Hands-on Education

An Ohio district gives high school students an up-close look at wastewater treatment as a challenging and rewarding career
Hands-on Education

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What started out as a jobs program for inner-city students in the Cleveland metropolitan area has evolved into an education program and possible recruiting tool for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

The Wastewater Prep program still includes a summer work component, but rather than do basic chores such as mowing and painting hand railings, students now can learn and perform a variety of operations and maintenance duties in the district’s three wastewater treatment facilities, serving more than a million people in 60 communities.

Ed Haller, assistant superintendent at the district’s Southerly Wastewater Treatment Plant, launched the program several years ago working with students from one Cleveland high school. The program expanded to involve all three treatment plants and students from several high schools.


Two become one

Haller, who has a chemical engineering degree and is the author of Simplified Wastewater Treatment Plant Operations, teamed with the Urban League and Collinwood High School in Cleveland to identify students interested in a program that went beyond the typical summer job. In the first year of Wastewater Prep, four of the 12 students in the summer jobs program chose to take a

17-week class on wastewater treatment operations during the next school year.

The class was based on Haller’s book and mirrored a class he teaches for district employees who want to gain state certification as operators.

In the second year, Westerly Treatment Plant maintenance manager Jim Santiago joined the program, which expanded to include students from Max S. Hayes High School, a career and technical school.

Since then, Wastewater Prep has merged with the summer student program, and the standards for entry are higher. Students entering Wastewater Prep now can rotate through a variety of maintenance and operations jobs. They work with mechanics and operators, handling basic electrical tasks, working on pumps, doing light welding, and taking lab samples and instrument readings.

“They even work with management,” Santiago says. “They get a full experience, and they are able to actually work.”


Leading to jobs

During their job rotation, students are given a list of questions and are expected to talk to operators or mechanics to get the answers. “They have to keep logbooks, too,” Haller says. “And when we review them, we often find some good questions we hadn’t even thought of.”

One of the most important lessons has less to do with plant operations than with life: “They learn they actually have a talent they can work on,” Santiago says. “They are actually really excited to come to work.”

Now in its fourth year, the program has produced one full-time employee on the district payroll: Antonio Stinson at the Easterly plant. Haller says four students from the past summer’s program are strong candidates for positions now. Even if many of the students pursue careers in other fields, Haller sees the impact that Wastewater Prep can have. “We had one young lady who was studying law, but now she is more interested in studying environmental law,” he says.

Mardele Cohen, community outreach specialist at the district, says it’s important to look for prospective employees among the students because the workforce is aging and many will soon retire. By getting students involved in Wastewater Prep, the district can present itself as a career option students might not otherwise think about.

“We want to give them a good perspective on who we are and what we have to offer,” Cohen says. “We want them to know you can start in custodial and move into maintenance or operations.” Completing Wastewater Prep does not qualify students to become treatment operators, but it “gives them a good idea of what’s coming and what they need to learn.”


Source of hope

Santiago says the program serves as a source of hope for inner-city students. “We want to give these kids a chance to come and see their options and see they may have a better chance,” he says. “If they see that after a year with us they can get tuition reimbursement, they may see a way toward education.”

Haller thinks the combination of education and experience can lead to a better workforce at the district. “With my degree in chemical engineering, I never would have thought I’d end up in wastewater treatment,” he says. “But now, I see it’s a perfect fit.”

The Wastewater Prep program is just one educational program the district offers. Another is the Aquabots program for grades 6-8. It begins with tours to one of the treatment plants and their labs. Then, after 12 hours of instruction about wastewater treatment, students are given robotics kits and are asked to design a robot to assist the district in its job.

The district also takes part in the Student Technical Enrichment Program (STEP) with the City of Cleveland and MWH, an international engineering and consulting firm. Here, students in grades 7-8 meet one Saturday a month for site tours and interactive programs that expose them to technical careers involving math, science, engineering and other fields.


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