Pinellas County Students Learn About Wastewater on Site and in Class

An award-winning outreach program in Florida’s Pinellas County teaches students about wastewater treatment, STEM, careers and more.

Pinellas County Students Learn About Wastewater on Site and in Class

Facility tours show students all the major aspects of the wastewater treatment process.

Shea Dunifon, education coordinator for Pinellas County Utilities in Florida, tirelessly invents creative ways to teach K-12 students about wastewater.

She makes it fun for children to take plant tours and learn about the wastewater treatment process. For 2018, she received the Water Environment Federation’s Public Communications and Outreach Program Award in the Individual category and the Florida Water Environment Association’s Public Education Award in the Organization category.

While Pinellas County had a wastewater education program from 2002-09, the recession dimmed the lights for the next seven years, with just a few tours being offered by request. They were rebooted full time in 2017 when Dunifon was hired to bring them back. With a 5,400-square-foot education building, interactive displays and a 42-person tram like the ones at Disney World, the students in grades 6-12 tour the South Cross Bayou Water Reclamation Facility and learn about operations at the 35-acre site.

This 33 mgd South Cross Bayou facility uses recovered resources from the wastewater, including reclaimed water for irrigation, biosolids to make fertilizer pellets and biogas for renewable energy.

All aboard

The 90-minute tours start in the education building with an introduction that includes “making wastewater” using yellow-dyed water for urine, cocoa powder for poo and various unflushable items; viewing aerial photos and a 3D printed model of the facility; and learning through various interactive displays. “We’re adding more and more displays all the time, so the education building is becoming more like a museum,” Dunifon says. “The students can see and touch things before the tour begins.”   

Once on board the tram, the students tour the facility, focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) with an emphasis on resource recovery, environmental stewardship and career opportunities. Students visit the control room and see the SCADA system. They also stop at the laboratory to see samples processing, quality control procedures and water testing. Along the way, they meeting the team members who help run the facility.

The students then ride the tram to the anoxic and aeration tanks, where they can see firsthand how the nitrogen-removal process works. All the tours are customized by grade and are based on science curricula written by Pinellas County School teachers.  

“The teachers rely on us heavily to make the wastewater industry interesting and exciting to the students, and we do this through humor and creativity to make it memorable,” Dunifon says. “We get the conversation started, and the teachers can then continue the learning in the classroom.”

Back at school

In addition to the tours, staff members travel to the schools and give presentations for various grade levels. They include:

Incredible Journey. K-5 students use a spinner or dice to visit multiple stations, following the different pathways a water droplet can travel. At each station, they get a colored bead; they later use the beads to make a bracelet as a memento of their individual water journey.

Do You Know Your Local Watershed? Students receive maps that show their local water resources: rivers, bays and lakes. They then create their own watershed using a crumpled piece of paper and washable markers. Then they wet the paper to see how water flows from high to low elevations along the creases. (This and the Incredible Journey activity are adapted from the Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide 2.0.)

Don’t Treat Your Toilet Like a Trash Can. Using 50 mL centrifuge tubes as pipes, speakers add items that represent trash often put down toilets, like wipes, cotton swabs, small toys and sand, with some water. The students shake the tubes and see how the only item that dissolves in the water is toilet paper; the others contribute to clogging of sewer pipes.

Careers in Utilities. Created for grades K-12 because of retiring employees at the utility, this presentation informs students about the many jobs available in the industry. From coloring caricatures of different positions, to dressing up in lab coats and role playing, to a hands-on sewer camera truck demonstration, the students are exposed to potential careers.

Power in numbers

In just two years, facility tours and presentations at schools have doubled. The 2017-18 fiscal year saw 80 tours and 26 presentations. Through additional outreach at science and career fairs and various events and expos, public and student contacts have nearly doubled, from 31,000 to more than 61,000. Those numbers are expected to keep growing as the demand from schools rises.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.