One part of Water Rocks! that contributes to the unique nature of delivering science-based education to Iowa’s youth is the incorporation of original music in nearly all settings. From school assemblies to its library of music videos at waterrocks.org, music is integral to the success of its outreach efforts.
While research has shown a direct correlation between memorization and learning tied to music, most of us need not go further than the ABCs song to know it works.
In a research paper published in 2018, David Knott and Michael Thaut quantified the process, noting, “Members of the group who listened to words sung to them recalled an average of 20% more words after listening to and recalling an interference list than members of the control group who listened to the same words spoken. This difference persisted, though slightly smaller (17%) when participants recalled words after a 15-minute waiting period” (Knott D & Thaut MH 2018).
Combining education, music
And a quick internet search on musical mnemonics will return a plethora of songs for learning complex material such as the bones in the human body or the periodic table of elements, or basic mathematics and vocabulary. Another great example for preschool and elementary aged students is the ABC “Schoolhouse Rock” series.
With a strong commitment to the value of combining education and music, team members Jacqueline Comito, Nate Stevenson and Todd Stevens recently provided insight into what goes into the making of the music, and how it reinforces the program’s learning objectives while supporting school curriculum requirements for science.
Water Rocks was near to achieving the milestone of presenting 100 school assemblies in the current school year, but with school terms being affected by unexpected closures they will need to wait another year to hit this mark.
The group has also recently expanded its reach, crossing borders into Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri, Illinois and Minnesota for public and school events. This pace keeps the team on its toes, averaging two to three assemblies per week.
Offering Watershed and Pollinator assemblies, Water Rocks supports elementary and middle school curriculum goals as all material is science-based and tied to the Next Generation Science Standards adopted by most Iowa schools.
“We are finding many schools are cutting back on assembly programs, requiring that they closely support curriculum objectives,” Stevens says. “When we link the program to NGSS, school administrators and teachers are much more eager to bring the program to their students.”
Presentation affects learning
Teachers frequently comment they are amazed how quickly students obtain and retain the information presented. Stevenson adds, “After I teach the watershed material using traditional lecture techniques, we see about a quarter of the hands go up when we ask, “who lives in a watershed? After Todd performs Watershed Rap, it goes up to about half, and when we hit them with the We All Live in a Watershed song, we see 99%. You always have a few who will never raise their hand whether they know the answer or not.”
Retention of the musical elements has shown to be long-lasting for Water Rocks. Teams have reported more than one occasion when students who have participated in an assembly years before will spontaneously sing Water Rocks songs when the group returns. It is also important to the team to measure the effectiveness of the program related to its learning objectives.
“Our assessment opportunities in assemblies are limited, but we include a group of student helpers in each performance, which provides us with a good sample for knowledge growth measurement,” Comito explains. “The student helpers are selected by teachers and administrators for a variety of reasons, and it typically gives us a cross section of the student population.
“We conduct extensive pre- and post-assembly assessments of the learning objectives and without exception see a significant knowledge gain. The growth measured correlates with what we see with our classroom visit program, giving us confidence that we are providing good support of classroom curriculum and our program learning objectives.”
Music for program original
The music for Water Rocks! programming is all original material from the creative team led by Todd Stevens along with Ann Staudt, Water Rocks director. With a background in pop music, rap and hip-hop performance and an extensive library of compositions in multiple genres, Todd pulls together the ideas and inputs of group, the learning objectives and scientific terminology to create music that will appeal to all audiences.
“We want our music to be fun and catchy — to become earworms that the kids can’t get out of their heads, but we the team works in concert to make sure the music is scientifically sound,” Comito says. “We don’t let the art of the music compromise the quality of the science lesson. Todd has a certain genius for melding the objectives into the music while keeping it fun, relevant and accurate. And Ann makes certain the science is on point.”
Music delivers message
Throughout its library of some 44 music videos and many more songs, Water Rocks has touched on most musical genres such as rock, country, folk, rap and hip-hop. The young in the audience tend to connect best with the rap and hip-hop pieces.
“It’s fun to watch the faces of the kids in the audience when Todd starts to rap,” Stevenson says. “It transfixes the audience, and once he grabs them with the rap, they stay connected throughout the program. The use of hip-hop has transcended many musical genres as a way to talk about social problems, and we’ve found it is an excellent avenue to talk about environmental problems and solutions, too. We also get the adults hooked with some of our parodies.”
Parodies using popular music are an important part of the secret-sauce Water Rocks uses to make its messages relevant to the audience members. For example, “Don’t Stop BEElievin,” a parody of the Journey hit “Don’t Stop Believin’,” hooks the adults with the lyric, “I’m just a small-town bee, flying to the big city …,” during the pollinators assembly.
Another strategy Water Rocks uses is combining movement with the music. Incorporating movement and active participation revs up the assemblies. “We invite the kids to dance and sing, and typically see some reluctance, but when we are able to hook one of the natural leaders by getting them onstage, the floodgates open and everyone is on their feet singing, dancing and learning,” Todd says. “Movement just seems to multiply the levels of knowledge absorption – and it certainly magnifies the fun for everybody.”
Water Rocks will launch its third assembly option with a wetlands theme later this year. The program is under development as an integral component of a comprehensive wetlands education program which encompasses all parts of Water Rocks and Iowa Learning Farms outreach. The wetlands program will include a new Wetlands Conservation Station, new classroom visit modules, and educational outreach to farmers, conservationists and the general public.
Why has Water Rocks has been so successful in Iowa schools? Stevenson sums it up: “Music is our superpower. It’s clever and catchy, it sticks in students’ heads, we “trick” them into learning. They don’t realize they are learning, but they are. It just happens.”
Pierce is an Iowa State University Extension program specialist with a focus on water quality with Iowa Learning Farms.