School Year-Round

Grants help a Louisiana treatment plant host kids of all ages for hands-on educational experiences — including summer camps
School Year-Round

Jan Mistich is on double duty. She’s a full-time fifth-grade science teacher at Tchefuncte Middle School in Mandeville, La., while also serving as educational director for the Public Works Department’s environmental interpretive program.

The program includes a variety of field trips to the Mandeville Wastewater Treatment Plant tailored to children from grades 2-12. And a summer program blends environmental education with fun. The program is run with support from the plant staff.

Where there’s a will

In 2002, Mistich’s brother-in-law, Joe Mistich, then public works director, secured a five-year grant to set up a classroom, prepare lesson plans, and pay an educator to direct an environmental education program. Since then, two more grants have kept the project going.

“I used to come here and bring my students,” says Jan Mistich. “And Joe would do the presentation. When the grant came through, he asked me to write up lesson plans.” She left teaching for a year to work on the lesson plans. Connie Marciante now works as teacher educator at the plant, while Mistich manages the program.

Generally, field trips tothe plant include a two-hour tour and a mix of discussion, hands-on work and video instruction. Students learn about the biological treatment process, including a lab presentation from a treatment plant operator. They also visit the constructed wetlands the plant uses for polishing the effluent before discharge about two miles south of Lake Pontchartrain.

From the dock, students collect samples from the wetlands and test them for parameters such as dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity. Then it’s time for an onsite lunch break. “We usually have about 60 kids here — 30 inside and 30 outside,” says Jan Mistich.

Cleaning the water

After lunch, the trip continues with laboratory work at the plant classroom. There are several activities, but the most popular is making and cleaning wastewater. Students are guided through rooms of a virtual house where everyday products like shampoo, soap, toothpaste, dirt, oil, food scraps, and mock human waste are added to their water samples.

“We talk about why we wouldn’t want to release the wastewater that they’ve made into the environment, and they are reminded of the wetland we just visited and the impact it would have,” says Mistich.

A video describes mechanical processes for treating wastewater and comparisons are made between the plant in the video and Mandeville’s treatment plant. And then students are challenged to clean their own wastewater samples using sieves, cheesecloth, paper towels, cotton batting, sand, gravel and charcoal.

Other topics include groundwater and surface water, wetlands, macroinvertebrates, and soil as a cleaning medium. The kids also learn about the water bugs and wading birds that call the treatment plant home. “We were awarded the grant in February of 2003, and then we had fall to get ready and spring to start,” says Mistich. “Since then we’ve had about 10,000 kids.”

Other fun

Outside the school year, the program also offers a Water Wonders summer camp — three one-week camps for students entering grades 4-6. The camp isn’t all science, but many activities involve nature surrounding the plant. Campers go fishing and take a hike where they learn about the quality of the lake water and the wildlife of the lake and marsh. In 2010, the camp included learning about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, turning a tragedy into a teachable opportunity.

The program held a Watershed Festival last fall that included hands-on activities, Enviroscape demonstrations, and fish and wildlife presentations from state Department of Environmental Quality staff. The festival was part of Keep Mandeville Beautiful, a day where volunteers clean up the litter along Mandeville waterways.

“After the volunteers finish with the cleanup, they can come back to the lake for the environmental fair,” Mistich says. The Mandeville Public Works Department is making sure that environmental education is intertwined with the community.



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