Making It Clear

A practical approach helps Ron Trygar's students at Florida's TREEO Center grasp basic concepts, pass exams, and operate their plants effectively

It would be hard to pack more diverse experience into 25-plusyears in the wastewater industry than Ronald Trygar has. Before joining the University of Florida TREEO Center a little less than two years ago, Trygar worked as an operator at several wastewater treatment plants in New Jersey, Virginia and Florida.He also gave technical assistance to treatment plants as a wastewater section supervisor for the Florida Rural Water Association, worked for a plant operations and management company, trained operators for a private company in the Virgin Islands, and ran his own wastewater training consulting business.

Today, he’s the senior training specialist in water and wastewater at TREEO Center (the name stands for Training, Research and Education for Environmental Occupations). There, he instructs water and wastewater treatment plant operators from across Florida, both in on-campus classes and on the road at treatment plants. He holds Florida Level A wastewater and Level B water operator licenses.

The role of TREEO Center is to help environmental professionals keep current with developments in their fields. Besides water and wastewater the center’s more than 250 professional development courses cover environmental and health and safety, air quality, asbestos abatement, GIS, GPS, groundwater, hazardous materials, ISO 14000, landfill design, lead abatement, and solid waste, water and wastewater.

Trygar, a certified environmental trainer (CET), is a member of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Operator Certification Program Exam Review Committee. He is also active in the Water Environment Federation, the Florida WEA, the Florida Water & Pollution Control Operators Association, and the Board of Certification for the National Environmental Safety and Health Training Association.

His diverse experience in operations and instruction gives him unique perspectives on current trends in training, the training methods that work, and the importance of training for today’s wastewater operators and the organizations they serve. He spoke on those and other topics in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO:

How did you get into the wastewater business?

Trygar:

After high school in New Jersey, I moved to Virginia Beach, Va., and had a temporary job doing deliveries for a flower wholesaler. One of the guys who worked with me said his mom worked at an employment agency, and he arranged for me to talk to her. She said, “There’s a job at this water treatment plant. Would you be interested in that?”

My dad was a water operator in New Jersey, so I decided to check it out. Lo and behold, it was a wastewater plant. I decided, well, it was a job with benefits. So there I was, 18 years old and an operator trainee with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District at a 50-mgd pure oxygen activated sludge plant.

When I saw how everything worked, I just fell in love with it. Even today, I get so excited about teaching it. It’s so intricate — the biology and chemistry and all the things that happen. To me, it’s so much more exciting than drinking water. I’m really glad it was a wastewater plant I went to.

TPO:

What are some key issues you see in wastewater training today?

Trygar:

The economy has affected operators’ ability to get the kind of training they want. Here in Florida, many students tell me their cities have money available for training, but they don’t have any travel money. They can’t travel outside the city limits and be reimbursed for it. So they have to pay out of pocket to come to my classes.

Others tell me their training budgets are so low that all they can afford are online courses. Those courses may be very good, but most adult learners I teach really like the interaction with other learners in a classroom setting, and they’re not as comfortable sitting there in front of a computer. They really like the ability to put their hands on a piece of equipment or run a test themselves.

TPO:

How is TREEO Center responding to that?

Trygar:

We are taking more of our training on the road. For example, last year I did a three-day course in a city near Orlando on activated sludge, process control, and troubleshooting. Since we used the city’s facility, we gave a couple of their people free admittance. So the class was a mixture of classroom, theory and lecture, and then we went out to the plant and actually did the testing.

That kind of training has been a real success for us. Right now, we do about half our classes on the road, where before about 90 percent were here at the TREEO Center. I think that in the near future, maybe 75 percent of the time I’ll be traveling.

TPO:

How have tight effluent standards affected the need for quality training?

Trygar:

Permit requirements for effluent discharge are getting stricter, and the environmental groups are pushing the EPA and the Florida DEP to enforce the regulations more thoroughly. Nitrogen and phosphorus standards in particular are getting tougher. We have facilities that need to meet limits of 0.2 mg/l phosphorus.

It’s tough for some rural towns to get to those limits without a lot of process control and a lot of training on how to operate their facilities. One of my most popular courses is in biological nutrient removal. It’s two days covering just nitrogen and phosphorus, and when the evaluations come back, the people say they want it to be a three-day class.

Many plants I deal with in Florida are designed to meet BNR require-ments, but they have trouble meeting those very low limits without chemical addition. So we include chemical safety in the BNR course.

TPO:

What has the aging of the operator workforce done for training needs?

Trygar:

It’s incredible to see the number of people retiring and leaving the industry, and when they go they take a lot of knowledge and experience with them. We’re trying to get more young people into the industry.

Several utilities in Florida have internship programs, where they’ll pay for a trainee student to take the courses and the exam while they work at the treatment plant. In turn, they want the students to guarantee they will work there for at least a year. That’s been really successful.

I’m trying to get us out more into the science classes at elementary and middle schools. We want to get kids more aware of wastewater treatment and water conservation, because we need to as a society, but also to give them an idea of what it takes to be a water or wastewater operator.

I’ll bring my microscope to the class and hook it up to their TV monitor, and we’ll look at some slides so they get to see what the bacteria and all the indicator organisms look like. I do some work with the University of Florida and the local community colleges.

TPO:

What approach do you take to training? Do you use the standard resources like the Sacramento books?

Trygar:

The books are in my classroom, and we use them as reference material if we need them, but I have developed my own presentations that I’ve delivered over the years, and we go with that. My presentations use a lot of pictures. I have a pretty extensive library of photos that I can pick out at any given point to show them what I’m talking about. I think that really makes a difference. That approach is something I learned about through my CET training.

TPO:

What do you consider to be the most important part of your courses?

Trygar:

I would have to say it’s the math. The odd thing is that I was terrible at math in school, and yet some of the best training I give now, and some of the most fun I have with the operators, is teaching them math.

When I ask a class of operators what their weakest subject is, nine times out of 10 it’s math. In my classes, if it’s a three-day class, we’ll spend roughly a day and a half on math. Little do they know it ends up being that much. We work it in as we talk, and that way it’s not scary to them. They understand it when we put it into context. The evaluations I get say the thing they liked most was math. And I had to have a math tutor when I was in high school!

TPO:

What are some of the most popular courses you offer?

Trygar:

We do a lot of exam prep courses. Many people go through the standard Sacramento courses. They read the books, they do the chapter quizzes, and they get a certificate at the end that they took the course. But when they go and sit for the exam, they really don’t have practical application knowledge of what they’ve read.

When we do an exam review course, we spend quite a bit of time just reviewing the basics. I aim the training at giving the people a good understanding of how the processes work. As a result, we have a really good passing rate on the state exams.

Our passing rate for the C level, which is the lowest level in Florida, is at about 81 percent for the students who take our exam prep course. For the B level, we’re seeing about a 70 percent pass rate, and for the A level it’s about 65 percent.

TPO:

What makes these exam prep courses so effective?

Trygar:

We thought we would be teaching a refresher course, but it ends up being more of a crash course in the basics. We teach them about how bacteria eat, and what they do, and what chemistry happens around them. Make sure the operators have a handle on the basic processes and how to troubleshoot.

You can’t troubleshoot if you don’t know the basics of how it works to begin with. We spend a lot of time on the basics, so when they get a troubleshooting question on the exam, they say, “Oh, I know exactly why that is.” The neat thing is that we don’t offer CEUs for those courses, and yet they’re very well attended. That tells me the students are there for the knowledge, that they want to learn.

TPO:

How would you describe your style of teaching?

Trygar:

My teaching method is very informal. I try to set the classroom up so that the students have the most ability to interact with each other. A U-shape works well. I encourage them to talk and learn about each other and share stories, as well as listen to what I deliver to them. I find many operators have great stories to share. We all have input, and I learn something from them as much as they learn from me.

TPO:

What message would you like to leave with wastewater operators?

Trygar:

Just because you don’t have a college degree doesn’t mean you can’t go far in this industry. The only time I’ve set foot on a college campus is to go to Florida State football games, but I’ve done really well for myself in the industry. If you find something you really like, and you’re passionate about it, and you follow your heart, great things can happen.



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