Engineering Challenge, Art Activities and a Science Fair Highlight This Utility's Outreach

A Virginia service authority’s events help encourage students to pursue water-related careers.

Engineering Challenge, Art Activities and a Science Fair Highlight This Utility's Outreach

This year’s Prince William-Manassas (Virginia) Regional Science and Engineering Fair had 237 participants from middle and high schools.  

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There’s nothing like a little competition to help people discover the careers available in the water sector.

With that in mind, the Prince William County (Virginia) Service Authority participates in an annual regional science and engineering fair for middle and high school students. The service authority judges recognized 10 water-related entries in this year’s event.

The science and engineering fair is just one of the ways the authority encourages students to explore the water professions. “We want them to go into water-related careers or at least consider them upon graduation,” says Kathy Bentz, deputy director of communications.

Creativity on display

Prince William County, located on the Potomac River and with a population of 463,000, is Virginia’s second most populous county. Service authority customers are served by two wastewater treatment plants with a combined capacity of 26.17 mgd.

In one of the authority’s competitions, middle school students create, design and build a functional model water tower, applying their science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) skills. Entries are judged on design ingenuity, overall structure, and hydraulic and cost efficiency. The winners receive cash prizes.

The authority also sponsors a Water Art Invitational for high school students. Categories in this 20-year-old event include painting and drawing, computer graphics, photography and mixed media. Among 140 pieces submitted for this year’s event, 27 entrants and their teachers received cash awards. The winners are featured in the authority’s annual calendar. 

Science on display

This year’s Prince William-Manassas Regional Science and Engineering Fair included 237 entries showcasing some of the region’s brightest students and their innovative projects. Schools in the county hold events for middle and high schools, and the school winners go on to the regional fair.

While the regional fair is hosted by the county school system, the service authority takes part by recognizing and judging the projects that are water-related. Employees who work in the lab, engineering, IT and other departments judge the entries, receiving information about the projects in advance and then visiting the booths at the fair to speak with the students. They convene afterward to choose the water category winners.

“It is a great experience judging these students’ entries,” says Audrey Arnold, education and outreach coordinator for the authority and one of the judges. “We put them through a mini-interview, and their presentations are so succinct and professional.” This year’s winners are:

First Place – Senior Division: Desmen Boykin, Forest Park High School, “The effects of different plant-based microplastics on lotus plants.”

Second Place – Senior Division: Divya Ramakrishnan, Osbourn Park High School, “The effect of ferrofluids on the extraction of microplastics from water.”    

General Manager’s Awards – Senior Division: Amanda Hurley, Osbourn High School, “Soil and groundwater – How acidic is too acidic?” and Ebru Ayyorgun, Battlefield High School, “The effect of water bottle material on biofilm growth.”

First Place – Middle Division: Rowan Floyd, The Nokesville School, “Human impacts on oceanic defenses.”

Second Place – Middle Division: Shelia Nguyen, Ronald Reagan Middle School, “The effect of different drinking water types on the bacteria growth of water.”

Third Place – Middle Division: Seth Kellogg, Seton School, “Filter it before you drink it – Identifying an inexpensive, effective primary ingredient for an improvised water filter.”

General Manager’s Awards – Middle Division: Lauren Motter, Benton Middle School, “Do different types of activated carbon affect how well it can filter a dirty solution?” and Hannah Hakimpour and Katie Kim, Ronald Reagan Middle School, “The effect of different brands of water on the number of microplastics.”

Typically, the winners are invited to an authority board meeting where they present their projects in poster sessions. The board members then present each student with a certificate and cash prize. However, this year the board meeting was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“Our directors really missed interacting with the winners and encouraging these scientific-minded students,” Bentz says.

Bearing fruit

The science and engineering fair has already brought some tangible benefits to the authority. Daniel Gigi, a first-place winner in the senior division a couple of years ago, ended up with an internship in the authority’s lab. During his internship, he created a standard operating procedure based on an EPA framework for the decontamination of large amounts of water.

In addition, a past art contest winner, Jessica Garcia, became an intern in the authority’s graphics art department. After graduation, she was hired and is now designing a virtual learning webpage.

Boykin, this year’s senior division first place winner, made 3D-printed protective masks with a classmate for a hospital where his sister is a surgical nurse.   


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