Multi-State Water Rocks! Youth Education Summit

Multi-State Water Rocks! Youth Education Summit

Final Report

Water Rocks! Fact Sheet

Water Rocks! Website

YouTube Page

Water Rocks! Award Announcement


Established in 2012, Water Rocks! (WR!) is an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (ISUEO) youth water education program that seeks to raise the environmental literacy of our youth before they are in a position to make decisions. Through an integration of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the arts, Water Rocks! challenges and inspires young people to think, learn and create in a world where boundaries are as blurry as the flow of water within a watershed. This proposal seeks funding to extend the Water Rocks! program beyond traditional youth classroom educators and the state of Iowa to partnering extension youth educators in Illinois, Missouri, and South Dakota, delivered via a 2-day Multi-State Water Rocks! Youth Education Summit.

Expanding the reach of this program across the North Central Region will enhance extension educators’ abilities to deliver outdoor and place-based youth education, while improving extension educator knowledge of and access to youth-tested and –approved environmental education tools, including technology and hands-on activities, to engage young people in discussion and activities related to water issues across the North Central Region. On the longer term, youth will demonstrate a higher level of water literacy, and in turn, greater understanding and willingness to make responsible future decisions that protect water and soil resources in the North Central Region and beyond.


We plan to partner with university extension youth programs in South Dakota, Missouri, and Illinois to conduct a 2-day professional development workshop. This workshop would offer training for their non-formal youth educators on a multitude of hands-on, interactive educational modules to help teach classroom lessons on water, soil, agriculture, environmental science, and more. This project addresses the need for additional collaboration in the North Central Region on youth water literacy and stewardship through providing the participating educators an opportunity to network with other youth outreach and education professionals from other states and exchanging ideas. Attendees will also have the opportunity to further their technical understanding of agricultural and environmental issues related to these topics through talks by Iowa State University faculty and staff working in these fields.

The Multi-State Water Rocks! Youth Education Summit was held on Nov. 8-9, 2016 at the Iowa State University Alumni Center in Ames, IA.

Intended Impacts

The Multi-State Water Rocks! Youth Education Summit was be modeled after the Iowa-based Water Rocks! Winter Summit held in December 2015. This is a 1-day professional development workshop offered training for non-formal educators on a multitude of hands-on, interactive educational modules to help teach classroom lessons on water, soil, agriculture, environmental science, and more.

Over the course of the previous five summits offered by Water Rocks!, one message prevailed: educating today’s youth about the importance of water will give them the knowledge to influence change when they become adult members of their communities.


Based at Iowa State University, Water Rocks! is Iowa’s premiere, award-winning statewide water education campaign. Using art, music, technology, and interactive educational games and activities, Water Rocks! travels all over Iowa to K-12 schools and community events, reaching 20,000+ people each year, in order to inspire audiences about the challenges and opportunities of protecting Iowa’s water resources. In order for Water Rocks! to extend its reach even farther beyond its direct outreach efforts, Water Rocks! professional development Summits provide educators with both education on timely, pertinent agricultural and environmental issues, and the tools to extend their youth outreach efforts on these topics into their own classrooms and programs.

It has long been a goal to take the Water Rocks! campaign beyond Iowa and make it regional, as well as go beyond the formal classroom. Over the years, numerous non-traditional educators, such as extension and 4-H educators, naturalists, Soil and Water Conservation District and DNR youth outreach coordinators, watershed coordinators, and STEM coordinators have shown an interest in being engaged with Water Rocks! professional development Summits. This Water Rocks! Multi-State Youth Education Summit was offered to help build a multi-state youth water education network by bringing together non-formal educators from select states across the North Central Region and training them on the youth-tested and – approved Water Rocks! training and materials for use in their own outreach efforts.

Summit Design

The two-day Water Rocks! Multi-State Summit took place on November 1-2, 2016 at Reiman Gardens on the campus of Iowa State University. The design of the Summit included multiple sessions that combined technical knowledge-building and interactive training on youth outreach games/activities, consisting of the following components:

Expert Presentations

Summit participants heard presentations from ISU faculty on the topics of water quality and nutrient transport from agricultural land, soil erosion, climate change, and consumption habits. These presentations were designed to build up educators’ technical knowledge on scientific research related to pertinent, timely environmental issues.

Water Rocks! Youth Outreach Presentations

Each expert presentation was followed up with a demonstration of a Water Rocks! hands-on educational presentation, with each presentation including hands-on lessons, games, and activities. This component was designed to provide educators with practical, proven tools for teaching youth about a variety of conservation topics. Presentations included the following:

  • “We All Live in a Watershed”
  • “Dig Into Soil”
  • “The Wonderful World of Wetlands”
  • “Trees, Bees, and Biodiversity”

Additional topics were covered in smaller breakout sessions, including “Geocaching 101,” “What’s in Your (Storm)water,” and “Managing the N Factor.” Attendees also got a chance to play the “Rock Your Watershed! Game,” an award-winning online game, and preview the new Water Rocks! Assemblies.

Water Rocks! Music Videos and Documentaries

Several award-winning Water Rocks! videos and PSAs were shown to Summit participants. A major strength of the Water Rocks! campaign is its use of the arts to teach STEM concepts to young people. Previews of Water Rocks! videos provided regional educators a chance to view some of what’s available on the Water Rocks! website, and opened the door for discussion of how they might utilize the more than 100 Water Rocks! songs and music videos to inspire youth in their outreach programs, and maybe even begin using music and the arts in their own innovative ways moving forward.

Regional Roundtables

In addition to learning about Water Rocks!, the Summit provided for open discussion and sharing of ideas between educators from across the region. Each state was asked to present a unique and transferable teaching method/game from their own programming to the larger group. Additional time was built into the Summit for state teams to confer as a group about the challenges they face in their outreach efforts, successes they’ve had in working with schools and communities, and opportunities they envision for partnering in the future. These “regional roundtables” allowed for open dialogue and problem-solving discussions to occur among educators who face similar goals and challenges in their outreach work, and also set the stage for future partnerships.

Regional Representation

Three states from the North Central Region were invited to bring teams to the Water Rocks! Multi-State Summit: Illinois, Missouri, and South Dakota. These states were chosen because they not only had existing youth programs related to water quality education and outreach, but also because partners in these states had expressed a desire to expand their youth outreach programming. Additionally, non-formal educators from across the state of Iowa were invited to participate in order to expand the impact of the Summit.

Two weeks before the Summit took place, the Illinois team cancelled their participation due to budgetary concerns. To fill the hole left by the Illinois team, Water Rocks! extended the Summit invitation to educators in Nebraska.

Participation in the Water Rocks! Multi-State Summit was provided free of charge to out-of-state attendees thanks to generous funding from the North Central Region Water Network, and to Iowa participants thanks to funding from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach/Extension Water Quality Program, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (United States Environmental Protection Agency/Section 319 of Clean Water Act). Funders covered the costs of Water Rocks! activity kits, valued at over $800 each, for participants to take home for their future programming use. These kits included the same hands-on, interactive materials used for Water Rocks! presentations at the Summit, including: We All Live in a Watershed game, Habitat Hopscotch, Wetlands BINGO, Biodiversity JENGA, Creature Cache card game, Dig Into Soil game, Great Poo Pickup Relay Race game, Duck/Duck/Pollute game, posters, banners, plus all the Water Rocks! and Iowa Learning Farms DVDs and print materials.

Evaluations and Participant Reflections

The Water Rocks! Multi-State Summit was evaluated in three ways: the Water Rocks! team completed a self-evaluation immediately following the Summit that summarized their perceived positive and negative elements of the event; a Water Rocks! staff member and trained social scientist qualitatively evaluated the Summit proceedings from an external observer’s point-of-view (written summary provided on pages 9-10 of this report); and all participants were asked to complete a post-event survey provided by the North Central Region Water Network.

The Water Rocks! team will reach out to Summit participants several times in the coming months to ascertain how they are using the materials provided in their activity kits, which modules they have found useful in their home programming, and how many youth they have reached with Water Rocks! lessons and materials in outreach programs.

Additionally, Summit participants were asked to send to the Water Rocks! team within two weeks following the event the following information: 1) a detailed lesson plan expounding how they plan to utilize Water Rocks! materials and lessons in their future youth outreach programming; and 2) a one-page written reflection on what parts of the Summit struck them the most, and led to their biggest takeaway from the event. The following pages include highlights and quotes from those one-page reflections provided by event attendees as to their experiences attending the Water Rocks! Multi-State Summit.

MO – Sarah Foster, University of Missouri Extension

Going into the Summit I was a little worried that the curriculum was only intended for younger audiences. Those worries quickly vanished after the first 30 minutes. It was amazing to see how vast of an audience the curriculum actually reaches out to. The Water Rocks! team was very enthusiastic and you could tell that they are truly passionate about their jobs. I liked how the team was able to incorporate how daily activities, such as agricultural practices, or buying a t-shirt, affect our water resources. By doing this, they put it into perspective about how important it is to be cautious about your daily activities and be aware of how to practice water conservation.

MO – Debra Davis, University of Missouri Extension

I greatly appreciated the research presentations by university professors supporting the “why” of each major curriculum topic in the program. Knowing that these are the most current facts and ideology being taught in one of the leading agricultural research universities has given me more determination to educate the future generation to create solutions to the environmental issues. The strongest message for me was the topic of Climate Warming. I was surprised that within our group of educators, several held the opinion at the beginning of the presentation that human activity was not responsible for increased greenhouse gases and climate warming. At the conclusion, the clicker response reflected 100% of the participants agreed that human activity was responsible for climate warming. The factual, research-based studies conducted by NASA and NOAA were compelling and motivating to me to help find ways to help make changes in human activity.

I wasn’t sure at first about embracing the value of music with the lessons, but changed my viewpoint after experiencing and learning how it can be incorporated into many facets of the presentations. The songs are catchy, repetitive, engaging, and I believe are appealing to all the ages for the curriculum. The tunes and fun lyrics help reinforce the lessons and will be fun to use in our workshops! I’m excited to teach my colleagues some of the songs and help us break out of our predictable and rather boring adult personalities.

The final personal challenge I am taking away is the message in the presentation made by Jackie, ‘The Making of a T-Shirt”. It is easy to believe how insignificant our decisions or actions can be. However, the impact of the ripple effect can help encourage us to take a stand and help influence the decisions to prevent unnecessary waste of natural resources. The next day after the workshop I was involved in a camp planning conversation without 4-H staff and shared the challenge of thoughtful and meaningful use of t- shirts in our programs. And to consider USA-made products. The simple retort is the additional cost to which I replied that there is a higher human cost involved. It will be a slow process and I am going to take up the cause. I found the NPR program which originally aired this story and will continue sharing this message and making much more personal responsible decisions.
Thank you for your dedication to educating the future generations and helping protect our natural resources. Together, we can make a difference!

MO – Dan Downing, University of Missouri Extension

The professor that did the presentation on Climate Change was excellent. I believe this to be the best, most concise, minimally debatable way of presenting the material I have seen. I too was surprised how many of our “class” did not feel humans were impacting climate change but, after hearing her presentation changed their opinions.

For me the highlight of the training was seeing fundamentally the same concepts as we have been discussing over the past 20-30 years packaged and presented in new, lively, entertaining formats, breathing new life into the science.

Thanks for a great, energy-filled educational experience.

Social Science Observational Reflections

From a professional observer’s point-of-view, the overall flow and content delivery at the Multi-State Summit was extraordinary. Summit proceedings were centered around dialogue and interaction with attendees, which is key to keeping participants’ interest and understanding of the material at high levels. Showings of Water Rocks! music videos often followed academic-style, expert presentations, helping to spark participant energy levels before delving into the hands-on, interactive module demonstrations.

Water Rocks! Director Jacqueline Comito did a great job of opening the Summit with a summary of how the Water Rocks! program functions, and what it seeks to do. Comito points out that “A song can do something a half-hour lecture can never do,” expounding on the ways in which the Water Rocks! team seeks to make science fun through the use of art and music. She points out that the Water Rocks! team is intentional about how they do outreach, seeking to reach both rural and urban audiences, pointing out that the relatively small Water Rocks! staff of six turns down 57% of requests for school visits each year.

Perhaps the most compelling move Comito made during her opening remarks of the Summit was to call upon the audience to make personal connections to the environmental issues related to Water Rocks! programming. In answer to this call, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Water Quality Program Manager, Jamie Benning, shared how she plays Water Rocks! music CDs for her 5-year-old daughter while riding around town in their family’s vehicle, and the ways in which the child has connected with the scientific concepts covered in those songs through that exposure. It is personal testaments like these that speak to the scope of application of Water Rocks! lessons that can help educators who are new to the program envision how the concepts and materials might be used in their own professional and personal lives after the Summit. Including even more of these personal stories as a tool for brainstorming materials use could be a useful strategy for engaging participants at an even deeper level in future Summits.

In one-on-one conversations with Summit participants throughout the event, it became clear that teams from each state face a multiplicity of challenges in reaching their intended audiences. Among the challenges faced are:

  •  The ever-present need for obtaining funding to support their outreach efforts
  • The difficulty of getting programs into schools when teachers and administration are focused onhow guest presentations will meet their benchmark standards
  • Language barriers in diverse school districts and the difficulty of translating educational materials
  • Staffing to cover the demand for outreach
  • Competition with other environmental educational programs
  • The lack of transparent and useful program evaluation methods
  • The need to whittle down large-scale lessons to fit into 3-5 minute presentations for use at high-trafficked community events and festivalsMany teams expressed an interest in hosting a Water Rocks! visit to their home states to help reach audiences that would benefit from the Water Rocks! message. As one example of the partnership that was built during the Summit, the South Dakota State University Extension team plans to bring in Water Rocks! in 2017 to offer Water Rocks! Assemblies as part of their Big Sioux Water Festival. Summit participants were told that the best way to get the message out to their target audiences will be to take Summit lesson plans and provided materials, and put them to good use in their existing outreach efforts.

At the end of Day 1, time was offered to state teams to meet in small groups and discuss the potential for using the Water Rocks! activities in their future programming. After these small-group meetings, the teams reconvened as a large group to share their thoughts on the potential for partnerships, programming needs and challenges. The majority of this large group time was spent sharing concerns over challenges each group faced in their outreach programs. Attendees were eager for this broader discussion, which could allow for problem-solving the programming challenges each region holds in common, and for brainstorming the development of program evaluation methods that could help them better gauge the success of their outreach efforts. Future Water Rocks! Multi-State Summits could benefit from building in additional large group discussion time that more directly fosters dialogue addressing challenges in outreach programming. 

The two-day Summit had an overall light-hearted, positive atmosphere. “I want to play more games!” exclaimed one Summit participant during an event break. No matter what age, we all want to play more games. The Water Rocks! Multi-State Summit offered educators a chance to do that, and equipped them with the tools to use those games in their youth programming. Above all, it’s the experience of learning that lasts with young people, and the more fun we infuse into how they learn science and environmental conservation, the more likely those young people will carry those lessons with them into adulthood. This Multi-State Summit was one more step in the Water Rocks! campaign to spread the fun of learning about protecting our natural resources beyond the formal classroom, and beyond the state of Iowa.


Jacqueline Comito
Iowa State University