A Major University Launches an Innovative Approach to Educating the Next-Generation Water Workforce

The Ohio State University launches a unique associate degree program that combines instruction in water and wastewater treatment and bioenergy.

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There’s always a need for education to help bring new professionals into the water and wastewater field. The Ohio State University has stepped up with an associate degree program that breaks new ground in water career education.

The applied science program in bioenergy and water treatment management is offered by the university’s Agricultural Technical Institute (ATI) in Wooster. The university says it’s the first degree program in the U.S. that weaves together instruction in water treatment, wastewater treatment and bioenergy.  

Students can graduate from the program prepared for careers in water and wastewater facilities as well as biogas, bioethanol and biodiesel production plants. Coursework covers topics that include resource economics, building science, electricity and lighting, microbiology, bioenergy and biological waste management, wastewater technologies, feedstock evaluation and analysis, sustainable waste management and environmental science.

Leading the program is Victor Ujor, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the ATI Division of Arts, Science and Business. He holds a bachelor’s degree in applied microbiology and brewing from Enugu State University of Science and Technology in Nigeria and master’s and doctorate degrees in applied microbiology and biotechnology from the University of Westminster in London. He spoke about the program in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What was the inspiration for offering this associate degree program?

Ujor: Previously we had a renewable energy program that included wind, solar and bioenergy. As time went on, we found out that more of our students were interested in bioenergy, and we also observed that there was a close relationship between water and wastewater treatment and bioenergy, especially on the wastewater treatment side.

TPO: Why does it make sense to combine bioenergy, water treatment and wastewater treatment in a single degree program?

Ujor: Most wastewater treatment plants today want to take biosolids and convert it to energy. The plant here in Wooster runs a huge biogas facility where they save about a million dollars every year by converting biosolids and solids from other sources into methane and ultimately electricity. Here on our campus, about 25% of the electricity we use comes from biogas. If that is the future of the industry, it’s important for our students to learn about it. If they are studying biogas production, we need to expose them as well to bioethanol and other fuels in the bioenergy sector. The combination gives them more options when they graduate.

TPO: Why is this program beneficial for the industry?

Ujor: About 45% to 50% of the workforce in the water treatment industry is due for retirement in the next 10 years, according to the American Water Works Association. We saw that as a great opportunity to help generate the next wave of the workforce, especially here in Ohio.

TPO: How would you describe the ATI and the campus in Wooster?

Ujor: The campus here has about 800 students. Most of our degrees are Associate of Science or Associate of Applied Science. For associate of science degrees, students spend two years here and then usually go off to the Columbus campus and finish four-year degrees. The Associate of Applied Science degrees are for those geared toward going to work right away. We have about 30 faculty members, and we’re adjacent to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, which is part of the Ohio State University. The research going on there complements what we do.

TPO: What is the basic structure of the water and bioenergy program?

Ujor: It is a two-year Associate of Applied Sciences degree. Specifically, we are getting graduates ready to go out and work. A number of courses in the program can transfer to the main campus of Ohio State, or to other universities across the state, for those who decide to study further. However, our primary goal is to get students ready to work and pass the state licensing tests once they start working.

TPO: When did the newly configured program begin?

Ujor: We made the change from renewable energy to bioenergy and water treatment in fall of 2017. So far, we have graduated eight students who have gone to work in the industry, and we have eight more students registered in the program.

TPO: How is this offering being promoted?

Ujor: Our admissions department markets our programs, this one included. But I also go out myself to events that high schools organize, including FFA and 4-H meetings. I work with agriculture and science teachers in the area and talk to students about the opportunities.

TPO: How do you promote careers in water, wastewater and bioenergy?

Ujor: I try to make them understand that here’s a wonderful area where they can apply themselves. Water is something we will always use, and wastewater is something we will always treat. The skills are transferrable across state lines; they can move from plant to plant and they will always find work, because there is a shortage of operators. These are stable and well-paid positions.

TPO: Why did you choose such a wide diversity of course offerings?

Ujor: We want to expose the students to all the things that can help them get a job. Some start off being interested in bioenergy but end up working in water or wastewater treatment. So we give them exposure to both. We make sure they get enough basic chemistry to know what it takes to convert corn into bioethanol, and enough biology to understand conversion of biosolids to biogas. We expose them as well to environmental science, because when we treat water, we send it back to the environment, where it has positive or negative effects depending on how well we do our job. We also give them a good basis in math and engineering and a little bit in plant design and construction.

TPO: What kind of feedback do you have from graduates so far?

Ujor: Those who have been through the program have enjoyed it a great deal. They find that they get jobs easily. They have been very highly employable. The program has an internship component as well. Plants are usually eager to hire our students as interns, and they often get hired before they graduate.

TPO: How would you describe the response from employers?

Ujor: It has worked out very well. A plant in Columbus has taken most of my students from around that area. The wastewater plant here in Wooster is constantly looking for our students to come and work with them. Quasar energy group, a biomass-to-energy firm, is a place where our students do most of their bioenergy-related work. We have very good relationships with these plants, and they are always willing to come back and take our students.

TPO: What kinds of backgrounds are you looking for in students?

Ujor: We have had some with extensive science background and some with little or none. We are an open-enrollment institute, which means that if students have a high school diploma, we can accept them here irrespective of their ACT scores. That means we have to work harder to bring those without previous exposure to the sciences up to the level where they need to be when they graduate. We also target people who are changing fields. We tell them this is a field that is very important and is always going to be around; they don’t have to worry about losing their job because their plant shut down.

TPO: Do former military people make good candidates for this program?

Ujor: We’ve had one or two go through here. They are highly motivated. They have discipline and complete their assignments on time. They have the desire to graduate on time and go work, because some are already married and have families.

TPO: How would you assess future prospects for this degree program?

Ujor: It’s an up-and-coming program. It has a lot of potential. Water is essential and is becoming even more so as regulations tighten and populations increase and put more pressure on water resources. Everyone is conscious today about the environment, climate change and resources running out. This is a field that is definitely going to grow heading into the future.


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