An Extra Measure

A Florida college offers an online associate degree program that includes preparation for water and wastewater operator licensing

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Wastewater operator training often consists of stand-alone courses designed solely to impart the basic knowledge and skills needed to pass a state licensing exam. Now, Florida Gateway College is raising the bar.

This state college, based in Lake City, now offers a two-year Associate of Science degree in environmental science technology that includes preparation for state wastewater treatment and water treatment licensing. Its proponents say the associate degree provides an opportunity for aspiring and veteran operators to earn greater recognition and attain personal and professional pride.

While created for Florida residents, the program is offered online and so is accessible to anyone in the country, and even worldwide. John Rowe, Ph.D., professor of water resources, and Tim Atkinson, director of water resources training programs, talked about the offering in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What was the rationale for creating this degree program?

Rowe: About 10 years ago, we started teaching a 15-week wastewater treatment class that is required by the State of Florida for an operator to become certified. We offered classroom instruction, generally meeting in the evenings, four days a week.

Over time, we saturated the market here. When I visit wastewater plants in our area, most operators are people we trained. About four years ago, with encouragement from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), we began teaching the course online, so that now we can offer it not only for our area but for the entire state. In fact, we’ve had operators come in from all over the United States.

Now we have a two-year Associate of Science degree in environmental science technology that has embedded within it the pre-licensing course for wastewater treatment and water operations. It includes the training that’s required to sit for the licensure exam, along with the hands-on experience needed to get the license.

TPO: How does a Florida-based licensure course help prospective operators from other states?

Atkinson: The pre-licensure courses are specifically approved by the Florida DEP. Since Florida uses the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) Need-to-Know Criteria, our course would be helpful to any student in any state that uses those criteria in its exams. That includes 46 states, all Canadian provinces, and several foreign countries.

From other states, we’re finding experienced operators who want to come to Florida but have to take the pre-licensure course and the examination, because Florida doesn’t offer reciprocity. So we have students all across the country who were referred to us because they can take the entire pre-licensure course online and qualify to sit for the Florida exam.

Speed is highly valued by folks who are trying to get to Florida for job opportunities, particularly in South Florida. We also have students from other states who are preparing to sit for their own state exams and who choose to take our course as part of their exam preparation.

TPO: Why would there be demand among wastewater operators for an associate degree program, rather than simply operator training?

Atkinson: It was our theory from the time we introduced the noncredit pre-licensure courses that there would be a percentage of operators who would value an Associate of Science degree for their own personal and professional satisfaction. We found that to be the case.

We established our credibility as a provider of water and wastewater training. And when we announced that the associate degree was available, we began to get responses from operators. Often the response was that finally someone had come up with a college degree recognizing that what operators do is rigorous, involving heavy science, heavy math and heavy technology. A number of people entering the associate degree program are seasoned operators.

Rowe: Several folks entered the associate degree program after they had their licenses with the aim of enhancing their advancement opportunities where they work. We are also promoting it as a means of succession planning for utilities and operating companies.

TPO: What exactly does the associate degree include?

Rowe: It’s a general view of environmental technology that includes soils and air but is directed primarily toward water. There are core general education requirements that go with a two-year degree program. The courses required for our particular degree are Introduction to Environmental Science, Chemistry and Biology of Natural Water, Introduction to Water Treatment Systems, Treatment of Water and Wastewater, Water Analysis and Monitoring, and Environmental Sampling and Analysis I and II.

We also offer some electives, including the pre-licensing courses for water and wastewater. A person doesn’t have to enter this program and come out as a water or wastewater operator, but that is really our focus.

TPO: Do you see interest in the associate degree among high school students?

Atkinson: That is part of the strategy we are now enacting. The early strategy with the licensure course was directed primarily at adults in the field who didn’t have a license or who, because of the recession, needed to retool and reinvent themselves and get into a sustainable career. It was for adults whose personal circumstances didn’t lend themselves to keeping a college student’s schedule.

We then activated the associate degree program. When we first started at this, we had no young people interested. If I were to speak to a person under age 25 about a career in wastewater operations, there was no connection whatsoever.

Now we have agreements with high schools in our area — and for that matter outside our area because the program is online — that will be attractive to high school students. We helped the state Department of Education create three high-school-level courses that are approved so that any high school in the state can use them. These courses will prepare a person to sit for the state exam.

We have worked out an agreement between our college and the high schools so that if a student successfully completes those three courses, passes the state exam, and enrolls in our associate degree program, we will give them 12 college credit hours. So we’re helping to create a pipeline of high school students into the associate degree program by way of water and wastewater operator training.

Rowe: This was something the industry was asking for. People in the industry were concerned that young people weren’t coming into the field.

Atkinson: Another way we’re taking this to the high schools is by offering dual enrollment. This allows high school students with certain grade level attainment who have passed a basic college preparatory test to take college credit courses and get college and high school credit. We are offering our associate degree in environmental science technology to high school students, and we have at least one and perhaps two high schools ready to enact that program.

TPO: Are there future plans to offer more advanced degrees?

Rowe: From the associate degree program, as we create a pool of folks who have that degree and are interested in moving on, we will roll out a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental management. That would involve additional licenses, such as solid waste management, pesticide management, and probably upper levels of water and wastewater licensing.

TPO: Speaking strictly about the pre-licensing course, how would an operator from outside Florida be able to complete the work experience component of licensing through your program?

Rowe: For those who don’t live in Florida, we would certainly make it available to them where they are. I would contact a wastewater facility in their region and see if we could institute the internship with them.

We’d tell them that the student has passed our pre-certification course for wastewater treatment and our courses in environmental science. We’d be able to give them a resume of who they would be getting. It certainly takes some of the guesswork out of whether a new hire is going to make it or not.

Atkinson: The practicum course calls for 10 to 40 hours of on-the-job experience per week during the 15-week term. In Florida, we are finding very positive response to this from treatment plants eager to take on trainees whom they will be able to evaluate and possibly consider for future employment. They see it as a recruitment mechanism. Some of the treatment plants are actually hiring the practicum students as entry-level workers. For others, it’s unpaid practicum experience.

TPO: How is the online course structured?

Rowe: Our online course is accessible anytime. No student has to go online at any particular time because we use a learning platform where students post their work online, so that all students in the class as well as the instructor can review it. Part of the course requirement is for each student to critique responses from other students. That helps create a virtual classroom environment.

Atkinson: You are in a class with other students. The course has a start date and an end date. The only time requirement is that you keep up with the weekly assignments so that you start and finish with your class.

TPO: How many students are enrolled in the licensure course and associate degree program now?

Atkinson: There are about 80 students enrolled, of whom 25 are in the associate degree program.


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