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Stewardship knowledge comes directly to youth

Courtesy of Iowa Learning Farms Emmett Phillips, Seton Catholic School, Peosta, is firing up students in a recent conservation conversation as part of Water Rocks!
PROMOTING STEWARDSHIP: Emmett Phillips of Seton Catholic School, Peosta, Iowa, is firing up students in a recent conservation conversation as part of Water Rocks! The program's focus on youth is taking a ″long-view″ approach to stewardship.
The Iowa Learning Farms programs in local schools work to bring conservation ideas to youth early in life.

Today’s youth intuitively know about and embrace recycling, something that was not necessarily the case with their parents and grandparents. This generational change is an excellent model for building awareness and promoting action for the future change in how people use, perceive and protect the environment and natural resources everyone shares.

Changing long-held beliefs and traditions takes time and a lot of effort, and the best path forward is instilling knowledge in young people, while helping to guide their youthful energy and exuberance to take on weighty issues and change the world.

Just as Iowa State University football coach Matt Campbell stresses that the team and fans must "trust the process," the Water Rocks! team also follows a tried-and-true process of engaging Iowa’s youth through inventive and creative outreach programs that connect through all the human senses and at multiple levels.

The program is built on the premise of inspiring Iowa’s youth to learn about and care about the natural world around them — from water to land and wildlife — and the many ways our natural world is intricately interconnected. Playing the long game, Water Rocks anticipates that today’s students are tomorrow’s teachers, farmers, scientists, Extension professionals, doctors, lawyers, legislators and more.

From this perspective, programming is developed and delivered in ways that can inspire youth to care and to act, so when they are the decisionmakers years down the road, they have a solid foundational understanding of Iowa’s vital natural resources. The high-energy, high-impact 45-minute presentations the program delivers during school visits across Iowa are designed to effectively plant the seeds of stewardship for years to come.

“The proof of the effectiveness of the Water Rocks! approach is demonstrated regularly when we see college and high school students at public events who not only remember Water Rocks from their elementary or middle school years, they also remember what they learned,” says Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director.

Program based on fundamentals

The fundamental keys to success for the program have underpinned its accomplishments since 2012 in effectively engaging with youth across the state.

Water Rocks:

• is grounded in sound science

• embraces unique, creative, multifaceted approaches to teaching about natural resources, such as music, other arts, movement, games and competition

• is highly interactive

• is driven to inspire curiosity and caring in students

• is focused on tangible action items — concrete things students can do in their daily lives

• fun

“There are enough fun and impactful stories from Water Rocks interactions over the years to fill a book, but we want to share some recent favorite stories and anecdotes that stand out to illuminate how the Water Rocks team embraces these keys to success day in and day out,” Staudt says.

This fall, Water Rocks visited Paton-Churdan Community Schools to talk with students about the importance of pollinators (from bees to butterflies and beyond), the challenges pollinators face, and what we all can do to help. Right in the middle of our outdoor presentation to the eighth-grade students, a monarch butterfly fluttered overhead — just as we were transitioning to the part of the presentation about monarchs. This literally couldn’t have been scripted or staged better.

The eighth-graders (a notoriously challenging age group to engage with) were the ones who spotted the butterfly before we did — and then proceeded to greet the monarch and wish it well on its journey south.

After learning about biodiversity and ecosystems with the Water Rocks team, a fourth-grade student at Lewis and Clark Elementary in Council Bluffs excitedly proclaimed to his classmates, “I never knew that nature was so interesting!”

Making connections

Students’ questions provide great insight into what they’re thinking about, and the connections they’re making. After learning about wetlands with Water Rocks, the third- and fourth grade students at Prairie Ridge Elementary in Cedar Rapids were curious to know:

• Why do birds migrate?
• Are there wetlands close by here, between Solon and Ely?
• Why do people take away wetlands?
• How do you restore wetlands?
• Is there a national effort to save wetlands?

After learning about pollinators, the fourth-grade students at East Sac Community Schools had questions:

• I heard that 70% of plants rely on pollinators. How are the rest of the plants pollinated?
• What things could we do here at school to help pollinators?
• How tall should you let the grass get to protect pollinators?
• How do new pesticides affect milkweed?

Taking action can also manifest itself in students’ desire to learn more. In March, the program held livestreaming presentations focused on wetlands with the third and fourth grade classes at Colo-NESCO (northeast Story County). Their teacher reported back: “We had a recess directly after the Water Rocks presentation, and I heard the kids excitedly discussing the different things they learned. Once back inside, I even had a student ask to do some research on the number of wetlands still around in Iowa. Great program!”

Adds Staudt: “Years down the road, I hope we can look back and see the fruits of our labors yielding many folds over. In the meantime, we’ll keep pounding the pavement, day in and day out, visiting schools across the state and reaching students through super creative approaches to natural resources education.”

Ripley is Iowa Learning Farms manager and a Water Rocks conservation outreach specialist.

Water Rocks is Iowa’s unique, award-winning statewide youth water education program. Through a combination of STEM and the arts, especially music, Water Rocks educates, challenges and inspires young people toward a greater appreciation of the state’s water, soil and other natural resources. Partners of Water Rocks include Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Section 319 of the Clean Water Act), Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and personal gifts of support.


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