Johnson County Wastewater uses games for kids as a key element of an expanded website that offers interactive learning


Twelve years ago, the Johnson County (Kan.) Wastewater (JCW) website fell short of its potential. Serving about 440,000 customers with seven treatment plants, JCW needed a way to get the word out about the importance of wastewater treatment.

“They just had a really simple, static website,” says Karen Sorensen, Internet projects coordinator. With a background in multimedia design and corporate training, Sorensen was brought on to amp up the website (www.jcw.org).

“They were very excited when I came on board to make the website as interactive as possible,” Sorensen says. She quickly revamped the site to include more educational information and new interactive games for kids of all ages have been highly popular.

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The MicroMatch game “puts the player in the shoes of a wastewater worker with the challenge of identifying various microbes as quickly as possible,” says Sorensen. It’s modeled after the old TV game show, Concentration.

The game board is made up of rows of squares. When a square is clicked, it uncovers an image of a microbe. The player then clicks on another square, revealing another microbe. The point is to uncover two microbes that match. Once that happens, those squares disappear, revealing part of an image behind the board. As all the squares are matched, the full image is revealed. Sorensen worked with local freelance programmer Joe Minenna to create the template and design.

 

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Well-rounded education

Getting more citizens to visit the website has been a bonus, and the games have helped. “Our monthly Web traffic statistics indicate that our education section consistently ranks high among visitors, particularly with MicroMatch,” Sorensen says.

With easy-to-understand information available on the site, the public can learn the ins and outs of the wastewater treatment plants and their processes. Tim O’Donnell, assistant plant superintendent, observes: “MicroMatch teaches kids what kind of biology is going on in the wastewater process.”

Besides the information on the website, JCW uses plant tours as a teaching method. “Our tours are supported by our website, including its games,” explains Sorensen. “It’s easy to go on a tour of a wastewater plant, but how much of that information is retained?

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“The learning process can actually begin before the tour. A game such as our MicroMatch can introduce basic concepts. After the tour, playing the game reinforces vital information, in this case, the distinct visual characteristics of live microbes.”

 

Operator input

Another game now in the works simulates operating on an aeration tank. “The player is once again in the shoes of a wastewater operator and tries to control the amount of oxygen in the tank’s ‘microbiological soup,’ successfully speeding the growth of microorganisms, which results in sedimentation,” says Sorensen.

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She notes that managing this challenging process is one reason why JCW has earned numerous Gold Peak Performance Awards from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

The wastewater treatment plant staff played an integral part in developing the games. Sorensen says: “The operators are a wealth of information — no two ways about it. They were really open and flexible and very pleasant to be with as I asked them questions. They taught me the whole process in a way that I didn’t find in any book.”

Operators provided additional information for the website, including a glossary of wastewater terms and a microbes information sheet complete with images of each microbe. And not to be overlooked, a Tic-Tac-Toilet game is a fun twist on traditional tic-tac-toe.

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Public knowledge

Building the community’s knowledge of wastewater goes beyond interactive games. Lori Sand, director of communications for JCW, observes: “Continuing education helps build an ongoing relationship with our customers which is of a value to us because we want people to understand what it is that we do, why it’s important to them and just to have that relationship with us as we go down that path.”

Sand believes, when the decision-makers are forced to make budget cuts, it is important that the public is informed so they understand the need to keep funds available for the treatment plant and its endeavors.

O’Donnell notes, “It comes down to money — bottom line. The more they know, the more we can do.”

The interactive games on the JCW website make learning more fun for kids and adults. “It’s amazing how much folks don’t know what happens once they flush the toilet,” says Sorensen. “Keeping them up to date about our multi-faceted industry makes them realize just how much of a value we are to them.”

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