A Massachusetts Agency Takes Education to the Treatment Plant

A unique learning experience takes Springfield fifth graders out of the classroom and into the wastewater treatment plant.

A Massachusetts Agency Takes Education to the Treatment Plant

A guided tour of the facility emphasizes the technologies used to treat wastewater. The group visits process steps to see practical applications of science and technology at work.

For 15 years the Springfield (Massachusetts) Water and Sewer Commission has hosted fifth-graders from the Springfield Public Schools at the wastewater treatment plant to teach them firsthand about the water cycle and how wastewater fits.

The program, “A Day at Bondi’s Island,” was conceived in 2002 when SUEZ, the operations contractor, brought up the idea. SUEZ wanted to partner with the commission on an education and outreach program to give back to the communities SUEZ serves in the Springfield region.

At Bondi’s Island, the commission treats wastewater from more than 36,000 households in Springfield. All told, the commission serves a population of 250,000 including wholesale customers outside of Springfield. The system comprises 469 miles of wastewater collection piping including 148 miles of combined sewer and 34 pumping stations.

Working Group Convened

The program was created by a working group of representatives from SUEZ, the commission, the school system, and a professor from Springfield College. After a year-long process, the group decided that hosting the students at a specially designed classroom at the wastewater treatment facility would make the program memorable.

A nonprofit World Is Our Classroom entity was created, consisting of an executive director and two teachers who gave additional input on how to design the program.  

World Is Our Classroom administers the program and worked with the schools’ science teachers to marry their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum to the newly created water program.

“Because girls and minorities were underrepresented in STEM-related careers, it was important to the school system to create a program targeting this diverse group and introduce the industry to them,” says Don Goodroe, area manager for SUEZ, the program sponsor. “While that was the initial goal, the result was that all the students love the program. We get such great feedback from many of them.”

The Students’ Day

The students arrive at the classroom at 9 a.m. with workbooks they received previously and get a brief overview of the day’s activities. “The classroom and the program itself were designed to take learning out of the traditional setting and enable students to see real-life jobs in their natural environment,” says Nora Burke Patton, executive director for World Is Our Classroom. “This is also known as place-based education.”

The day starts with the whole class taking part in four activities:

  • In Molecules in Motion, the children act out the changing states of matter from solid to liquid to gas by dancing to music that goes from slow to fast, representing the molecular motion that relates to temperature.
  • Water Cycle is a board game that shows the students how pollution from humans and animals affects the water cycle and how wastewater treatment cleans the water.
  • Microscope Operation engages students by showing them the many organisms in a drop of water by way of microscopes hooked up to TV screens
  • Scavenger Hunt gives the students descriptions of basic machines like levers, planes, pulleys and hoists; the kids are then sent around the plant to find examples.

After the activities, lunch is served and the students tour the plant. “They are exposed to operators, mechanics, engineers, lab techs and managers,” Goodroe says. “They get to see all the roles, and it opens their eyes to future job opportunities.”

The day ends with the Design Challenge in which the children break into groups of five. Each group is given a pitcher of simulated dirty water and some tools that could be used to treat it; they are asked to apply the concepts they learned from the day and the equipment they saw to create an engineering solution to clean up the water.

Overwhelming Feedback

Feedback from the students has been overwhelming, as shown by thousands of thank-you notes, posters and photo collages. Suggestions from students and teachers on how to enhance the program are worked into the curriculum from year to year. Since the classes began in 2003, some 30,000 fifth-graders have taken part. An intern now working in the commission’s water treatment plant in the lab went through the program when she was in fifth grade.

World Is Our Classroom and SUEZ have since taken the concept and spread it to other communities in the region. In addition, the commission has applied the model in its watershed area; seventh-graders come to visit the reservoir and drinking water treatment plant.

“The World Is Our Classroom program has grown into one of the cornerstones of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission’s mission to serve its customers,” says Joshua Schimmel, commission executive director. “Each year we welcome thousands of our youngest customers to visit our facilities, enabling them to form memorable connections between lessons in the classroom and the environment around them, and to learn about the important role the commission’s work plays in their everyday lives.

“This level of customer outreach and awareness is invaluable in building current and future support for our mission, for critically needed investment in water infrastructure, and for generating interest in water careers.”


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