Plant operators are integral to the education program at Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) in Rhode Island on multiple levels — and one became the star of the show.
“One of the elementary classes was so impressed by the work of one of our operators, Joe LaPlante, that they wrote a musical about their wastewater treatment experience,” says Jamie Samons, public affairs manager at NBC. “The main character was Joe, so one of the little kids played him.
“It was hilarious! They met him and liked him, and they were so psyched about the whole activated sludge process.”
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LaPlante, now the operations and maintenance support supervisor, recently won an Alfred E. Peloquin Award from the New England Water Environment Association, recognizing personal service contributing to excellence in plant operations.
NBC runs education programs for elementary, middle and high school students and for adults, as well. Operators take part in classroom sessions and lead tours and learning activities at treatment plant sites.
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NBC operates two wastewater treatment plants, Field’s Point (50-55 mgd average) and Bucklin Point (25-30 mgd average), that jointly serve 350,000 people in 10 cities and towns. The commission’s education programs make sure children and adults understand what those plants do and help them to appreciate the environment the plants protect.
The Woon Watershed Explorers (WWE) program for grades 2-5 began as a pilot program in 2004 and has taken off since then.
“WWE is a full watershed curriculum,” says Cynthia Morissette, environmental education coordinator. “We integrate water-quality testing so kids learn about all the parameters, like dissolved oxygen, pH, and nitrates and phosphates. They do river testing at local sites.”
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The nine-month program educates students through monthly in-class lessons, field trips to local rivers, and a culminating environmental education symposium at the end of the school year. “Toward the end of the program, we incorporate macroinvertebrate studies so the kids get to know how water quality affects life in their rivers and ponds,” says Morissette.
The NBC staff and plant operators take the program to the classrooms. “The way we figured would be most equitable was to include one school from each of the 10 service communities,” says Samons.
The program supplements state and federal curriculum standards. “WWE is added into the school’s curriculum, so it’s something extra they get on top of the science they’re already getting,” explains Morissette. “A lot of the schools have cut back on science, so the program allows the students to get out into the community and see their local water resources as well as work with our operators. Sometimes it actually helps because their curriculum is so limited.”
An end-of-the-year symposium brings the young scientists together from all the schools that took part in WWE to apply what they learned. “At the year-end Environmental Education Symposium in Goddard Park, we bring in a lot of outside organizations,” says Morissette. “The operators help the students do water-quality testing, and they teach the kids about the different species in the bay. The operators bring in activities to talk about wastewater and show how the treatment plant is involved with what we do.”
Organizing 500 rambunctious kids is not always easy with a small staff. “The operators help the children complete their activities, and they get the kids from place to place,” says Samons.
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Moving on up
Older students are not overlooked. “We have a six-week program for high school students,” says Samons. “It looks at the environmental as well as economic and policy implications of having or not having clean water on a local and global level.”
NBC staff members go out to the schools, but they also bring the students to the wastewater treatment facilities to tour the plants and specifically the laboratories. This gives the students a more scientific look at plant operations.
“We’ve also done job shadowing for high school students interested in technical careers,” adds Samons.
Adults get involved in education, too. For the past two years on Nov. 19, World Toilet Day, students and adults have been artistically enhancing toilet seats with a message about clean water.
“The response was fantastic!” says Samons. “We mounted the toilet seats at a local gallery.”
Established about 10 years ago by the United Nations, World Toilet Day is just one way NBC brings awareness that about half the people on the planet don’t have access to adequate sanitation.
Leading the pack
“We consider the folks who work here at NBC the real environmentalists,” says Samons. “The operators are the ones on the front line. They’ve got the rubber to the road every day. They have done more to improve the quality of the water in Narragansett Bay than anyone. It’s the folks at the plant who have done the lion’s share of the environmental improvement in this state.”
With recognition like this, NBC has schools knocking on the door to get into the education programs. “It’s important to educate the young about the dangers of bad water and keeping water clean,” says LaPlante. “Older people are stuck in their ways and it’s very difficult to change bad habits.”