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ET In The Wild: Catching Up With Ann Staudt from Water Rocks!

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Ann Staudt is a bit of a unicorn: an engineer by training with a musical streak and a flair for teaching. It’s no surprise that despite her official title being Director of Water Rocks!, she wears many different hats within the prospering organization. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Ann to chat about the youth education program she helped start that is taking the state of Iowa by storm. We learned how the program came to be; starting as the brainchild of people who simply wanted to make a difference while creating some seriously catchy tunes in the process.

Ann Staudt and Dr. Jacqueline Comito had been doing a lot of work with land and water conservation, working with farmers and landowners back in 2012 when they noticed the ever-increasing demand for youth education around the matter. After visiting different counties around the state of Iowa to speak at outdoor classroom events as well as Soil & Water Conservation District commissioners recognizing the need and asking, “Who is educating our youth on these issues?,” the two put their heads together and got to work fulfilling this urgent need.

After finding the right partners who were willing to fund the project, specifically Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources through Section 319 of the Clean Water Act, Water Rocks! was officially launched. Water Rocks! is revolutionizing the way children and teens learn about the environment through a youth education program that has appeared in 180 schools and reached over 34,000 students in the 2017-2018 school year alone. Water quality and conservation are suddenly commonplace terms in the classroom, and thanks to the catchy jingle, “Don’t Treat Mother Earth Like Dirt”—promoting environmental awareness and action is what all the cool kids are doing.

When we sat down to talk with Ann about her role in the organization, we couldn’t help but be reminded of how progressive this incredible organization is. By merging STEM and the arts, Water Rocks! is able to teach the important concepts of water and land conservation using the universal language of creativity. Learning sciences through the arts may seem a bit non-traditional, but it’s proving to be a very powerful tactic in schools.

In addition to incorporating music into the mix, the Water Rocks! team has strategically leveraged technology in many forms. “We view technology as an integral part of what we do, because with young people, it’s such an important part of their lives. So how can we put that to good use? We’ve built videos and games and it’s turned into this thing where learning becomes fun,” says Staudt.

“We view technology as an integral part of what we do, because we’re dealing with young people and it’s such an important part of their lives. So how can we put that to good use? We’ve built videos and games and it’s turned into this thing where learning becomes fun.”

The game, Rock Your Watershed!, was built to help inform and educate students about watersheds by illustrating different land management practices and the many different choices people can make to preserve that land. The Water Rocks! team worked very closely with our team to create what is now a two-time American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers award winning game that’s been played over 48,000 times and allows students to visually experience the practices, animals, and creatures that make up this biodiversity in action.

In fact, one of our developers that worked on the project noted that accounting for the multitude of possibilities within the game’s interface was one of the more interesting challenges. Jamie Ethington, a veteran ET team member, said that the variety of potential outcomes posed a challenge because we wanted to, “build the game in a way that was realistic and informative but also easy to navigate for the end user.” The project required a lot of coordination and communication with the Water Rocks! team in the process, but in the end we think it really paid off.

Staudt believes part of the reason that the Water Rocks! program has found so much success is because of their seamless ability to blend both traditional and modern approaches. School assemblies engage kids with hands-on activities and music, and teachers follow up with creative learning activities and an interactive website.

“Technology allows students and teachers to
broaden the impact of our Water Rocks! Lesson.”

Ann continued by adding that, “technology plays just one part in the educational package.” While Water Rocks!’ impactful presentations pack a punch in just 45 minutes, Ann and team are able to “leave students and teachers with all of these technology tools to continue that lesson down the road.” It’s no surprise that Water Rocks! is able to create a long-lasting impression with their students. Creating a landscape that allows software, tools, and applications to reach across boundaries and into the hearts and minds of people beyond computer screens is what makes technology so complex and powerful.

To learn more about the groundbreaking work that Water Rocks! is doing, visit their website: http://www.waterrocks.org/

Ann Staudt serves as Director for the Water Rocks! Program. She is an environmental engineer, music composer, educator, and dog whisperer. She has a masters degree in environmental engineering from the University of Notre Dame and a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from ISU.