Dropping In

DC Water teams with schools, parks and other agencies to get young students involved in water-quality issues
Dropping In
DC Water general manager George Hawkins and Wendy the Waterdrop, DC Water mascot, greet children at the festival.

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The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water) had been offering its Sewer Science program for high school students for more than five years when members of the outreach team hit upon a new idea during a 2010 meeting.

“Our programs for the K-8 children were still very new, and we were just getting into their schools,” says Aleizha Batson, public outreach manager. “We realized younger children get more excited about special programs and take the messages back to their parents.”

The outreach team saw merit in classroom visits but wanted to reach more students and get them more involved. That’s when team members began talking about a special event they could take to venues where they could find large numbers of young students. Staffers contacted several schools to gauge interest in a festival-style approach. Ultimately, they teamed with the D.C. Parks and Recreation Department to host the first children’s Water Drop Festival.


Lots of activities

The festival was held Oct. 28 at the Watkins Recreation Center, which runs an after-school program serving students from the nearby Watkins Elementary School in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. LaDawne White, a public outreach specialist, says the school was already scheduled to dismiss early that day, giving the festival organizers plenty of time to involve the students in activities focusing on wastewater treatment and environmental issues.

More than 80 students took part in the festival, and organizers kept them busy. DC Water personnel offered a Jeopardy game, engaging the children in an answer-and-question challenge dealing with the environment and water resources. There were also photo opportunities with the utility’s Wendy the Waterdrop mascot, a wastewater treatment plant display, a water cycle re-enactment, a water-filling relay game, and a mobile water-quality lab where students tested water samples for pH, turbidity and total dissolved solids.


Working together

In addition, the National Environmental Education Foundation presented a program on “Caring For Our Watersheds,” the District Metropolitan Police Department Harbor Patrol demonstrated the work of its SCUBA divers who patrol the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, the U.S. Coast Guard offered a “Garbage Game” to demonstrate how trash must be cleaned from waterways, and the National Park Service presented a watershed model.

DC Water won positive feedback from partners, and most showed interest in being part of future festivals. “Plans are already under way to do a festival next spring at one school that considered doing it this fall, but couldn’t fit it into the schedule,” White says. “We’ve received several requests, and we’re planning to take it to schools and other youth organizations.”

Joe Bastian, a supervisor at DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, knows from the Sewer Science program that older students are interested in wastewater treatment. After the Water Drop Festival, he concluded, “The younger students seem to be more interested in the microorganisms involved in the process.”

Bastian and Wendell Smith, a chemical engineering technician in the wastewater operation, joined the outreach team to work with the children, and both were impressed with the impact the festival seemed to have. “Talking about environmental science when you are outdoors just seems to make it more significant for the kids,” Bastian says.

Smith found that the hands-on activities and games helped reach the students effectively. “It was more of a fun thing for the children than just a presentation in the classroom,” he says. “It helped them see what water is all about.”


Star of the show

A popular event was the Recycle Relay, where the students raced to pick up commonly discarded items and place them in the proper recycling bins. But the star of the show was a multichambered tank demonstrating steps in the wastewater treatment process. Students were intrigued by the concept of treatment plant operators as farmers who grow the microorganisms that consume waste in the treatment process.

The display simulates five stages of wastewater treatment. In the first stage, the “wastewater” contains shreds of toilet paper, cut-up plastic and ground-up pet food, and the students can see how these items settle. In the second stage, the tank simulates microorganisms interacting with the waste, and air is added to the process.

In the third stage, the “microorganisms” settle with the help of chemicals. In the fourth stage, they have settled to the bottom of the tank, and a filter is used to remove fine particles that are not dense enough to settle. The final stage of the tank simulates a receiving stream with fish.

“Our wastewater treatment staff brings actual sludge from the plant to allow students to see how microorganisms eat organic matter in the water,” says Bastian. “When they are unable to bring a microscope, they show photos of the microorganisms and encourage students to use their imagination.”

Bastian and Smith say participation in educational programs can be gratifying. “When we talk to young people about our wastewater treatment plant, they’re pretty amazed at what our system does,” Smith says. White says it’s also rewarding to know children are learning, while also sharing the message DC Water presents in its outreach programs.

“If we make it interesting enough and get them engaged,” she says, “they’re going to go home and talk about it, just like a movie.”


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