‘A Glass of History’

Go-getter Jeff Kalmes visits numerous classrooms and leads plant tours to teach kids about the value of water and the need to protect it

If you want to catch up with Jeff Kalmes, you’d better lace up your running shoes — he’s a man on the move.

In 1986, Kalmes hired on as a lab technician at the Billerica (Mass.) Wastewater Treatment Plant. Since then his responsibilities have expanded and, 17 years ago, he took on the education and

outreach program. In 2009, the New England Water Environment Association took notice, presenting him with its Public Educator of the Year Award.

In the lab, Kalmes performs analyses during different stages of treatment at the 5 mgd plant. He also handles solids generated at the plant, including wasting, dewatering, primary pumping and transporting solids offsite.

When it comes to outreach and education, he visits local elementary schools, schedules and conducts plant tours, and in the fall hosts World Water Monitoring Day (WWMD) activities. Kalmes modifies his hours at the treatment plant when he’s in educator mode. Colleagues fill in and an additional employee is hired to help cover his responsibilities.

Still, the outreach programs keep Kalmes busy. And because of them, children in Middlesex County know where their water comes from, where it goes and how to protect it.

Reaching out

To publicize the program, Kalmes reaches out to teachers through their mailboxes.

“When March comes around, I think it’s that time of year again,” says Kalmes. “There are six elementary schools in town, and I put letters in the teachers’ mailboxes. Then they start calling and e-mailing. If you do a good job and are good with the kids, they call you back.”

He must be doing something right: He visits 80 to 100 classes each season, April through June. Class presentations are geared to the grade level. All grades learn about the water cycle and conservation, but second graders also learn about groundwater, third graders surface water, and fourth graders wastewater and drinking water. Fifth graders get a combination of everything.

Kalmes keeps detailed notes, so he knows what ages he has presented to and what he has covered. That keeps him from repeating material and boring the students. He also makes sure the timing fits with the grade level: First and second grade talks last 30 minutes, and the rest 45 to 60 minutes, depending on how many questions kids ask.

He brings along poster displays, and the children watch videos. Fourth and fifth graders really get an added prize — wastewater from the treatment plant. Kalmes shows the students samples from the different stages of treatment, so they can see what actually happens.

“Most of the students will see the presentations every year, first through fifth, each with difference pieces,” Kalmes says. “Every year, I explain that water is a puzzle, and this is another piece of the puzzle.”

He emphasizes that water is nothing new: What we have now has been and will be around for generations. “I tell them that there’s no such thing as new water,” Kalmes says. “Every glass of water is a glass of history and a glass of geography.”

Shock and awe

Kalmes encourages teachers to bring their students to the treatment plant. He coordinates tours to include the drinking water and wastewater plants, scheduling about two hours for both. Last year,

30 classes made the trip. Besides visitors from elementary schools, classes from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Harvard, Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools, home-school groups, and even Boy Scout troops came to the plants.

A lot of parents come along as chaperones, and Kalmes sees that as a public relations opportunity. “I love seeing the parents’ faces,” Kalmes says. “Some were born and raised here in town. All they know about water is that it comes from the faucet and goes down the drain.

“I ask the group questions about how much water they think they use in a day. They start with 10 gallons and are shocked that it’s closer to 100 gallons. They think their water is expensive, but I compare it to the cost of bottled water. With the cost of bottled water at about $8 a gallon, that’s $800 a day. Here, they’re only charged five cents a gallon.”

From the drinking water plant, it’s on to the wastewater plant. “We call the wastewater treatment plant our shock and awe tour,” says Kalmes. “There are lots of different smells, and some kids are holding their noses. I explain that what we see and what we smell is part of the job. As we go through the plant, I ask them, what they smell now.”

As the tour progresses, the students understand that the water is being cleaned, process by process. And the message sticks. Kalmes recently met a student at a vocational school who remembered the tour from when he was in elementary school 10 years before.

A worldwide effort

The last two years, local engineering firm Woodard & Curran sponsored field trips for third graders to take part in World Water Monitoring Day, officially observed on Sept. 18 and sponsored by

the Water Environment Federation and the International Water Association.

The students ride a bus to a local lake where Kalmes collects a bucket-sized sample. It’s divvied up for four different stations where students use kits to measure temperature, pH, turbidity and dissolved oxygen. Then Kalmes posts the data on the WWMD Web site (www.worldwatermonitoringday.org).

Back in the classroom, teachers can access the monitoring day online spreadsheets so students can see data from hundreds of towns, some from the other side of the globe. “We do emphasize that all over the world there are different bodies of water, and that kids are collecting samples from those bodies of water,” Kalmes says.

It’s a telling experience that illustrates that a glass of water really is a glass of geography — and is well worth protecting.



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