The pandemic of 2020 and 2021 has forever changed how outreach and education can be done. It bears some responsibility for new, exciting programming from Water Rocks! that has emerged from the cauldron of change created by school closures, ever-shifting rules and best practices. Innovation and creativity were the watchwords among the Water Rocks team, and there was a lot of both. Some of the ideas and efforts filled immediate needs and fell by the wayside as time passed, but others were so successful that they’ve expanded the programming menu available to Iowa schools going forward.
"Being online was certainly not new to Water Rocks, as we had been creating videos and had substantial online content before the pandemic, but going all virtual was a different challenge; and we did a lot very quickly to support at-home independent and remote-school education for all of our target audiences," says Ann Staudt, Water Rocks director. "Early programming additions included Water Rocks Out of the Box, a series of YouTube video science lessons; and Water Rocks Unplugged, another YouTube series that used live performance of Water Rocks music to deliver brief conservation lessons. These quick hits were appreciated by teachers and parents alike, and gave us some breathing space to retool for the long haul."
Other programs arising from the dramatic changes to the education landscape include the award-winning Harmony Brook Watershed video series for young learners, a robust outdoor classroom program that combines the excitement of Water Rocks assembly programs with the science of the traditional classroom visits into a fun, educational experience that complies with all school requirements and restrictions; live-streamed classroom visits; and Water Rocks Spoken Earth workshops for secondary students.
Harmony Brook Watershed is a web-based video series that employs live actors (Water Rocks staffers) and puppets to explore lessons about Iowa’s ecosystems, conservation and natural resources. The series received the 2021 Award of Excellence in the web series category from the Iowa Motion Picture Association. A new season of episodes is being released throughout the final months of 2021.
"Water Rocks benefited from knowledge gained through the webinars our partner program Iowa Learning Farms had produced for several years, but going from a weekly webinar targeting adults to producing a remote live-streamed classroom visit took a lot of experimentation, introspection and continuous improvement," Staudt continues. "We received compliments and excellent feedback from teachers and students who participated in the live-streamed classroom visits, but ultimately came to the conclusion that when practical, being at the school makes the greatest impact on learners and helps ensure we are delivering on our mission."
The Outdoor Classroom Visit program sprouted from this desire to interact in-person with learners across the state. Launching during the spring 2021 semester, the outdoor classrooms take advantage of the equipment and materials already available with the Conservation Stations to create a safe learning space in nearly any parking lot, park or playground. With some minor adjustments, the outdoor visits resumed in August, and the September calendar was chock-full of visits across Iowa. Of course, Iowa winter weather will force the program into a hiatus, but it is a welcomed option by schools looking for ways to reengage students in science learning with a fun, portable field trip that comes to the school.
During the winter months, live-streamed classroom visits will resume. These individualized classroom visits employ various live feedback and polling tools to help the presenter ensure comprehension and guide the classroom teacher in reinforcing the material locally.
For older students, Water Rocks Spoken Earth workshops were developed and piloted in early 2021 to encourage participants to contemplate their environment and ecosystem and express their feelings about it, and their hopes for the future though the creation of original spoken-word poetry.
Again, the virtual format was a challenge, but with almost universal familiarity and comfort with videoconferencing platforms driven by the pandemic, interactions among the workshop leaders and participants were fruitful and fulfilling. The program is being readied for a new season of workshops later this year, and will be available to even more participants than the first season.
"We are all ready to get back into schools with our assemblies and indoor classroom visits when the schools are ready to have us, but we are also very excited to offer additional program options for remote and distanced participation, and education that provide educators with an even broader choices to reinforce what they are teaching in the classroom," Staudt concludes. "We’ll be online, in the classroom or outside the classroom — whatever best meets the needs of the schools and Iowa’s youth when it comes to science-based education and outreach about water quality, conservation and natural resources."
To learn more about Water Rocks programs available to all Iowa schools, visit waterrocks.org.
Stevenson is a visual outreach specialist and conservation educator with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks.