How the Waterama Festival Uses Education to Initiate Change

A Waterama festival in Fort Worth teaches fourth-graders about water and its value in rapid-fire interactive sessions.
How the Waterama Festival Uses Education to Initiate Change
Fourth-graders examine a watershed model during the 2016 Fort Worth Waterama.

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They could no longer bring students to the plant, so they brought the plant to the students. That was the idea behind the Waterama festival, an educational event held each year in Fort Worth, Texas.

In 1999, a renovation to one of four water treatment plants kept the city Water Department from holding its long-popular WaterFest Open House on the plant grounds. So, Mary Gugliuzza, media relations and communications coordinator, turned to her staff for fresh ideas.

“I challenged them to come up with an alternative idea to reach kids,” she says. “I thought that if we could reach young kids, we’d get their parents, as well.”

Department personnel approached the Fort Worth Independent School District, and soon Waterama was born. The first event, in May 2001, offered eight interactive booths where a few hundred fifth-graders received lessons on water use, treatment and reclamation. Since then, the event has expanded to 28 booths. To accommodate more kids, it now covers two days. The 2016 Waterama drew a record 3,371 students.

Many mini-lessons

Waterama lasts four hours and hosts three groups of students each day. Each group stays for an hour, visiting four booths and spending about 12 minutes at each one. That rapid-fire activity helps keep them engaged. “Each booth has a theme having to do with water, but from all different perspectives,” says Hilda Zuniga, a public education specialist with the department.

The booths don’t all focus on water treatment. They include presentations from the Fire Department on the importance of water to fire safety. The Public Works and Transportation Department has a lesson on stormwater. The local fish and game department teaches about clean water and fisheries. The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service booth urges kids to practice water efficiency.

“It’s so much more than just conservation, though,” says Zuniga. “It’s really about how water is a connective tissue for so many facets of everyday life. The students learn that a ready supply of clean water is important to survival in many ways.”

The event also includes mini-programs sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Cook Children’s Health Care System —Safe Kids Tarrant County. The Water Department’s meter service personnel teach students how to build a water meter, ending in a Meter Madness event where the kids race against the clock. The department also brings a pipe camera truck to let students experience an electronic sewer inspection.

Broadening reach

“We try to practice a holistic approach to water education,” says Gugliuzza. “Most of the students don’t realize how much of their everyday lives are tied to water. The point is to get them to understand that connection.”

While the initial Waterama focused on fifth-graders, fourth-graders are now the audience. The state of Texas made a switch to its elementary science requirements, and the school district determined that the lessons learned at Waterama provided an ideal jumping-off point to water lessons learned early in the fifth-grade science curriculum.

“What the students learn is a great head-start for the lessons they’ll be coming into at the beginning of their fifth-grade year,” says Zuniga. “Water staff back in 2001 worked with the teachers and helped them actually design their curriculum around what the students learn at our event. It’s a great partnership.”

The students leave with a bit of homework. They are asked to care for a Grass Head — a sock the kids decorate with pipe cleaners and goggle eyes, then fill with a layer of grass seed, followed by soil. The students take the Grass Head home, water it carefully every day, and watch their creation’s “hair” grow.

“That’s a fun little lesson that the kids can leave with,” says Zuniga. “Hopefully when they’re watering their Grass Heads, they’re thinking about where that water came from, and why it’s important.”

Success and support

Water and Sewer Department personnel gauge success through surveys completed by fourth-grade teachers. The results indicate that students are getting a lot out of Waterama and that teachers appreciate using it as a major part of water education in class.

“The majority of the surveys ask us to expand the program even more,” Zuniga says. “So many kids at that age have high energy, and keeping them moving and learning is important. We obviously can’t teach everything in 12-minute intervals, but we work with the teachers to offer follow-up lessons and related materials to help learning continue.”

The success hasn’t been lost on the city decision-makers, either. The program has received continued support over the years and has received the green light to expand. “We’ve been able to change up and expand to the point where the end of its useful life isn’t yet in sight,” says Gugliuzza. “The lessons we’re teaching are going home to the parents, and that’s who the decision-makers hear from.”

Zuniga believes the success of Waterama stems from its philosophy to reach as many fourth-graders as possible: “Many parents bring their children to learning events, but Waterama is a special opportunity. We believe that learning helps make change happen.”


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