacher Summits help educators make waves when it comes to integrating natural resources topics in creative and engaging ways with their students.

Over the course of each Water Rocks! Teacher Summit, participants are introduced to agricultural and environmental topics through presentations by ISU faculty and researchers working directly in these fields, broadening their understanding of the current science. How is that information translated back into the classroom, whether it be to 4th graders or high school students?  The Water Rocks! team makes it easy, pairing each expert presentation with a fun and engaging hands-on activity or interactive game that teachers can use with their students back in the classroom. For instance, Randall Cass, ISU Extension Entomologist, spoke to participants about the challenges facing bees and pollinators, which was followed by participants competing in the original Monarch Migration Madness game developed by Water Rocks!. Each school team goes home with an activity kit chock full of ready-to-use educational materials for the classroom. Finally, a field tour gives teachers the opportunity to better understand the connections between land management, water quality, and wildlife habitat as they explored conservation practices firsthand on the ground.

Since 2014, Water Rocks! has conducted 13 summits, reaching 263 teachers, 14 high school peer mentors and 62 Extension and environmental educators—multiplying the impact of our engaging youth water education efforts across the state and across generations!


Mikell Brosamle, Galva-Holstein Community Schools, can’t wait for her students to experience the connectedness of the environment around them through the use of games and activities:

“I found the Summit to be refreshing and invigorating. … I received a plethora of useful classroom materials and information on how to present them in a format that kids will LOVE! … With all the hands-on games, intriguing music videos, along with educational activities to support the lesson, the students will be excited about learning how to improve their environment and save habitats by learning that all water is connected. It will teach them that EVERYONE plays an important role and that their choices are important.”


Several teachers acknowledged how much they personally learned about agricultural production, water quality, and the environment around them. Kathy Lynott, from Erskine Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, shared how her personal perspectives have shifted after two days at the Water Rocks! Summit:

“I predict I’m going to drive into a ditch or get pulled over for swerving on the road. This is a result of my participation in the WATER ROCKS! Summit. My erratic driving happened the MINUTE I left the Summit.

 “My eyes are constantly wandering off to corn and bean fields now!? I’m looking at the slope of the fields, if they’re draining into little waterways, what, if any, buffer crops are surrounding the fields, how large the buffer crops are and I’m even noticing the curvature of the fields. My poor husband had no idea what he was in for when I arrived home. … He grew up on a farm so he was already pretty knowledgeable about land and water. He was, however, still open to listen to new ideas especially about the pollution nitrate and phosphorus are causing to fresh water sources.

 “It’s not just nitrate and phosphorus… it’s a combination of trash, poop, loose soil, fertilizers, pesticides, and oil all going into our water. Yes, the same water we drink from. Doing our part by picking up dog poo, recycling and conserving water are small ways we can make a big difference. … Also, the milkweed around our property will now be carefully tended to. I literally mowed AROUND 2 plants I noticed next to the fence line yesterday.”


With back-to-school on the horizon, it’s high time to get those scissors, staplers, and spiral notebooks ready to go. And you can send the kids and grandkids back to school knowing that there’s an amazing cohort of teachers across the state equipped with sound science, brimming with enthusiasm, and ready to rock their students’ worlds when it comes to learning about Iowa’s water, land, and wildlife.

Ann Staudt

The 2019 Water Rocks! Teacher Summits were made possible through funding from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (USEPA Section 319) and Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

First Experience at My Very Own County Fair

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.


On Friday July 26th I was scheduled to go to the Hamilton County Fair in Webster City with the Conservation Station trailer. Now this fair happens to be my hometown county fair, but the thing is, I have never been to it before. In my time with Water Rocks!, I have worked at a lot of different small town fairs, so I was curious to see how the Hamilton Co. Fair compared, and what it had to offer.

Going to county fairs around Iowa is a cultural experience!  Some of the fairs are pretty small in size, but they’re filled with a lot of pride around the 4-H and FFA exhibits and the livestock, like the Chickasaw Co. Fair. This year I also attended some medium sized fairs, like the Johnson Co. Fair in Iowa City. I originally believed this one would be huge considering the location, but it was still highly focused on livestock with a few other trailers and activities. It did also offer some different food options, including a homemade ice cream stand which really caught my eye.

And of course there have also been a few large fairs that I have attended as well, such as the Great Jones Co. Fair and the Mississippi Valley Fair. Both of these fairs offer lots of different things. Jones Co. offers dirt bike races, fair rides, and concerts. This year they had TobyMac perform along with some other relatively popular artists. And as for the Mississippi Valley Fair, they had an entire building dedicated to kids activities including interesting speakers and a petting zoo. They also had plenty of rides and food stands that span probably close to a half of a mile. Plus they bring in big name artists such as Dan + Shay and Nickelback, just to name a couple.


Arriving at the Hamilton Co. Fairgrounds, what first came to my attention is that it is a relatively small fair, which I expected, but they had a midway and a really nice sized stage for the artists that would be playing the fair. This was quite surprising to me. I did not expect it to have all the different things that it had. There were quite a few livestock buildings, as most fairs have. Another thing that surprised me was the many different food vendors. There were the usual ones like corn dogs, funnel cakes, and lemonade, plus they also had a few that I would say are less common such as smoked barbeque, tacos, and a stand completely dedicated to chicken that went by the name of Chicken City. You know I’m all about the fair food!

Photos from http://www.hamcoexpo.com/fair/photos/ 

Now as for my overall experience at the Hamilton Co. Fair, it was good. One thing that was especially unique was that myself and my coworkers got to teach a 4-H STEM camp that was happening at the fair. We taught students from 3rd to 5th grade all about the Fabulous World of Wetlands!

 

Then after the camp, we were on site for 3 more hours, talking to other fair goers at our Conservation Station trailer and encouraging them to check out our hands-on interactive activities.  While the fair was on the smaller end of those we visit, all the conversations we had with people were great, as they were very interested in what we were trying to teach. Most of the people that we saw were really interested in the Enviroscape (our “Watershed Game”). Even though it was my hometown fair, I did not end up talking to anyone that I knew from high school or my local community.

County fairs seem to be a summer staple here in Iowa. I can now proudly say, at 19, that I’ve finally been to my own local county fair!  Next summer I will have to go back on my own time to experience everything else that the Hamilton Co. Fair has to offer!


Joshua Harms