Full Course Load

Louisville Water Company gives back to community with a growing list of classroom offerings for a wide age range
Full Course Load
Students from a Jefferson County school test a water sample for turbidity in an experiment that is part of the curriculum offered by the Louisville Water Company.

With more than 90 billion gallons of Ohio River water flowing past Louisville each day, why did the Louisville Water Company decide to drill wells to tap groundwater for drinking? After all, the river has been the city’s source of water for more than 150 years.

The answer can be found in a course recently added to the utility’s Adventures in Water education curriculum. The “Tunneling for Water” course joined the program in 2010, just as the water company’s Riverbank Filtration Project at the B.E. Payne Treatment Plant was ending.

A video that accompanies the course follows “Science Steve” 150 feet underground as he describes a 1.5-mile tunnel that runs parallel to the river to collect groundwater from four pump stations. At the end of the tunnel, another pump lifts the water to the treatment plant. The video explains how the system saves money and resources by delivering raw water that has been naturally filtered through sand and gravel and needs much less treatment.

It’s just one item in an extensive education program that serves grades K-8 in local school systems and may expand to high schools and adults in the future.


Critical outreach

The Louisville Water Company, established in 1860, serves the City of Louisville, Jefferson County, and parts of five surrounding counties — a population of 850,000 with 270,000 residential, commercial and industrial accounts. The workforce of 425 takes care of infrastructure that includes more than 4,100 miles of water mains.

Since the turn of the century, the water company has used an ever-growing education program as one of its key outreach initiatives to solidify its role in the community, according to Kelley Dearing-Smith, manager of strategic communications.

“When I came in 1999, it was a new position, and one of my directives was to find a new niche in the community — a way to give back,” she says. The water company had long welcomed students, youth groups and others to tour its historic facilities along the river, and was doing some informal classroom programs before Smith was hired. As she sought ways to better serve the community, Smith focused on expanding the education program. Teachers reacted enthusiastically when she began discussing her ideas with them.

“They said that would be great, but they wanted real-world examples in the curriculum,” Smith recalls. “They wanted lessons that involved the community.” It took Smith about six months to write the first curriculum book, introduced in 2002. As she researched the material and interviewed water company professionals, she discovered, “We have a lot to talk about in terms of water science.”


Immediate demand

When the curriculum was introduced, requests for class presentations overwhelmed Smith’s schedule. In the first year, she added three contract educators to help present the program. Now, there’s a full-time education specialist and six contract educators.

The original book is still in use, but with the addition of “Tunneling for Water” and “Drink to Your Health,” the utility now offers seven different free programs. The courses are geared to specific ages in grades K-8 and integrate with state curriculum requirements for science, math and social studies.

Smith and education specialist Channa Newman, who was one of the original contract educators, are working on two new curriculum units that take a more global look at water. They are also considering a high school program focusing on social responsibility issues around water.

The utility’s educators reached 43,000 students at more than 100 schools in Louisville and the five counties in the region. The company works closely with the Jefferson County public schools and the parochial school system of the Archdiocese of Louisville. The educators also partner with 4-H and present monthly programs with that organization at eight area schools.


For grown-ups too

While expanding the school programs, Smith sees a need to address an adult audience at events in the community. When they go to events, company employees take some branded give-away items like tap water bottles, and even those are meant to educate. One display is a pyramid of 66 cups to represent the amount of tap water one can buy for a penny. Smith says offering information about the health benefits of water and the quality of Louisville water is an effective way to reach adults.

The education initiatives have been well received, but Smith and her team continue to seek feedback on ways to improve. “We evaluate everything we do,” she says. “We leave response cards at every event, and we get a good return rate.” The responses help the educators refine their programs and find ideas for future courses.

Smith also gets feedback from other water utilities and schools around Kentucky, many of which have asked permission to use materials made available at the Tapper’s Fun Zone Web pages (www.tappers funzone.com). There, educators can find many of the curriculum materials developed by Smith, and they can also preview the videos. Students can explore and try a number of water-related activities at the site.

One program popular with other communities is a curriculum on the importance of handwashing. Several utilities have called for permission to adapt the posters from that program and distribute them in their local schools to be posted above restroom sinks.

“We tell folks there are easy things we do that they could take and adapt to their programs — and they’re welcome to do it,” Smith says.


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