Public education isn’t just for school kids. Here’s how to reach out to your community.

Wow, I received a lot of great feedback from last month’s blog (How to Get Your Foot in the Classroom Door).

I’ve been going into classrooms for 23 years now, and every April when I gear up for it, I take it for granted. I’m very comfortable working with the kids and teachers, and I enjoy talking to them about the water cycle. However, they aren’t the only ones who need to be taught. I’ve come to realize that no one ever came into my classrooms and tried to teach me about 6-billion-year-old water. Now, my generation is grown up and is making decisions about drinking water and wastewater plants.

I always targeted elementary classes because, at that age, they are the ones who go home, sit down and have a conversation with their parents during dinner. It doesn’t seem to happen so much in middle and high school. These conversations are what I want the kids to have with their parents because it might get them thinking about what happens when we turn on a faucet. 

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However, there is a lot more to public education than just going in and seeing school children.

Through the years, I’ve done all I can to create an image of professionalism in our industry. In many municipalities, operators are often lumped into a public works union. The public does not always have a high opinion of this type of worker, which makes our job even harder because we have to fight a negative opinion. I have combated this opinion by working harder to show the public that we know what we are doing. Here are a few ways I’ve spread the word about the work we do.

1. Use the local media

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In my hometown, I try to make myself and my plant available to the public. However, not all residents are able to get down and see us. When I realized this, I contacted the cable service to set up a local show with one of their producers. They came down, and we did about six hours of taping, which made one hour of viewing. It was a good experience, and the response was amazing. I never realized so many people watched the local access station. I got enough views that the station asked me and my friend and co-worker, Dave, to come in and do a question-and-answer segment. Again, we had great response.

2. Educate your local government officials

When we were seeking approval for some plant upgrades, we really needed our town’s finance committee to back the project. With this committee’s “thumbs up,” the project would be more likely to get through to a town meeting. We decided to arrange a Saturday tour with the finance committee. None of them had ever been to a treatment plant, and it was an eye-opening experience. They were extremely impressed with operations and processes. While going through the plant, we explained why we were replacing equipment that was more than 30 years old. We also talked about how our permit changed, which meant we needed to go in a certain direction to meet permit requirements. They had great questions and seemed to come away very educated on why we needed money for upgrades. With a well-informed committee, the town meeting was an easy win, and we received the $10 million we needed.

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3. Mentor a newbie

Dave and I have also been involved in mentoring. In the past 10 years, we have worked with several people who were looking for a life change. For us, it’s been a great career, and we enjoy sharing our industry knowledge with friends and family who want to make the leap into a new profession. We have placed three people in Billerica’s water and wastewater treatment plants. As we approach the end of our careers, we realize there is a severe shortage of qualified licensed operators. The industry needs to start preparing for the massive brain drain that will be occurring in the next 10 years. 

As you can see, public education is not just for kids. It’s about reaching out to the community and making everyone aware of how precious our water is. Kids are a great start, but tours, local cable, newspaper articles and mentoring are all part of a successful public education program.

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About the author
Jeff Kalmes is a Grade 7 operator and plant supervisor at the Town of Billerica Wastewater Treatment Plant. He has won the 2008 NEWEA Public Educator Award, the 2011 WEF National Public Educator Award and the 2015 NEWEA Operator of the Year award. You can reach him at

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