Seeing The Value of Water Through Children's Eyes

An art contest at a Tulsa elementary encourages students to contemplate clean water and its role in their lives – and to appreciate what they have.
Seeing The Value of Water Through Children's Eyes
First place went to Iyonna Nwadiei for her self-portrait brushing her teeth.

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They expected dozens of pictures of swimming pools and splash pads. But when the judges sorted through the entries in last fall’s “Tulsa Water Works for Me” elementary student art contest, they discovered much more.

The kids — third, fourth and fifth graders at Emerson Elementary School — showed interest and appreciation for where their clean water came from and its importance in everyday life.

“We saw a lot of pictures of kids and parents working in the kitchen, brushing their teeth and some in the bathtub and shower,” says Eric Lee, operations administrative manager for the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Water and Sewer Department. “It was more than sprinklers and swimming pools. Our goal was to urge these kids to think about clean water and their impact on it. Judging by the pictures they drew, it was effective.”

Engaging young minds

The contest came about as a way to educate and engage students about Tulsa’s water supply, while promoting arts in the classroom. A video about Tulsa’s water system served as the inspiration for the students.

“We encouraged the kids to think beyond just turning on the tap,” says Lee. “The presentation stressed that clean water isn’t something to be taken for granted. It touched on the privilege of having clean water at our fingertips, and that a lot of people around the world don’t have that access.”

The school’s art teacher, Sarah Widowski, and other school staff members selected their 20 favorites from the 54 pieces entered. The artworks were displayed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel during the Southwest Section AWWA Conference in Tulsa last October.

“The attendees really enjoyed looking at what the children came up with,” says Lee. “Everyone there was a professional in the clean water field, and sometimes when you live this every day, you can start to take the simple things for granted. I think the attendees really enjoyed seeing the clean, pure water through a child’s eyes.”

Special recognition

In November, Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. recognized the contest winners during a special school assembly. First place went to Iyonna Nwadiei for her self-portrait brushing her teeth, second place to Taylor Dotson for her picture of her dog’s bath time and third place to Teishanek Beach for her “Zestfully Clean” bath-time picture. 

Utility subcontractor Wallace Engineering later provided a pizza party for all the art students. Contest judges included Charlie Soap, SSAWWA keynote speaker; Steve Shoaf, AWWA official; Bartlett; Jarred Brejcha, the mayor’s chief of staff; and Tom Wallace of Wallace Engineering.

Lee says the event was a success all around: “This was our first attempt being really proactive in the community. People need to know how important this industry is. Anything that sheds a positive light on water purification and gives people a chance to talk about water is a good thing in my eyes.”

Further outreach

The art contest was an extension of a special relationship between the city and Emerson Elementary. In spring 2014, the city adopted the school in a signing ceremony and partnership agreement involving Bartlett and his wife, Victoria, principal Tammy States and Kuma Brown, the chamber of commerce program manager.

During the 2014-15 school year, 26 city employees served as lunch buddies and special readers and presenters at Emerson. They encouraged students to stay in school, become engaged citizens and perhaps seek careers with the city.

“We’re seeing a lot of our employees getting older and retiring,” says Lee. “The truth is, we’re having a hard time replacing them. We want the young people in this area to be proud of their city, including the parts that aren’t readily visible every day. We want them to see civil service as a viable, rewarding potential career choice.”

Tulsa’s community outreach extends beyond the classroom. While the city has always offered water and wastewater treatment plant group tours, it hosted its first open community plant tour last spring. “I think when people really understand what goes into the infrastructure of providing freshwater and treating wastewater, they understand the need for occasional cost increases a little better,” Lee says.

Seeing progress

The department is also looking at ways to partner with teenage students. “We are working on a program that is geared to teens applying the skills they learn in high school toward water and wastewater science,” Lee says. “There again, it gives us the opportunity to talk about what we do, and possibly recruit students who are closer to determining a future career.”

In the short time his department has engaged in community outreach, Lee has seen a difference in how community members view his department and water and wastewater treatment: “If you engage the audience, you can actually see them understanding and caring about their water. If you can find that right mechanism to successfully engage your youth, it’s exciting.”   


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