Getting the Scoop

With a roll of the dice, students in Tacoma travel through a sewer, then a wastewater treatment plant, negotiating hazards along the way

Milton Bradley has nothing on the City of Tacoma, Wash., and its EnviroChallenger educators. With their custom-made Toxic Toilet board game, educators Jacqueline Fuller and John Inch coach elementary school students to roll the dice and move block by block through the sewer system. Across the board, players contend with common threats to the system, such as grease, hair, cleaners, and medications.

“The kids repeat the problem and come up with a solution,” says Fuller. “Afterwards, we come together and talk about each one.” Students often offer ingenious solutions like using a coat hanger to dislodge a clog rather than a chemical clog remover. The game continues as players navigate the sewer and pass through the treatment plant. The first one to the river wins.

In Tacoma, the river at the game’s endpoint is a waterway that flows into Commencement Bay and then on to Puget Sound. By bringing Toxic Toilet and other activities into the classroom, city representatives teach students what it takes to treat wastewater and why treatment is so important.

Complete program

Usually paired with Toxic Toilets is After the Flush: The Scoop on Poop. Once the topic is introduced and the giggling mellows, students are transformed into wastewater engineers.

“I try to add a little sparkle,” Fuller says. She personalizes the presentation with stories about her brother and two cousins who work as wastewater treatment plant operators.

As part of The Scoop on Poop, students first dirty up their water-filled beakers by adding coffee grounds. Then Fuller walks them through the cleanup process. The kids pour the contents of the beakers through a screen, removing most of the coffee. Then they wait as smaller particles settle out of the filtrate. In the meantime, Fuller explains the mechanisms involved in straining and settling wastewater at the treatment plant and tells the kids to be careful about what they put into a toilet or sink drain.

To make the most of the classroom activities, the EnviroChallenger educators also use their Web site. All programs they offer are summarized online, along with pre-visit activities and teacher tips that help get the kids up to speed and make the most of the classroom visit.

Getting around

For Fuller, a former teacher, it was important for the EnviroChallenger lessons and activities to meet state standards and criteria. For municipalities preparing their own educational programs, she suggests involving a teacher, or at least having an educator review the material.

Fuller also knows the local school district’s science curriculum well enough so that she can tell teachers how and where EnviroChallenger fits in. “I can say, ‘We have a water cycle lesson, and it fits with what you’re teaching at this time,’” she says.

The EnviroChallenger team visits public and private schools, as well as after-school programs, homeschoolers, scouts, and other groups. “Because we’re paid by the ratepayers, we have to stay within the Tacoma city limits, and at least 50 percent of the participants have to be city residents,” Fuller says.

The YMCA is a prime spot for making contact with homeschoolers, many of whom hold physical education classes there. She also visits community events, handing out business cards and explaining the program.

No matter the audience, one thing doesn’t change: the potty humor. When she tells how her cousin found a diamond in the bar screen at the wastewater treatment plant in Malibu, kids hold their stomachs and moan and groan. “They act like they’re queasy, but they’re not,” says Fuller. “That’s just how kids are.”

Making it stick

The activities have an impact beyond giving students a break from their routine. “We believe that teaching kids stewardship isfundamental to fostering an environmental culture that recognizes the importance of water quality and places a value on maintaining a healthy environment,” says Dan Thompson, Ph.D., acting assistant public works director and manager of the environmental services department.

He believes the connection between wastewater and the environment isn’t always straightforward for the general public, and that given a history of industrial impact, the bays in Tacoma are vulnerable.

“Education is critical to preserving, enhancing and saving the environment,” Thompson says. “It’s especially critical in wastewater treatment, because our service is largely invisible. Our collection system is underground. Our treatment plants are hidden in industrial districts or camouflaged and fitted with odor-control and noise-reduction technology.”

Since EnviroChallenger began in 2000, more than 130,000 students have taken part, not counting events outside of the classroom. So while the mechanics of treatment may be hidden, folks like Fuller, Inch, and Thompson are shedding some light, along with some laughter.


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