Spirit of the Water Essay Contest

In 2016, the Iowa Water Center conducted its first-ever essay writing contest for high school students in Iowa. The Spirit of the Water Essay Contest was established and funded through a generous gift from Betty and Dennis Keeney of Ames, Iowa. It is now an annual competition that inspires Iowa youth to explore, reflect, and communicate the importance of water in their lives and communities.
The contest is conducted in the fall and winter, with winners announced at the Iowa Water Conference in March. Submissions to the contest are evaluated by a panel of agency representatives, industry experts, and researchers in water. The top three essays receive a monetary prize, publication in an e-anthology, and a scholarship to attend a summer course at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory: Regents Resource Center.

2019 Contest

Communities work, live, and play in watersheds that are unique systems. To understand how to keep our water clean and to protect it for future generations, water resource scientists conduct research and experiments both in the lab and out in the field. Their research spans history, geography, sociology, engineering, chemistry and beyond. Despite all of the work they do, scientists often go unrecognized for their work and how they make an impact on society.
Watch a video about the contest here
For the 2019 Spirit of the Water Essay contest, please do the following:
1. Contact Hanna Bates (hbates@iastate.edu) with a topic you are interested in below and she will match you to a scientist. 
Water Science Research Topics:

  • Social Sciences
  • Soil Science
  • Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering
  • History
  • English
  • Natural Resources Ecology and Management
  • Economics
  • Chemistry

2. Interview a scientist (via telephone, skype, email)
3. Write an essay about their research interests, the topics they explore, and what impacts their work has on improving natural resources and peoples’ lives.
Examples include: What got them interested in their research topic, what is their research methodology, and what difference their work is making for natural resources
All submission materials include:
Essay (see detailed guidelines here)
Student Information Form
1st Place $500 cash prize One full college course scholarship or 4 credit hours total at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory ($1700 value)
2nd Place $300 cash prize 2 credit hour course scholarship at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory ($900 value)
3rd Place $300 cash prize 
Contest Judges
Clare Lindahl,  CEO Soil and Water Conservation Society
Rick Cruse, Director Iowa Water Center
Melissa Miller, Associate Director Iowa Water Center
We recognize the positive impact of diversity and welcome applications from all students meeting eligibility guidelines. Persons with documented disabilities are encouraged to contact IWC staff to make timely requests for reasonable accommodations.

Previous Contests


Essay prompt: Water is connected to us, regardless of where we live. Individuals who work in a farm field, have a backyard, or work in city infrastructure can make a difference to protect and improve water. Identify someone in your community or in Iowa who is implementing a water improvement practice, project, or carrying out a policy. How they are making a difference for Iowa’s natural resources?
a.       Select a community member, elected official, government agency official, or farmer
b.       Describe the practice/policy in place
c.       Describe what motivates that individual to do the practice/project/policy
d.       Describe how others can emulate his/her work
Contest winners:
First Place: Laura Stowater, Algona High School
Second Place: Lucas Lowder, Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids
Third Place: Michaela Holvoet, Davenport North
Contest Judges:
Dr. John Lawrence Vice President of Extension & Outreach, Iowa State University
Dr. Richard Cruse Director, Iowa Water Center
Melissa Miller Associate Director, Iowa Water Center
2018 Iowa Water Center Spirit of the Water Essay Contest Anthology


Essay prompt: Think of a body of water that you are familiar with and the different kinds of benefits that it provides to the surrounding area. Why are places like that worth protecting?
2017 Iowa Water Center Spirit of the Water Essay Contest Anthology
Contest winners:
First Place: Donald Gee, International Baccalaureate Program at Central Academy in Des Moines
Second Place: Anna Kolln, Cedar Rapids Washington High School
Third Place: Tyler Buman, Harlan Community High School
Honorable Mention: Maggie Langenfeld, Harlan Community High School
Contest judges:
Laura Crowell
State Public Affairs Specialist, Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service
Betty Keeney
Spirit of the Water Essay Contest Benefactor
Dennis Keeney
Spirt of the Water Essay Contest Benefactor; Emeritus Professor, Iowa State University; Former director, Iowa Water Center; First director, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Bill Northey
Secretary of Agriculture, State of Iowa

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