An Art And Poetry Contest Helps Teach New York City Students About The Value Of Water

An annual poetry and art contest helps teach students in New York City and surroundings about the value of water and the city’s water and wastewater processes.
An Art And Poetry Contest Helps Teach New York City Students About The Value Of Water
Winning art contest entry by Armando Fuentes.

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With more than 8 million people living in New York City, another million in the surrounding communities and more than 50 million visiting the Big Apple each year, it’s safe to say there’s tremendous demand for water.

Through 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes in three watersheds covering some 2,000 square miles, the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) delivers about 1 billion gallons of drinking water daily through 7,000 miles of water mains, tunnels and aqueducts.

Add 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily traveling through 7,400 miles of sewers and 96 pump stations to 14 treatment plants, and it adds up to a huge job. With it goes an obligation to bring attention to the value of water and importance of conservation. And in that, art and poetry have roles to play.

Words and pictures

DEP programs teach students about the importance of water, the city’s water and wastewater systems, combined sewer overflows, green infrastructure, water conservation and more. Many programs support partnerships between the city and classrooms within the watershed.

Four staff members help create and deliver watershed education, professional development opportunities, environmental education curricula and other resources for school teachers and nonformal educators across the city’s five boroughs and upstate watersheds. Among the most effective programs is an annual Water Resources Art and Poetry Contest.  

“This year, students in grades two through 12 submitted nearly 600 original pieces of artwork and poetry, reflecting an appreciation for New York’s water resources and wastewater treatment systems, and the importance of water conservation,” says Kim Estes-Fradis, DEP director of education.

That’s a lot of entries, but after running the program for 28 years, the department has the logistics down to a science. “For the first 25 years, teachers would physically submit entries, which were then also used for displays,” says Estes-Fradis. “But in the last several years, with two to three times more schools and entries, we’ve moved to electronic submissions, especially to facilitate online judging.”

Entries are uploaded to the contest website in any of several specified file formats. A few teachers are still allowed to mail submissions, which DEP staff members scan and upload. Estes-Fradis credits the staff for making sure it all works smoothly, from entries to judging.

Integrating curriculum

The department develops four major entry themes each year. “We also create a resource guide so teachers can dig deep into these topics for their in-class teaching,” Estes-Fradis says. “The guide enables teachers to think creatively about how the contest fits into their curriculum and to incorporate the most appropriate water themes. The contest then becomes the culmination of a yearlong study about water in the classroom.”

Judges are selected each year from among professionals who do environmental education work outside the agency. Several hundred of the agency’s 6,000 employees, chosen at random, also take part. After judging, the department hosts an awards ceremony to which all participating students and teachers are invited. Everyone who submits an entry is recognized.

“This year, 675 students from 68 schools submitted more than 580 artwork and poetry entries,” says Estes-Fradis. “All students were honored as DEP Water Ambassadors with a certificate recognizing their contributions. In addition, judges selected 39 participants as this year’s Water Champions, who were called by name to come up on stage.”

Working with partners

The DEP Education Office has a small budget but conducts the event by soliciting partners to help defray costs. The ceremony is held in a professional theater venue that holds 900 people.

Each student also receives a drawstring bag with an imprint of an actual art entry, a journal with another student entry on the cover, a thumb drive on a key ring and the DEP’s traditional promotional materials, such as branded water bottles and pencils.

A number of partners support the program. Donations range from guest passes for students to the New York Hall of Science and the Museum of the City of New York, to $3,000 from Con Edison for snack bags, entertainers and sign language interpretation.

“This year, our entertainment included two fabulous slam poets who performed five poetry submissions, with the awestruck winning students standing alongside them,” Estes-Fradis says.

The program is also aligned with the New York State and the Common Core Learning Standards.

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