Magnificent Mentor Educates Public Through His Students

Ken Burgener shares his love of science and the clean-water profession with students who represent the next generation of operators and lab technicians.
Magnificent Mentor Educates Public Through His Students
Students tour the North Davis Sewer District facility. As part of the visits they take part in presentations and discussions on the importance of water and its treatment.

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Ken Burgener was proud to learn that a student he had mentored had won a prestigious award in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in June 2015.

For her work on aquaponics, 10th-grader Stephanie Vaughn won a water technology award and a $1,000 cash prize, presented by the Saudi Arabian King Abdul-Aziz & His Companions Foundation, for Giftedness and Creativity. Her project showed that invasive plants could be used to reduce nutrients in wastewater and indicated that biofuels could be extracted from the water hyacinths and water lettuce grown in her experiment.

It was one of the high points in Burgener’s work with students during his tenure as laboratory director at North Davis Sewer District in Syracuse, Utah, near Salt Lake City.

“When I started in the profession, I realized the importance of working with the next generation to help them understand the importance of wastewater treatment,” he says. The science fairs have been a perfect way to make the connection between the students’ curiosity and clean water, he believes.

For his more than 25 years of teaching and mentoring thousands of young people, Burgener received the 2016 Water Environment Federation Individual Public Communication and Outreach Award. He received a similar honor from the state of Utah earlier in the year.

Burgener believes the best way to educate the public is through students: “The public needs greater awareness of the importance of water and wastewater treatment, and our global responsibility to these professions,” he says. “We can’t do what we do without the public. But I feel that we can have a greater impact on students than we usually can with their parents.”

Getting started

After earning a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and a master’s in agronomy from Brigham Young University, Burgener joined the clean-water profession as laboratory director at St. George, Utah, in the early 1990s. That’s where his public education “itch” got started: “I began to realize the importance of working with students, especially at science fairs.”

When he moved to the lab at North Davis, he began working with universities, recruiting students from nearby Weber State and Brigham Young as interns. “We had 11 interns over the years, and most of them went on to productive careers in science, working in companies, as medical doctors, or with the Centers for Disease Control. It’s kind of neat seeing these kids do well in their careers.”

Burgener also organized and conducted student tours of the treatment facilities and struck up close relationships with schools. “That started in 2008,” he says. “Now the school districts are looking for significant science projects for the students and contacting me, recommending kids and sending them to me. We sit down and discuss their interests and come up with projects.”

The impressive list of projects includes topics such as E. coli, viruses and energy recovery in waste treatment. In addition to Stephanie Vaughn’s project, Burgener mentored Jed Donald Grow and Andrew Quinn Ross of Clearfield High School, who won the Ricoh Sustainable Development Award at the Intel Science Fair in 2013 for research on acquisition of bioelectricity from wastewater, with applications for hydrogen generation. “It was a significant award — $12,500,” Burgener says.

Tour in depth

Many treatment plants offer tours, but Burgener’s involve more than just a view or two from the catwalk. He gives students things to relate to, things to remember. When they arrive, they meet with Burgener in the media room, equipped to show videos and slide presentations.

Burgener makes sure his presentations are current and the topics relevant. “Teachers like discussions on current topics; it makes them want to come back,” he says. “Cyanobacteria has been in the news lately, so I say, ‘Come on out and let’s really talk about cyanobacteria.’” The plant has an aquarium: Kids understand the idea of clean water when they see the fish swimming around.

The aquarium cost about $1,000 — well worth it in Burgener’s view.

Then there’s Penelope the dinosaur. Burgener uses her to explain that the kids today are drinking “dinosaur water” — water that has been around since the earliest times on Earth. At that point, of course, the students learn about the water cycle.

Burgener maintains a working fuel cell in the media room. It’s a previous student’s project and illustrates the scientific nature of water and wastewater treatment. “We try to get the kids past the yuck factor,” Burgener says. “We pique their interest, and it causes them to think. They come away with a different kind of feeling.”

The tours take about two hours, and the groups are limited to 30 students. Operators help with the treatment plant side of the visits. “We have one group at the plant, and another in the lab,” Burgener says. “Then we shift. If we had more time, we would conduct more tours. The peak year was 2013, when 3,000 to 4,000 kids went through and the plant team sometimes gave two to three tours a day.”

The science side

Kevin Cowan, NDSD director, observes, “Ken eats, drinks and sleeps science. It’s his hobby as well as his profession.” So it’s no surprise that Burgener stresses the science of wastewater treatment.

“People don’t think about wastewater having a lot of science associated with it,” he says. “But we use as much science as any industry out there. Physics, chemistry, biology, agronomy — wastewater has it all.”

In his locale, kids know about rocket fuel but few realize that at the wastewater plant, the waste from local rocket fuel production has to be treated. “At first, kids are curious, even disbelieving, but when you talk it through and tell them how exciting it is, they understand,” Burgener says.

Much of what he talks about connects to the students’ classroom experience: “Biology, math, protozoans, metazoans, aquaponics, nutrients. It’s all part of the STEM curriculum [science, technology, engineering and math]. Students love to see real-world examples.”

Source of inspiration

What inspired Burgener to be so passionate about education? He recalls a professor at the University of Utah talking about endocrine disrupters. “He opened my eyes about why we needed to be talking about this to the public,” he says.

And what about the state of public education in the wastewater field? “Honestly, I’d have to give us a grade C or D. I find most people in wastewater just don’t do a good job of reaching out and talking about what we’re doing. Flush it and forget it is just not real life. We need to be constantly talking about wastewater treatment as a positive, not a negative. Compared to Third-World countries, we’re pretty well-off here, but we can’t be complacent. Instead of withdrawing, we need to go out and be proactive.”

Burgener is grateful for the support of the local wastewater board, and from Cowan: “Our board chair wanted to have interns. You need people who support you, who understand what you’re doing. The future depends on how we educate our students.” If that is done right, he maintains, it will be easier to generate support for the profession in the future.

Cowan says Burgener’s public education work has had a positive impact on the district. “He loves his job and loves to tell people about it,” Cowan says. “He’s facilitating the story that our district is going green.”

Burgener’s recent projects include helping a student develop a science project dealing with the impact of waste on a local natural area. “We have a popular hiking canyon nearby,” he says. “But it gets a lot of pet waste and even human waste. The student wants to study the impact of those wastes on the natural environment.”

Who knows which student’s projects will be next to win accolades on an international stage?

Emphasis on education

Ken Burgener has logged over 25 years in the clean-water profession, 21 as laboratory director of the North Davis Sewer District.

He has served as chairman and as a member of the Water Environment Association of Utah (WEAU) Laboratory Committee and other WEAU committees, and has been inducted into the 5S (Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers) for his service. In 2002 he received the Water Environment Federation Laboratory Analyst Excellence Award. During his tenure, North Davis has been named WEAU’s Outstanding Laboratory six times.

On the public education side, his WEF communication and outreach cited him for:

  • Judging and advising for many science fairs at elementary, junior high and high schools.
  • Developing and administering WEAU’s annual $1,000 donation to the Science and STEM Fairs of the state of Utah for science fair winners with projects related to water.
  • A booth at STEM job fairs to encourage students to pursue science-based careers.
  • Serving as mentor and adviser to local and national science fair entrants. Award-winning students have used the North Davis lab and other facilities to work on their projects.
  • Setting up aquariums, aquaponics demonstrations, displays and posters at the plant to help tour groups understand microbiology and wastewater treatment.
  • Promoting the lab and treatment plant for tours and education.

Burgener has been the WEAU Public Education Committee chairman for many years and has administered the Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition. He says he is a true “science geek,” and proud of it.


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