School’s Out, Camp’s Open

Students get a chance to extend their science education at annual summer program sponsored by a Pittsburgh-area clean-water agency.
School’s Out, Camp’s Open
Summer Science Camp instruction aligns closely with school curriculum.

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When school lets out for the summer in the Pittsburgh area, parents who think education shouldn’t be shelved until fall have a variety of options for their children — including the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) annual Summer Science Camp.

The four-session summer program gives more than 100 students in grades 4-8 a chance to learn about the sciences of wastewater treatment and engineering. Two sessions are geared to grade 4-5 and two for grade 6-8. The program, which just completed its tenth year, is open to students in Pittsburgh and the other 83 communities ALCOSAN serves.

Connected with school

Twila Simmons-Walker, manager of wastewater education, says the program is closely aligned with Pennsylvania’s science curriculum. “We learned very early that if we did not design our classroom presentations to the state standards, we were not going to be as successful,” she says. “So when we began to design a summer program, we decided that if you’re calling it summer enrichment, you really should have it relate to their curriculum in the classroom.”

Simmons-Walker says ALCOSAN’s wastewater treatment plant on the banks of the Ohio River is a great laboratory for focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education: “It’s not hard to relate to the curriculum when you consider the STEM focus we have here. There are labs, engineers, processes and technicians.”

Although the program at first focused on tours and instruction by treatment personnel, the summer camp has evolved. “We went to more of a hands-on approach based on what we heard from students, from local educators and from some of the after-school programs we were working with,” Simmons-Walker observes.

There are no fees for the camp. Students bring their own lunches (except on Friday when pizza is served) and the classes meet from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Parents are asked to commit to having their children attend all five days of their sessions. Parents also attend an orientation geared just to them before the summer program starts.

Touring the plant

ALCOSAN has a paved space where it sets up a large tent for the summer program and equips it with all the equipment students need to work on projects ranging from pH testing to building model watersheds. But the program also has access to the treatment plant itself. Dave Brown, manager of operator training, works closely with Simmons-Walker on the program and says a big part of the first day is helping the students understand what the treatment plant does and how.

“We usually take them on a plant tour so they can track the process from the wet well to the discharge,” Brown says. “We show them the controls where the operators can manage what is going on throughout the plant. It’s about a two-hour tour, and we expose them to the operators and their roles: the mechanics, technicians and tradespeople who work there.”

Brown, a certified operator who served as a chief supervisor for a decade before moving into training, leads tours for all new employees as part of his regular duties: “You often see the same surprise and sense of awe in their eyes as you get in the kids.”

After the tour, Simmons-Walker and summer college interns “ease the students into our focus for the year.” For 2013, the focus was, “Engineering Is Science, Too.” Planning for 2014 began as the tents were being taken down after the final class of 2013.

Repeat learners

The official enrollment target for each one-week camp session is 30 students, but Walker will enroll as many as 35 students. Even though the 30-by-30-foot tent is the main classroom, the students go where the instruction can be most effective. “There are times we come in for some presentations,” Simmons-Walker says. “For this program to work, we need the entire plant to work with us. Everybody helps in some way to make it feasible for the kids to be here.”

Although it’s often the parents’ idea to sign students up for the camp the first time, many students come back in subsequent summers because they take an interest. Once they complete the program, “A lot of them will come back with their families in September for our annual Open House,” Simmons-Walker says. “They want to show their parents what they learned.”

Brown, who has a degree in environmental resource management from Penn State University, joined ALCOSAN as a shift supervisor/engineer in the treatment plant. He adjusts his technical presentations to the grade level and students’ interests. He and Simmons-Walker have worked together on the Summer Science Camp since its inception.

The ‘Wow’ factor

“Some of them pick up a little more on it than other groups,” Brown says. “They want more information; they ask some really good questions. In that case, I’ll explain a little more to them about the biological process. When they leave primary treatment, I tell them to look at that water and I tell them that’s how we used to release it. Now, when we go to secondary treatment, I say, ‘Look at the water,’ and they say, ‘Wow!’”


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