Water Scholars

An eight-week Clean Water University in Springfield, Ore., gives fifth-graders a close-up look at the importance of wastewater treatment.
Water Scholars
Graduation day is cause for celebration at Clean Water University.

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Fifth-graders in Springfield, Ore., are the youngest allowed to tour the Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission wastewater treatment plant, but Rachael Chilton says they ask some of the most interesting questions.

Chilton deserves some of the credit for the insightful students, since she founded and is the sole instructor for Clean Water University, offered for fifth-graders in Springfield schools. Chilton, public information and education specialist with the Environmental Services Division of the Public Works Department, works in the same role with the MWMC, a regional treatment operation serving the cities of Springfield and Eugene as well as Lane County.

Expanding scope

Wastewater treatment was not part of her pilot program three years ago, but it soon became an integral part of Clean Water University. “I started the pilot program and it was centered mostly on storm water,” Chilton says. The first program included planting trees at a city park and along the way Chilton reached out to a teacher at a nearby school: “She was very interested in it because the class’s time for science has been greatly limited.”

Chilton decided to develop the program but take a broader approach and make it more holistic.

She created an eight-week program that includes two sessions focused on operations at the Eugene-Springfield Water Pollution Control Facility in Eugene.

During the week of Clean Water University that focuses on wastewater treatment, Chilton spends the first one-hour session introducing students to the treatment process. A few days later, they take a half-day field trip to the plant where Chilton leads the tour and fields their questions.

In fall, the wastewater sessions are held in week two to avoid weather issues. In spring, those sessions move to week six for the same reason. With the benefit of five previous weeks of instruction, those students “are very clued in and really engaged,” says Chilton. “They ask good questions based on everything they’ve been learning about water.”

Hands-on learning

Although wastewater is the focus for just one week, many of the other sessions involve directly related issues. In one session, students test water samples that Chilton collects from streams near their schools for temperature, phosphates, nitrates, dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity. “Then we talk about what kind of things could come from their neighborhood runoff, or what could be in the wastewater if it wasn’t treated correctly,” she says.

The teachers appreciate getting more science instruction into the classroom, and Chilton considers the curriculum a good fit for fifth-graders: “They just seem to be the perfect age for it. They’re old enough for the science involved and young enough to be enthusiastic.”

When the course begins in a classroom, Chilton adds, “Each student gets a little notebook. Each book has a page at the front for the stickers they get as they complete each session.” There are makeup activities for students who miss a session. They are supposed to earn all their stickers and “graduate” from Clean Water University in a ceremony complete with caps and tassels.

Heavy demand

The city and the MWMC split the costs of the class materials, and the regional treatment system pays for busing students to the plant. Going into the program’s third year, Chilton had about 550 total graduates. There might be more if she could handle all the requests from teachers: “I’m only able to do about 15 classes per year.”

The program includes 10 one-hour sessions, plus the half-day plant tour. When in session, Clean Water University can occupy about 40 percent of her time. Chilton learned much of what she knows about treatment from a college professor who was keenly interested in the process. She leads tours for students in grades five through 12. “The operators are great, but I think they would just as soon have me handle the student tours,” she says.

The Eugene-Springfield facility is an activated sludge aerobic treatment plant handling an average flow of 30 mgd and a peak flow of 200 mgd. In 2012, construction was completed on the first phase of a tertiary filtration installation with 10 mgd capacity. The MWMC is completing a study of what to do with that system’s Class A effluent.


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