Learning in Motion

Staff members at the City of Billings take education out into classrooms and events where they get the most exposure.
Learning in Motion

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"Imade up a dance for the water cycle," says Aura Lindstrand. Boris Krizek jokingly adds: "I don't do the dance!"

It's part of the water lessons delivered to schools by the Environmental Affairs Division at the City of Billings, Mont. In one-hour, in-class presentations, using data and information supplied by the wastewater and water treatment plant staff, students learn about water consumption, wastewater treatment and stormwater.

"The dance teaches kids about evaporation, transpiration and precipitation," says Lindstrand, environmental coordinator I.

"It's something where they can stand up and demonstrate how those processes work. It's basically just motions. To keep them engaged, we want them to stand up and sit down and raise their hands. We want them to repeat what we're saying." Kids bring their hands up above their heads to symbolize where the rain starts, then they wiggle their fingers down to show rain falling toward the ground.

Telling the story

Class presentations are geared for younger students. "We start with third and fourth graders because that's where they're learning about the water cycle," says Lindstrand. "We've also found that they're the ones that are most likely to take the information home and be excited and ask questions."

After the water cycle, Lindstrand says, "We go into where our drinking water comes from and how we treat it, then we go to the wastewater side and what is used to clean our water. Then we go into the stormwater and end with conservation.

"Last May, on the rainiest day on record for Billings, water plant operators provided us with information on the river and finished water turbidity and increase in chemical dosage to clean up the Yellowstone River water. We get information from them and the wastewater operators, process it into graphs, and display it on visual boards for the community."

Susan Stanley, superintendent at the 26 mgd (design) wastewater treatment plant, adds, "We are eager to share our story. We help kids relate the wastewater process to everyday things, like comparing a primary sludge to vegetable soup, gravity thickened sludge to beef stew, so it makes sense to them. We also want them to understand that the treated water is clean, but not drinkable, and when we put it in the river, it is safe for the fish and for people to be around."

The water lady

Elementary kids are more eager than high school students to learn about what happens when they flush the toilet and how wastewater is cleaned. Lindstrand says: "The kids get excited when teachers say, 'The water lady is coming' or 'The water guy is coming.' That's why I like the third and fourth grade the most."

Krizek, environmental engineer, compares how the age groups respond to different teaching methods. "The questions aren't as tough from high school students," he says. "High school students are more reserved. We have a stepped up presentation for older students where we get into the water-quality aspects of regulations." He says the younger kids ask questions that keep them on their toes.

One student asked, "What do you do with the fish that get into the water plant," and Krizek replied, "We catch them and have a
fish fry!"

The presentations for high school students include concepts that are too advanced for the younger students. "We talk about the turbidity of the Yellowstone River," says Krizek. "We have a test tube that shows how much water the city treats compared to the flow of the river. The test tube is 99 percent oil with 1 percent color. It's a relative comparison visual to show how little water we take."

On the road

The education program in Billings does not end in the classroom. With information from the plant staff to create graphics and display boards, Krizek and Lindstrand take their teaching to education events in and around the city of 104,000.

"We feel we get more exposure and more participation at events than with in-class presentations," says Krizek. "We get more kids and we can get adults at the same time. The bad thing is that we only have a few minutes to get our message across to the visitors. So how we lay out our display boards and our hands-on stuff is really critical."

One event they take part in is SaturdayLive, a daylong, fundraising carnival benefitting Billings' public schools. "Schools and educational groups have food and activity booths to raise money," says Krizek. "We are one of the only educational booths, so we need to make it entertaining also. They've allowed us a space to do our public outreach for the past five years. Typically we'll bring images of the bacteria from the wastewater operators and always a piece of equipment used by the department."

Branching out

Bringing education to the venues generates further opportunities. "At SaturdayLive this year we were approached by the Girl Scouts. So we ended up doing the Girl Scout Expo," says Lindstrand. "The science fair last year lead us into Chicks in Science, so we're adding two new venues this year." Chicks in Science, sponsored by Montana State University, is an event aimed at girls in grades 4-8 that keeps them interested in math and science and encourages them to enter those fields.

Being proactive in classrooms and at public venues allows Billings to get the word out about clean water. "Public education is the only way we can reach the public to get our message out about water quality, water conservation, and that everything flows back to the river," says Lindstrand. "If we teach the adults, maybe their practices at home will change."


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