It’s Not Just for the Guys

It’s easy for the clean-water profession to overlook half the potential pool of future operators: women. But Kristen Meyers, P.E., and the team at the North Shore Sanitary District in Illinois aren’t making that mistake.

The district recently took students from the Lake County (Ill.) YWCA TechGYRLS summer camp on a tour of the laboratory at the wastewater treatment facility in Gurnee.

The girls did everything from looking at vials of dragonfly nymphs that live in the effluent, to sniffing samples of biosolids cake. Such activities help further the aims of The Fire Chief Project:

  • Raise clean-water operators to the status of the fire chief
  • Make kids grow up wanting to be clean-water operators

TechGYRLS is a free program for Lake County girls age 7-14. They spend two weeks working in a variety of technology areas. “We publicize on our website and elsewhere that we allow tours of the treatment plant and our lab,” says Meyers. “A representative of TechGYRLS contacted us and said they wanted to expose the girls to what we did at the lab. They asked if we had any female engineers on staff, which obviously I am.”

During the tour, district personnel explained how plant effluent affects fish in the receiving stream, the Des Plaines River. The girls viewed an aquarium in the lobby where native fish swim in effluent. After the tour, Meyers spoke to the girls about careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She encouraged the girls to continue with STEM activities as they enter their middle school and high school.

“It was great to see them,” says Meyers. “We encourage kids at that younger age to get involved in science. I think people typically gravitate toward what they are exposed to growing up. If they’re not exposed to these careers, they’re not going to think about exploring them.

“I talked to the girls about what we do here at the district in engineering, and I explained that almost everything they do in life has engineering and science behind it. Science isn’t something scary. We deal with it every day and don’t even realize it. I hope by knowing that, they’ll become more comfortable with it and want to explore more science and math programs in the future.

“Even though wastewater isn’t a glamorous field, it’s such an important career in what it does for the public. We asked the girls to consider what it would be like if there were no wastewater treatment plants and no closed sewers. We would have ditches with sewage running in them and that’s how diseases are borne. We tried to teach them about the technology that’s underground and how it makes their lives better.

“A lot of women work in our lab, so they could see that this isn’t an all-male field. There’s no reason there shouldn’t be more women in engineering, and especially in the wastewater field. We also stressed to them the importance of creativity. People tend to think there’s not much creativity in math and science. But in reality, it’s about problem solving – some of the best engineers are the most creative ones.”


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