Rockin’ the Environment

Water Rocks! at Iowa State University teaches educators and K-12 students about water as an integral part of our ecosystem.

Rockin’ the Environment

Songs, skits, and stories help inspire lower elementary learners.

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Music, videos, puppet shows and school assemblies from an Iowa university teach students about our natural resources. Water Rocks!, an educational program for K-12 students created in 2012 by Iowa State University, continues to make a big impact.

“The program is a success with the kids because it’s high-energy, hands-on and very participatory,” says Jacqueline Comito, executive director of the program and one of its creators. “Because it’s fun, the kids don’t realize they’re learning. This approach helps the children learn about and appreciate the natural resources around them.” Water Rocks! was an offshoot of the Iowa Learning Farms, also a collaboration of university extension and several state and federal agencies. Seed money came from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which is still a funder. Other sponsors include ISU Extension and Outreach, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the Des Moines Water Works, Polk County Conservation, Soil and Water Conservation Districts across the state, and several private donors.

Des Moines Water Works was moving away from youth education and toward adult instruction, so the Water Rocks! team partnered with the utility to fill that need. The program covers all the counties in Iowa and surrounding states including Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Missouri and Nebraska. It’s promoted through social media, word-of-mouth, and an e-newsletter that goes out weekly to more than 9,000 teachers and water quality stakeholders.

Programs and presentations

Ann Staudt, director of Water Rocks! and the other creator, says its mission is to foster education on water and other natural resources: “Our natural resources are interconnected, so you can’t separate water from all the other elements. Our program combines STEM, music and the arts to educate and inspire everyone.”

Much of the training takes the form of game shows, so the children can join in and have fun at the same time. Other offerings include:

A Conservation Station trailer fleet that hits the road to present children and educators with hands-on lessons and education modules, including a rainfall simulator, a watershed game and dogs as conservation mascots.

A variety of videos for the students to watch online, including a show that uses animal puppets to teach about wildlife in a watershed.

Original music videos in all genres that kids can sing and dance to, with environmental messaging such as a “Let it Rain” song.

School assemblies led by the Water Rocks! team that engage the students in singing and in various activities and environmental presentations.

Training the teachers

Through a summer teachers’ summit, the Water Rocks! team trains educators so that they can adapt offerings for their classrooms. “The teachers integrate what we offer with what they are already doing in their science, music, and art programs,” Staudt says. Teachers also receive a kit of materials to take back to their classrooms; before the onset of COVID-19, the Water Rocks! team made many in-person visits each year.

Other than the school assemblies, all programs continued last fall but were held outside; participants were socially distanced and wore masks. When the weather turned cold, the programs went online. In-person presentations are 40 minutes, and online presentations take about 30 minutes. A comprehensive website,, is self-paced and contains all the information, photos, videos and music for the children and educators.

Measuring success

The program has been successful and the metrics show that it is making waves in Iowa and surrounding states. Pre-COVID, the team was visiting nearly 200 schools per year and performing at 13 outdoor classrooms and water festivals, reaching nearly 33,000 students.

The program touches all 99 counties in Iowa by reaching out to educators and principals and taking the show on the road. After the presentations and training, 97% of the children were able to define a watershed; before the program and training, it was 42%.

 Thank-you notes flood into the organization after the events. “One creative student’s note included a comic strip on everything he learned at his presentation,” Comito says. “We were very impressed with his ingenuity.”   


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