When you can’t do things the way they have always been done, it does not diminish the need or demand for the information and services that have become a stimulus for conservation and natural resources education in Iowa’s schools for more than a decade.
2020 has erected roadblocks and challenged the Water Rocks program, disrupting the normal way it has delivered information and education. The response from Water Rocks has been to meet the challenges head-on. It may be too early to say if every effort has been a resounding success, but the dedication and innovation from Water Rocks speaks to the versatility and drive of the team.
“Water Rocks programming relies on high energy and creative content to engage the minds and interests of students, and this approach provided us with a great foundation for responding to the restrictions and changes resulting from the pandemic,” says Jacqueline Comito, executive director of Water Rocks “Every member of our team, from seasoned staff to summer interns, contributed to brainstorming, reimagining and creating new ways to accomplish our education and outreach mission.”
New ways to get job done
With a tremendous volume of content and curriculum materials in hand, Water Rocks had a head start on imagining new ways to get the jobs done. Rather than building from scratch, the team focused on repurposing materials in hand to quickly support educational needs in a rapidly evolving educational landscape.
When it was clear schools were not going to resume in-person learning in the spring, Water Rocks had already begun planning for both the short and long term. Working quickly, the group launched a weekly e-newsletter, The Monday Mix, to support teachers and parents navigating uncharted waters by highlighting new online materials and programming, references to online resources, and fun facts.
The “Water Rocks Out of the Box” video series was produced to offer an educational resource based on the Water Rocks classroom visits delivered through short video segments. And the “Water Rocks Unplugged” video series used live performances of existing Water Rocks music to offer science-based lessons in an entertaining way.
County Park Adventure Series
In years past, summer was filled with visits to county fairs, farmers markets and other public venues to provide outreach and information to many Iowans. The summer interns working with the program would normally staff these events. When the public appearance opportunities disappeared, the interns created a new outreach initiative and got to work on the County Park Adventure Series.
“We weren’t exactly sure what the interns were going to be able to do when the summer started, but we were committed to providing the promised employment and experiences, so we brought them into the brainstorming process, too,” Comito says. “The ideas came from all corners and at a furious pace, many of which we were not able to leverage immediately, but they came up with a winning project for highlighting nearby parks in every Iowa county, and some good things to consider in the future.”
The Water Rocks team spent the summer preparing for the start of school in the fall. Uncertain about what would be possible, they considered the resources in hand and prepared for multiple scenarios to reengage with students.
“We were hopeful but realistic about being able to get into classrooms with students during the fall semester,” Comito says. “With our Conservation Station trailers already equipped for outdoor events and field days, we knew we could quickly deliver an outdoor, socially distanced option for schools.”
Virtual classroom visits
The group conducted outdoor classroom events across Iowa until the weather turned cold, visiting 25 schools and engaging with 1,715 participants. There were some limitations and modifications to hands-on activities, but teachers and administrators reported positively on the content and impact on student learning and engagement.
“Launching outdoor classrooms during the fall semester was successful, but not sustainable through the winter months,” notes Comito. “However, it did buy time for the creation of our virtual classroom visit program launching in mid-November 2020.”
Water Rocks and its partner program Iowa Learning Farms share many resources, staff and internet skills. The team used these skills to repurpose curricula and materials for virtual classroom visits.
“Virtual classroom visits were one of the first ideas, and one of the most challenging to execute well,” Comito says. “We hold ourselves to a very high bar and were not willing to reduce our standards for a quick fix. We anticipate that the learning and feedback from the virtual classroom program will be on par with our in-person visits.”
The virtual classroom program, dubbed Water Rocks Live Streaming, will include activity kits for teachers. Water Rocks anticipates continuing the virtual classroom option even after in-person visits can be resumed. This alternative offering will provide schools across Iowa with greater access to STEM learning opportunities.
“Everything we’ve built and created since April has helped to expand the scope of how we deliver material and information, offered us opportunities to learn, and engaged the creativity and innovation of all team members,” Comito says. “The pandemic has challenged Water Rocks, but the response to the challenges has produced some great new programs that serve Iowans.”
Iowa State University and local school policies will determine when and how Water Rocks teams will be visiting classrooms and schools in person. But until that happens, expect to see Water Rocks using every opportunity to engage Iowa’s youth through all available channels and delivery mechanisms it can use.Pierce is an ISU Extension program specialist with a focus on water quality with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks.