Outdoor Adventure + Exploration with Water Rocks! Camps

Today’s guest blog post comes from summer intern Elizabeth Schwab. Originally from Levittown, PA (just outside Philadelphia), Elizabeth is a senior at ISU, double majoring in Environmental Science and Agronomy. She is also a radio DJ at 88.5 FM KURE on the side!

Monday, June 26, we held our first of a series of three Water Rocks! Summer Day Camps, this one in the beautiful Winterset City Park in Madison County. I saw my first of the famed Madison County covered bridges (the Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge) on the drive to the shelter where we set up camp, but unfortunately the bridge didn’t appear to be designed to handle the fifteen-passenger van we were traveling in. I’ll have to return to Madison County to tour the covered bridges some other time.

After organizing our supplies and activities, we were ready to begin our day; shortly thereafter, the campers began to arrive. The 23 campers, ages nine to fourteen, were organized into two packs, each led by two Water Rocks! team members. My fellow intern Andrew and I spent our day with the blue pack, who soon named themselves the “Blue Ferrets,” while Jenn and Josh led the red pack.

We kicked off the morning with some music and dancing led by Todd. I’m not much of a dancer, as anyone who saw me “on stage” on Monday morning can confirm. However, I was excited that some of the more exuberant campers soon joined our staff up front to show off their moves (and prove that they have much more talent than I do). This was a great high-energy start to the day! After we were all welcomed to camp, we split up into our packs for some icebreakers and time to get to know each other, and then we were able to dive into the lessons!

One of my favorite aspects of the educational modules that the Water Rocks! team presents is that they make education a lot of fun, both for the presenters and the audience. For the first part of the morning, Jenn and I led each pack through sessions on wetlands, which involved playing such games as Habitat Hopscotch and Wetland Bingo.

Throughout the day, campers also learned about watersheds, contemplated biodiversity (while playing Biodiversity Jenga and Musical Oxbows), and participated in a “game show” with our Dig Into Soil module! In times like these, I sometimes wish to be an observer rather than a presenter at our outreach events. I have learned, however, that leading students or campers through these activities is just as fun, even if it means that I can’t win prizes in Wetland Bingo or develop my own piece of lakeside property during the Watershed module.

What better way is there to reflect on why we should conserve and appreciate our water resources than by playing a few water games? After lunch and a quick trip to the playground, the packs competed against each other to play a few games, with bucket relays and water balloons proving to be the stars of the show. It just wouldn’t be summer camp without water sports, and these activities were certainly a memorable part of the camp experience!

It was a busy day in Winterset, and by the end of the camp day everyone was ready to take things a little more slowly. We ended our day by making “edible soil” to complement the afternoon’s lesson about soil, and then spent some time reflecting and writing in the nature journals that we created during arts and crafts time earlier in the day. This was a great way to wrap up our day—I’m excited about nearly any opportunity that involves either chocolate pudding or crafts, and being able to tie both of these to other topics that I’m passionate about was an added bonus.

As the campers departed at the end of the day, many of them expressed interest in returning for future events or camps. I am proud to have been a part of making this day memorable for so many young people, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to return to our next two Water Rocks! camps in Des Moines on July 6 and 7. Every time I go to an event or camp I discover something new about communicating scientific information in a way that is engaging to the audience as well as to me as an educator. And I get to have fun doing it! There really is no better way to learn.

Elizabeth Schwab

NOTE: Limited spots are still available for 9-14 year olds in our upcoming Water Rocks! Summer Day Camps at Greenwood Park in Des Moines – choose from Thursday, July 6 or Friday, July 7!  Do you have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbor that might be interested?  Camps are FREE of charge; we just require registration in advance. Registrations are being accepted through NOON tomorrow – Friday, June 30.

Conservation, Recreation, & Rhubarb Meet on the River

You were first introduced to our summer student interns in a blog post earlier this week (Meet our 2017 Water Resources Interns) – now it’s time to hear from them in first person!  Each student in our Water Resources Internship program will be blogging at some point over the course of the summer, so you can get a sneak peek into the many different projects they are involved with, from school visits, camps, and community outreach, to all kinds of field work related to soil health and water quality.

Our first student guest blog post comes from Kaleb Baber, who has just completed his first year of studies at Iowa State University, majoring in Agronomy. Kaleb grew up on a family farm near Weston, MO (north of Kansas City), where he grew sweet corn, raised beef cattle, and was actively involved in FFA. We’ll let Kaleb take it from here!

This past Saturday, June 3, I had the pleasure of traveling with the Conservation Station to Rhubarb on the River, an event held in Manchester, Iowa. This was the first community outreach event I have been to for Water Rocks!/Iowa Learning Farms. It was a fun-filled day of tasty rhubarb creations and great live music – all just a stone’s throw away from the beautiful Maquoketa River.

We left Ames around 6:30 in the morning, Conservation Station in tow (and coffee in hand). We arrived in Manchester around 9:00 and set up the Rainfall Simulator, Enviroscape, and Poo Toss game just in time for the event to start.

Families soon began to visit the Conservation Station. We spoke to over 180 people, ranging in age from babies to seniors. Children got a kick out of tossing (fake) dog poo and making it rain at the Enviroscape (what we call the Watershed Game), while their parents learned about land management practices, soil health and water quality at the Rainfall Simulator.

One conversation I had with a couple from Marion stood out in particular. They were interested in permeable pavers since it is a practice they could potentially implement on their patio. I told them about all of the benefits, such as improving infiltration, potentially reducing the impacts of flash floods and improving water quality. After that, they began asking about the agricultural practices represented by the other trays. The husband showed particular interest in cover crops. I explained the benefits of having the soil surface protected by the plant matter. The wife was curious about the role of nutrients and how they are lost from agricultural landscapes. I told her how the two main nutrients of concern, phosphorus and nitrogen, move through the environment and how cover crops are important since they have shown to reduce losses of both nutrients. The interest the couple had in the steps farmers are taking to improve Iowa’s soil and water quality was very exciting to me. It was great to be teaching the community about Iowa’s water resources, and it was an added bonus that we were right next to the river that flows through the heart of Manchester.

The city has recently built a series of rapids on the Maquoketa River. People were kayaking, floating, and swimming down the river. Children shrieked as their tubes tumbled over the whitewater. One girl who had played Poo Toss game earlier in the day even brought over a baby soft-shelled turtle she had found along the bank. Everyone along the river looked like they were having a blast, especially when it began to heat up in the afternoon!

Another highlight of the day was the delicious food the Manchester Chamber of Commerce was selling. I took a quick break to go grab a rhubarb bratwurst and a slice of rhubarb pie. Both were fantastic! Along Main Street, vendors were selling other rhubarb treats, such as ice cream and wine, as well as quilts and other handmade crafts.

Overall, Rhubarb on the River was an outstanding community event. The City of Manchester did an excellent job organizing it, and their hard work was rewarded by a beautiful day and a great turnout from the area residents. The interest that the public showed in making meaningful strides to cleaner water for the state of Iowa encouraged me, and I am excited to travel to more events like this throughout the rest of my time here as an intern.

Kaleb Baber

Juchems Receives Outstanding New Professional Award at ISU

It’s May and that means it is American Wetlands Month. Normally, I would want to try to make my argument once again about how landowners should consider giving wetlands a second look on their land. Wetlands are a key component to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (learn more in Jake Hansen’s blog post titled Iowa CREP Wetlands) and often when farmed aren’t profitable (Should prairie potholes and other wet areas be farmed?). I know there is a history between landowners, wetlands and government regulation that sticks in many craws. But if we care about a sustainable and healthy Iowa, we need to rethink those issues going forward. Wetlands have important jobs to do in Iowa.

Instead of writing that column, I am dedicating this space to Iowa Learning Farms staff member, Liz Juchems, for recently receiving an Iowa State University Professional and Scientific Outstanding New Professional Award. This award reflects Liz’s commitment to Iowa State, her professional reputation and her esteem among her peers.

I have known Liz since she began working for the Iowa Learning Farms in 2008 as a student hourly employee while a freshman at ISU, and have been fortunate to work with her as our events coordinator since 2013. If you have been to any ILF field days over the last four years, you have Liz to thank for their quality and effectiveness.

Liz joined the team at a time when the ILF and Water Rocks! programs were starting to see substantial growth. Liz assumed not only the responsibility for coordinating farmer field days, but also coordinating all incoming requests for Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! community outreach events (school visits, camps, youth outdoor classrooms, farmers markets, festivals and more) that are received annually – no small task with hundreds of event requests each year.

Over the last four years, the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! programs have grown significantly and have become widely recognized flagship conservation programs across Iowa. This is due in large part to Liz’s tremendous ability to keep track of details and ensure positive, clear communication internally and externally. We now average 30+ field days and 200+ outreach events each year, reaching 20,000+ people each year in quality educational encounters across Iowa!

With Iowa Learning Farms, Liz has also been instrumental in taking on a leadership role with field research/demonstrations, data collection, communications and outreach delivery. Since her hiring in 2013, the field research/demonstration arm of the Iowa Learning Farms has seen significant expansion and diversification, thanks in large part to being awarded multiple new research/demonstration grants. Each of these funded proposals involved the establishment of different cover crop trials across Iowa, collectively adding 20 new field research/demonstration sites statewide. Liz took the reigns as the farmer liaison, coordinating all project details with participating farmer-partners and research farm staff, as well as coordinating field data collection efforts with Iowa Learning Farms staff and student interns, training her co-workers on the appropriate protocols to follow both in the field and in the lab to ensure successful data collection.

However, data collection is just one portion of the job –another major component is how that content is delivered to the general public, making often complex science, social science and economic data accessible to farmers, other conservation stakeholders and youth across the state. A good example of her work is the ILF publication series titled Talking With Your Tenant that offers talking points and relevant research findings about a number of different conservation practices. Liz has grown into the role of being one of our team’s key educators on conservation issues in the state of Iowa.

For these and so many other reasons, Liz is more than deserving of this prestigious university honor. Quite simply, she is excellent! We are grateful to have her as a member of our team. Congratulations, Liz!

Jacqueline Comito

Working Together to Educate Youth in Dubuque

A few weeks back, the 4th and 5th students at St. Anthony and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Schools in Dubuque were treated to high energy, highly interactive presentations from Water Rocks! … but these presentations were particularly special in that they featured a couple of local rock stars in the conservation world!

The Back Story:
As our Water Rocks! visit to St. Anthony & OLG was approaching, I realized it was going to be a pretty tight week for our small staff, and I’d likely be handling the event solo. However, situations like this also present the opportunity to partner with other conservation stakeholders across the state, and even better when it’s someone that’s already been trained on Water Rocks! materials.

Bev Wagner, with the Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency, has participated in multiple Water Rocks! workshops in the past, including the Water Rocks! Summit, so she has been trained on a variety of the unique hands-on games and activities that we utilize in the classroom. Knowing I was headed to Dubuque, I knew exactly who to call upon!

I connected with Bev right away to see if she might be available to help out and co-present with me, and within a matter of minutes, she responded, “I am available the whole day and would love to help out.” With a smiley face. :)

A few days in advance of my trip to Dubuque, Bev contacted me and asked if her student helper, Ruth, an education student at Loras College, could also come and help out. YES, absolutely!

Fast Forward to Game Day:
Bev, Ruth and I met 30 minutes ahead of time, getting everything loaded into the classroom, set up for the interactive presentation, and we quickly talked through the content. Our topic of the day was The Wonderful World of Wetlands (read more about it in our earlier blog post Wetlands Outreach: Tools of the Trade). The first class of the day, I took the lead in presenting; Bev and Ruth observed while also actively assisting with handing out materials to the students, awarding prizes, etc.

With one class under our belts, Bev and Ruth were both feeling more comfortable with the content, so from that point forward, we tag-teamed the entire 50-minute presentation. We started off with an audio listening tour of wetlands, describing the creatures that live there and what the environment might look like. Ruth showed the class an image of wetlands as we connected that with the listening field trip the students had just gone on. Bev guided the students in talking through all of the different names that wetlands go by, calling on students to share one of the names and then saying it out loud together as a class.

We then jumped in with the characteristics that make wetlands unique (hydric soils, presence of water, and vegetation). That was followed by the 3 jobs that wetlands perform – there were 3 of us, so each one took a job (and its corresponding prop) and explained it to the class!  I started off with a filter (water purification), Ruth followed with a sponge (water storage), and Bev concluded with the house (representing habitat).

Bev and Ruth led the classes in discussing the amazing diversity of plants, animals, microorganisms, and other life found in wetlands – as much biodiversity in Iowa’s wetlands as is found in the Amazon rainforest!  We talked about how wetlands are especially important to migratory creatures – birds and butterflies.

Students then got the opportunity to summon their inner birds for an intense game of Habitat Hopscotch!  Bev was the keeper of the (infamous) “situation jar” which housed different situations that impacted wetlands, while Ruth and I acted as the “bird police,” ensuring that students were landing in the correct squares and sending them to bird prison when they stepped out. Being a Catholic school, one of the 4th grade students asked if instead of bird prison, could we call it “bird heaven”? Priceless!

After 5-6 rousing rounds of Habitat Hopscotch, it was pretty clear that the loss of wetlands has a serious impact on migratory birds. Iowa has lost ~90% of its original wetlands, so that means protecting the remaining 10% of wetlands is critically important!

One 5th grade student responded, “I think we all need to #(HASHTAG) Save The Wetlands!

It was then time to move on to our other big game, Wetlands BINGO!  Again, Bev and Ruth were awesome helpers. Bev was our official BINGO caller, while Ruth and I called out the names of corresponding creatures found in wetlands. Each one of us chipped in with fun facts about the different creatures, as well as sharing which ones were our favorites. When a student got a BINGO, we worked together to come up with a simple trivia question to test their knowledge before awarding a prize from our treasure chest. The 50 minutes with each class passes by so quickly with all the games and hands-on activities involved!

By the end of the day, we had presented to five different classes of students, and I’m pleased to say that not only did the students have a whole lot of fun, they also learned a whole lot about wetland ecosystems and their importance on our landscape. Further, this school visit was a great success in terms of the collaborative teaching effort – a win-win all around!  Bev and Ruth were awesome to work with, and it was fantastic to have local conservation personnel involved helping out with Water Rocks! as well as connecting with the local teachers and students. We look forward to more opportunities like this in the future. All in all, it was a great success —  one of those days when you go home really feeling like you made a difference. And that’s a great feeling.

Ann Staudt

Water Rocks! Assemblies are Rockin’!

What do singing, dancing, dog poop, water quality, full audience participation, and a big blue Snuggie all have in common? You’ll get all of these things and more with the brand new Water Rocks! Assemblies!

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This fall Water Rocks! rolled out a creative and exciting endeavor called Water Rocks! Assemblies, using music to teach the science of water quality for kindergartners through 8th grade across the state. The mission of Water Rocks! Assemblies is to educate, challenge, and inspire young people towards a greater appreciation of our water resources. Water Rocks! continues to reach students through its popular interactive classroom visits, but the Water Rocks! Assemblies are unique in that multiple classes, even multiple grades, with hundreds of students, can be reached at one time! Since Water Rocks! took their new show on the road in September, thousands of students across Iowa, along with their teachers, have rocked out with Water Rocks! Assemblies.

During the Assemblies, students learn about watersheds, natural resources, conservation, and land use. The teaching is done through music, dance, theater, games, and interactive lessons. This innovative approach of infusing science and music makes learning fun, and helps students commit valuable information to memory.


A teacher at Beaver Creek Elementary in Johnston said, “The team made the water facts exciting, fun, and informative. I believe my students will remember quite a few of the presented concepts. This was a great experience for my students!”

The Assemblies encourage students to participate by singing, dancing, performing in a play, and answering questions. Catchy Water Rocks! songs like “We all Live in a Watershed,” “What’s in Your Water?,” “Scoop That Poop” and “The Watershed Rap” bring students and teachers to their feet to sing and dance. Teachers are happy to see their students have such a great time while learning.

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A teacher from Turkey Valley Elementary school in Jackson Junction told us, “Bringing music into the presentation had students saying they couldn’t get the tune out of their heads – a good thing!”

Students in 4th-8th grades are entertained by an activity called “Watershed Broadway.” Peer helpers from the school perform in a play that illustrates how various pollutants move from our land to waterways in the Mississippi River Watershed, eventually making their way to the Gulf of Mexico. A Water Rocks! team member donning a big blue Snuggie plays the part of a raindrop who has just fallen out of the sky, and has to travel to the river. Along the way the raindrop meets some friends who join her on the journey to the river. These friends are pollutants such as garbage, sediment, fertilizer, pesticide, oil, and dog poop. Their journey to the river culminates with a cannonball into the river, in which the audience gets to see how pollution affects our waterways.

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Students in kindergarten – 3rd grades learn about harmful water pollutants by playing a gameshow-style game called “Clean River, Dirty River.” In the game, students are selected from the audience to come to the front. They are each given a picture of an item that can be found in a clean river or a dirty river. One at a time, they are asked to place their item on either the “Clean River” poster or the “Dirty River” poster. It serves as a great visual for younger students to see how pollution impacts our rivers!

Peer helpers are an integral part of the assemblies. Peer helpers are students identified as leaders by the faculty and staff at the school. The helpers sing, dance, and perform alongside Water Rocks! staff. They also encourage the audience to participate in the songs and activities. If possible, high school students are used as peer helpers, which is always a big hit with younger students.

A high school peer helper from Turkey Valley said, “I had an amazing time working with you guys! I learned things about water and watersheds that I didn’t even know. A little girl that told me it was the greatest day ever, and she was so happy that she got to dance with high schoolers. It was the cutest thing ever. Thank you guys for coming and letting us participate in the assembly. We all had a great time, and so did all the students that we talked to! Thanks so much!”

The Assemblies were created keeping Next Generation Science Standards in mind, so that teachers can coordinate classroom lessons with the information presented in the assembly. After each Assembly, teachers are given a packet of follow-up resources that contain workbooks, enhanced learning activities, DVDs, CDs with award-winning Water Rocks! music, and more.

Would you like to bring a Water Rocks! Assembly to your local school? Sponsorship opportunities are available — this is a particularly unique opportunity for Soil and Water Conservation Districts, local businesses, and individuals to show your support for conservation and natural resources education! Water quality matters to us all! Contact Jacqueline Comito at 515-296-0081 or jcomito@iastate.edu to discuss sponsorship to reserve a School Assembly in your local district. Spots are filing quickly for spring, so act today!

Jenn Riggs

Join us Nov. 1-2 for Water Rocks! Multi-State Youth Education Summit

Our next Water Rocks! Summit is just around the corner on Nov. 1-2, and this time around, we’ll be bringing together youth educators from across the North Central region! Read on for more information about this great professional development opportunity…

novembersummitgraphic-ilfblogWho can attend the Water Rocks! Multi-State Youth Education Summit?
4-H and extension educators, SWCD youth outreach coordinators, watershed coordinators, naturalists, municipal/public works education personnel, scientists who frequently conduct youth outreach in the classroom, and STEM coordinators are all welcome — anyone who is involved with youth education outside of the traditional classroom setting!  We will be bringing folks together not just from the state of Iowa, but also extension educators from land grant universities in several surrounding states from across the North Central region.

TEACHERS: Visit the Water Rocks! website to learn more about our Teacher Summits, offered during the summer, which are designed exclusively for you.

What is the Water Rocks! Summit all about?
This professional development workshop offers training on a multitude of interactive and hands-on educational lessons covering water, soil, agriculture, environmental science, and more. The November Water Rocks! Summit will cover a wide variety of topics including the water cycle, watersheds, connectedness of agriculture and the environment in Iowa, agricultural management practices, wetlands, biodiversity, and more. Music, videos, technology, and super fun hands-on activities will be woven throughout!

How much does it cost?
The full cost of the November Summit is $800, which includes the WR! activity kit ($800+ of materials), plus lunch and snacks during the day. Financial assistance is available to qualified individuals/organizations.

What’s included in the WR! activity kit?
The Water Rocks! activity kit features numerous original, interactive educational modules that Water Rocks! has developed to help teach classroom lessons on water, soil, agriculture, environmental science, and more. It’s chock full of original hands-on learning activities and games (We All Live in a Watershed, Habitat Hopscotch, Wetlands BINGO, Biodiversity JENGA, Dig Into Soil, What’s In Your (Storm)water?, and more) that can be used time and time again with Grades K-12.

There are several people from our county/organization that would like to attend. Can we all come to the Summit? Do we each have to buy our own activity kit?
Multiple individuals from the same county office or local organization are encouraged to attend the Water Rocks! Summit together (up to 3 people on a team); please apply together so we know you are a team. In this case, only one shared Water Rocks! activity kit would be required.

Ready to apply?
Space is limited, so apply right away!  Financial assistance is available to qualified individuals/organizations; apply by October 12, 2016 to be considered for scholarship assistance.

Ann Staudt

This cooperative project has been funded by the North Central Region Water Network. Partners of Water Rocks! include Iowa Department of Natural Resources (United States Environmental Protection Agency/Section 319 of Clean Water Act), Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Water Center, Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and personal gifts of support.

Reflections on Water Rocks! over the years

This is our our final intern guest blog post for the summer! Noah Stevens is entering his senior year at Ames High School, where he is actively involved in track, cross country, and the performing arts. He has helped out with numerous Water Rocks! video productions over the years, and this summer participated in our high school internship program.

I’ve been involved with the Water Rocks! program since its origin back in 2012, and I must say, it has been fun to watch it progress in its success. From watching myself in the first Water Rocks! music video on the Water Rocks! website to being present at the Capitol building when the program was awarded with the Iowa Environmental Excellence Award for the State of Iowa, I have felt very privileged to be a part of this organization. To be honest, though, I had no idea that Water Rocks! has had such a big impact in the world of education until my internship this year. When I think about it, I realize that all the recognition and awards the program has received are definitely well deserved.

MeetTheInterns-NoahI remember the day in my freshmen year of high school when Mrs. T [DeAnna Tibben, Earth and Space Science teacher at Ames High] told my science class that we were going to spend the entire class period exploring the Water Rocks! website. I was completely surprised! To me, the website was just a bunch of pictures and videos of me with my friends and family doing things to help the environment, but not to the rest of the class. To them, the website was a river of new information about water quality, conservation, and fun. Yeah sure, I recall my peers joking around with me because they saw me in the videos and pictures, but I also recall them talking to each other and asking questions about water. That was a really cool thing to see the program that I was involved with be taught in my classroom and be widely accepted by high school students and teachers alike.

Noah-ConservationPack

Noah’s film debut in the Conservation Dogs music video (2012)!

Apart from my internship, my experience with Water Rocks! has been primarily through the music videos and songs produced by the program. With that said, my internship with Water Rocks! has shed a new light on how much educational material the organization actually has! Alongside dozens of informational videos and songs, Water Rocks! has loads of classroom modules, presentations, and games that inform about all things water. What is taught does a great job at not confusing the learner while at the same time informing effectively. The best part is that these materials do not just teach the information presented, they engage the learner and encourage them to participate in the learning; and it is fun!

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A few more recent music videos that Noah’s been a big part of: This Is Our Time (top) and Soil Health Style (bottom).

Besides all of the material Water Rocks! is able to teach people, something I really noticed about the program is how much, and far, the Water Rocks! team travels across the state to present the information. From county fairs to farmer’s markets, the team sent people all across the state throughout the whole summer presenting the Water Rocks! material. I was genuinely surprised at how many people were interested in what we had to say.

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In addition to video production, Noah got a taste of outreach this summer traveling to events across the state with the Conservation Station!  Here he is with college interns Kate Sanocki and Hannah Corey.

All in all, Water Rocks! is a great program full of information, engagement, and fun! It has been an interesting ride to see the full story behind what all goes on in this great organization in addition to the music.

-Noah Stevens