See How Students Approached the Challenge of Creating Water Tower Models

A model competition in Florida gives elementary to high school students hands-on experience in form-follows-function engineering.

See How Students Approached the Challenge of Creating Water Tower Models

Group 2.9 (left) and RP Dragon 1, two 2016 eighth-grade teams from Roland Park Middle School, pose with their models. Tanks must fill and drain using supplied 3/8-inch connectors.

Filling the void created by retiring water professionals is a nationwide challenge. So is the question of how to expose young people to rewarding water industry careers.

The Florida Section of the American Water Works Association has an answer — and it’s fun. It’s a competition in which elementary to high school students build model water towers that fill, hold, and drain water without leaking or collapsing. They’re visually interesting, too.

Conceived in 2004 by Tod Phinney, former Bradenton water engineer, the Model Water Tower Competition has expanded to eight of the 12 Florida AWWA regions and into Virginia, Georgia and Missouri.

“Most students who participate are passionate about science, and they often compete for more than a year,” says Shelby Hughes, civil engineer with Kimley-Horn and Associates and Region IV competition chair. Teachers choose four students per team; then a class competition determines the best five entries. “By limiting the number of entrants per school, judges can evaluate 70 to 100 towers in six hours,” Hughes says.

Water professionals judge the models based on cost-efficiency, hydraulic efficiency, structural efficiency, and design/materials ingenuity. Contestants receive a Certificate of Participation, and awards of $300, $200, and $100 go to the top-three finishers in all school categories.

“The prize money is definitely the first incentive for students,” Hughes says. “Then they discover what it is like to build something with their hands, and they become very creative. I’ve seen many inspired designs, including the Lorax, spaceships, Alice in Wonderland, Minions, and actual water towers.”

Sharing success

To encourage more regions and states to take part, Hughes and the AWWA Public Affairs Council assembled a packet with rules, competition information, templates, presentations, work documents, scoring sheets, and a section on how to handle discrepancies and problems. “We keep everything on Google Drive for accessibility,” Hughes says.

For those who wish to form a competition planning committee, Hughes recommends joining their AWWA section to find like-minded people. For help getting started, planners can contact her or the chair from any region that has hosted a competition.

The first order of business is to persuade schools to participate; coordination and an early start are the keys to success. To reach many educators as quickly as possible, Hughes targets the state’s annual STEM Leadership Summit.

“We give a presentation and bring a model water tower to show how simple it is to make,” Hughes says. “An early introduction enables teachers to include the competition in that year’s lesson plans. All you need are a few passionate advocates moving between schools and different regions to expand the competition.”

Besides early coordination, good information is crucial. “Many teachers feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable instructing students on how to build a water tower, but they rise to the challenge if given the tools and adequate time,” Hughes says. “Finding an open Saturday to schedule the competition is probably the hardest part.”

Region IV holds its competition at centrally located Walker Middle Magnet School in Odessa. “Schools are ideal locales because everything we need is available and they are happy to host it,” Hughes says. The competition requires running water, tables, a covered outside space, an auditorium for judging and award presentations, free parking, and a cafeteria. “We want it as easy and affordable as possible so the entire family can attend,” Hughes says.

Family friendly

To entertain contestants and siblings, the event includes a disc jockey, a Popsicle stand, drinks, snacks, and pizza for lunch. Interactive booths are also available. At one booth, students build clay boats to learn about buoyancy. At another, an enviroscope demonstrates the water cycle and water and wastewater treatment. Students visit the booths to earn raffle tickets for small prizes.

Competition day draws 30 to 40 volunteers from the Florida Section and all facets of the industry to run it. Judges pump a gallon of water into the 1.5- to 2.5-foot-tall towers and then drain them by gravity — twice.

To keep participants from buying their way in, cost-efficiency scores are based on recycled materials used. “We want students to use milk jugs, wire hangers and everyday household goods,” Hughes says. “They lose points for purchased items.”

Volunteers make the event happen, and Hughes discovered that even people in her office were eager to help. “All it takes is a champion to start the competition,” she says. “Then it creates its own momentum. The way it took off in Florida, I’m certain we’ll see a state and national competition eventually.”


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