All the Right Moves

Students in a Washington community learn about the treatment process step by step to the “Sewage Shimmy”
All the Right Moves
Students take a field trip around the Bellingham treatment plant.

When Emily Johnson is out and about, she knows she is succeeding on the job when a local student walks up and starts writhing in odd ways, often while making strange noises.

Parents and people walking by might wonder what the kids are up to, but Johnson recognizes one of the steps from the Sewage Shimmy — a teaching tool she created as part of the curriculum for the City of Bellingham’s “Water and Me” program.

Johnson, an environmental educator with the Bellingham Public Works Department in northwestern Washington, says the program is presented to about 1,000 fifth graders per year — more than 30 classes from all Bellingham public schools and several private schools.

Between the Sewage Shimmy and a rubber duck that takes a video journey through the water cycle, the program has tools that help students retain what they learn about everything from the source of their drinking water to the importance of releasing clean effluent into Bellingham Bay.


Building their own

Before taking a field trip to the Post Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, students hear a one-hour presentation from Johnson or a colleague on Bellingham’s water treatment, wastewater treatment and stormwater systems. The talk takes a broad view on the processes, the water cycle and watersheds, “So the kids can see how this all relates,” says Johnson.

Students use kits with colored felt and straws so they can build their own models of Bellingham’s water and stormwater systems. The educators leave behind two videos for the teachers to show to their students before their field trip.

“Go With the Flow” follows the path of a rubber duck from a freshwater intake pipe to the city’s water treatment plant and then through water mains into a home. From the home, the duck travels down a drain, into the sewer system, to the treatment plant, and through the treatment steps. In the end, the students see the duck floating in Bellingham Bay. “They’re really fascinated by the rubber duck,” Johnson says.

During the treatment plant tour, the students learn that the plant is very computer-oriented: Operators oversee the system via SCADA. “The operators are the brains,” plant operations manager Larry Bateman tells the kids. “The computers are the eyes.”

One stop students find most interesting is at the facility’s incinerator. An operator opens the fire pit door so the kids can “ooh and aah” over the roaring flames. “Not a lot of people get to see burning poop in their lives,” Bateman says.


The real thing

When the students arrive at the water plant, Johnson and colleagues offer some hands-on instruction. The students get a cup with water and grit in it to represent raw water. They pour it through a screen to remove the debris, then treat the water with alum and pour it through a sand filter before adding a powder representing chlorine.

At that point, Johnson demonstrates pH test strips. “They get a lot of science lessons in a short time, and the teachers really like it because it matches well with the fifth grade curriculum,” Johnson says.

After the water treatment activity, the students open journals they’ve been given and are asked to circle all the ways they use water. Then they talk about what happens after water goes down the drain. That’s when Johnson brings out sealed jars that mimic what wastewater looks like at different treatment stages.

One jar contains a pick comb to rake out larger solids, and the next has a screen to filter out grit. Jars show how sludge and scum scrapers work, and one jar filled with soda and currants shows how microorganisms consume waste materials and form clumps that drop to the bottom.

As the class wraps up, “We talk about things that we can’t really show,” says Johnson. “We talk about caffeine and other things like medicines that we can’t take out of the water. We talk about what happens when communities are located on a river and have to use water that includes someone else’s effluent.”


On tour

After the demonstrations, at the wastewater treatment plant tour, the shimmying starts. Johnson invented the Sewage Shimmy, a series of dance moves to help students remember the entire treatment operation.

“We teach the kids a dance move for each stage of the treatment process,” Johnson says. “Sometimes we’ll have a dance-off at the end.” One of the last stops is the lab. There, the staff projects a microscopic image of a sample of activated sludge from the secondary clarifier.

“They have worksheets in their journals, and they get protozoa to look for on the screen as we look at the life cycle of organisms in the wastewater treatment process,” Johnson says.

Johnson gets many thank-you notes from students after they return to school. “Often they are addressed to the operator at the incinerator,” she says. “They love that, with the fire and noise.”


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