Making it Personal

A science center with interactive exhibits, combined with plant tours led by operators, form a solid education program for a Washington clean-water agency.
Making it Personal
George Peterson, an operator at LOTT Clean Water Alliance’s Budd Inlet Treatment Plant, leads a tour group of middle school students.

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In 2010, when the LOTT Clean Water Alliance opened its Regional Services Center, the headquarters included space for the WET Science Center, a hands-on educational facility that gives visitors a close look at the water cycle and an in-depth view of wastewater treatment.

LOTT, a regional wastewater utility serving the Washington cities of Lacy, Olympia and Tumwater and surrounding areas in Thurston County, opened the WET (Water Education and Technology) Science Center in the lobby of the headquarters near downtown Olympia.

The interactive displays in the gallery are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Amber Smith, environmental educator, says that although school programs are a major source of visitors, the center attracts many adults and families. Seventy-five to 100 people pass through the exhibits most Saturdays.

Well attended

Smith, who joined LOTT in 2012, says the center had more than 17,000 visitors that year, including 3,000 students in school tours. Most visits involve families, youth and scouting groups, and individual students from all levels, including local and more regional colleges from the Seattle/Tacoma region to the north all the way to Oregon to the south.

Many school visits are part of the center’s involvement in the middle school science curricula of all three public school districts in its service area. “We see an entire grade level from each of the three districts during the full school year,” Smith says. “We pay for their bus transportation, and we even pay for any substitute teachers that might be needed so they can bring the students here for the program.”

Since each school system — Olympia, Tumwater and North Thurston — brings a different grade level, the center adjusts its program to the ages of the students. It takes the full school year for the science classes to visit the center one class at a time. Each school year, the classes involve almost 2,000 students. The WET Science school programs include an instructional session in the center’s classroom, a visit to the interactive gallery, and a tour led by one of the operators at the Budd Inlet Treatment Plant across the street from the service center.

Lisa Dennis-Perez, public communications manager, says the center’s annual budget is about $130,000. Some funding for the middle school science program comes through a small trust set up when Michael Sharar, former executive director, died. The interest helps with the bus expenses and other parts of that program.

Operators lead

Although the interactive displays have proven popular with all ages, Smith says older students and adults remain very interested in the treatment plant tours, where they see how the utility treats wastewater for discharge to Puget Sound or pumping across the street to the reclaimed water facility, which further filters the water to meet state Class A Reclaimed Water standards. (LOTT’s 20-year-plan includes three satellite reclaimed-water facilities.)

Although the WET Science Center uses a wide array of interactive displays to engage visitors, the program also relies heavily on human interaction. Smith, who oversees visits, turns groups over to an operator for a treatment plant tour.

Operations supervisor Mark Petrie says his staff welcomes the opportunity to interact with students and the public: “[Plant tours don’t] disrupt us at all. The operators usually enjoy showing people what we do. They take a lot of pride in the role they play in the community.” Petrie sends new operators to attend classes Smith teaches, “So we’re all on the same page when it comes to public education.”

Plant operator George Peterson says the classes and the plant tours are a good combination: Students get a good grounding in the treatment process at the center and then can see the process in action. Peterson, who has led many tours over the past three decades, says his one regret is that he doesn’t get to spend as much time with students.

Tours that once took up to an hour and a half are now allotted 30 minutes after students come from the classroom. “They get a really good introduction to wastewater treatment in the WET Center, but a lot of our interaction with the kids is gone,” Peterson says.

He still enjoys the tours and looks forward to leading other groups around the plant. “I’ve given tours for everyone from third graders to dignitaries, politicos, college students and more,” he says. Engineering students from as near as Olympia and as far as China have visited in the recent past. When a group like that arrives, Peterson asks them how long they can stay and then adjusts the tour to their needs.

Varied activities

Besides the WET displays and the tours, Smith organizes environmental classes and activities in the center’s classroom, on the grounds of the LOTT facilities, or afield. Programs in 2012 covered everything from soil science and amphibians to “Creatures of the Deep” and the relationship between energy conservation and water.

In the exhibit gallery itself, a popular stop is a wastewater production calculator where the visitors answer questions about their daily activities and then push a button that illuminates a number of gallon jugs on the wall, illustrating the amount of wastewater they create. On a touch screen map, visitors can find their address and touch that spot to see an illuminated trail of how their wastewater reaches the Bud Inlet plant.

Visitors also spend a lot of time studying the “Bugs in Balance” display, an interactive video of cartoon microorganisms describing their roles in wastewater treatment. A “Floaters & Sinkers” station is a mechanical activity that illustrates primary treatment.


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