Turning Students Into Water Stewards

A STEM curriculum and an annual water festival in Tucson have helped deliver messages about the value of water to more than 100,000 students.
Turning Students Into Water Stewards
STEM Academy participants receive a lesson in water quality testing.

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Water is precious in southern Arizona. That’s why the leaders of Tucson Water have invested in water and wastewater education aimed at area public school teachers.

By supporting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and organizing the annual Tucson Water Festival, they aim to foster generations of good water stewards. “Our STEM Academy is open to 25 fourth- through 12th-grade teachers each year in June and includes a robust week of water education to incorporate into their class curriculums,” says Valerie Herman, public information specialist, who manages youth education programs.

“More than 100,000 students have been reached through our STEM Academy teachers over the years. That’s 100,000 students who have developed their STEM skills while learning about water stewardship, Tucson’s water management plans and STEM careers within Tucson Water.”

Supporting growth

STEM takes an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Teachers in the STEM Academy explore Tucson Water’s reliability mission, focusing on the urban water cycle. They use maps and well data to understand the groundwater gradient, and they tour water reclamation system locations.

They also analyze drinking water quality and gain an understanding of Tucson Water’s quality parameters. A hands-on lesson using Google Earth teaches educators about the operation of groundwater recharge basins and the engineering design of the piping systems that deliver water. The course culminates in a tour of Tucson Water’s potable and reclaimed water operations. A segment on water conservation and efficiency tells how to perform bathroom faucet and irrigation audits with Tucson Water professionals.

“The teachers relay the lessons they learn to their incoming classes and to future classes as well,” says Herman. “They are very enthusiastic about conveying these lessons and are willing to assign water-focused projects as homework that potentially impact family member behaviors.”

Teachers who implement a water STEM unit receive further education to help them teach more effectively. Those lessons are built upon at the Tucson Water Festival, held in March. Educators receive seven hours of additional instruction to prepare for the festival day and for follow-up.

The water festival covers topics such as conservation, groundwater management, the water cycle, transportation, watershed management, treatment plants, groundwater health and topographic modeling. “Bringing these components together is the goal of the STEM Academy and our other water stewardship education programs,” says Herman.

Bringing it together

More than 900 Amphitheater School District fourth-graders took part in the 2017 water festival, held at James D. Kriegh Park in Oro Valley as part of the statewide Arizona Water Festival. It is sponsored by Arizona Project WET and Tucson Water.

“We want to make students, who are our future ratepayers, cognizant of water issues,” says Herman. “Teachers use the lessons provided by Project WET and the STEM Academy to create a strong foundation for learning. It’s a cooperative effort that distributes information in a manner where everyone wins.”

The festival includes a variety of stations that reinforce the lessons. One lesson centers on the Colorado River, source of about 95 percent of Tucson Water’s supply. “We purchase 144,191 acre-feet of water, so it’s important that kids know how important it is to keep the river clean.”

Another lesson focuses on the water cycle. “Students at that age know how the water cycle works from the outside, but sometimes find it difficult to figure out where they fit in,” says Herman. “The lessons we teach help to broaden students’ understanding of the cycle and the roles they play.”

As part of that, kids explore models showing that they live in a watershed and need to be water managers. “The kids know to turn off the water when they brush their teeth, but these lessons teach them to save water in new ways,” says Herman.

Proof of success

Progress has been steady since Tucson leaders began dedicating resources to water conservation about 30 years ago. Herman credits the utilities ratepayers for buying in: “In the late 1980s, average use peaked at nearly 120 gallons of water per day. Now it’s less than 80 gallons per day. That’s the direct result of our water education programs.”

The area’s booming population continues to strain water resources. Fortunately, Tucson residents have embraced conservation. “Behaviors in Tucson are very different than a lot of places in the country,” says Herman. “Our residents are very educated on what to plant in their yards. All that starts with the teachers. They provide the tools for students to make good choices.”


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