Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission Festival Promotes the Water Professions

A multifaceted outreach program from Maryland utility helps prepare the next generation for careers in engineering and environmental science.

Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission Festival Promotes the Water Professions

High school students perform primary treatment lab experiments during the Sewer Science Program.

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The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s comprehensive youth outreach program started out with career-day visits. That led to a water festival. Now multiple programs reach youth groups and students of all ages.

“We are deliberate and intentional in STEAM outreach to schools as we work to build our talent pipeline,” says Carla Reid, general manager of the utility, now branded as WSSC Water. “Our outreach programs also speak to our efforts to connect to the communities we serve and create a more diverse and inclusive workforce.”

“All of our programs were created to get students interested in water careers at a utility,” says Angela Ballard-Landers, STEAM education coordinator. Staff members from different parts of the organization were already making career-day visits, so the utility centralized the visits and created a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) program and department.

Nicole Horvath, environmental outreach coordinator, observes, “Our goals included college and career readiness, so every one of our programs, including our Girl Scouts program, has a career component.”

WSSC Water, based in Laurel, Maryland, is among the largest water and wastewater utilities in the nation with 5,816 miles of water pipeline and 5,606 miles of sewer mains. It serves 1.8 million residents in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Annual festival

The STEAM programs have been around since 2005. In the year before that, Ballard-Landers attended a camp on how to start a children’s water festival. Today, the festival attracts more than 800 fourth graders every year.

The two-day event, held the first week in May to coincide with National Drinking Water Week, includes multiple activities. Each student gets a goodie bag of water-themed items that include pencils, flags and coolers, along with a water festival T-shirt.

Mascot Willy Water (in the shape of a water drop) walks around and talks to the kids.  Local agencies have stations that cover different water and wastewater careers. The day ends with a Jeopardy-like competition in which the children answer questions about what they learned.

High school programs

The utility offers three programs for high school students. Water Works Academy, started in 2010, is a daylong program held at the utility’s field service facility. It teaches students in grades 9-12 about water quality and basic utility infrastructure. Students see how a hydrant works and help put a meter back together.

The H2O Engineers program is for high school students interested in learning about an engineering role in a utility. Developed by the community outreach department and the utility’s engineers, it teaches students about infrastructure design and planning, water flow and pressure, and the role of technology in the water sector.

Sewer Science is a daylong program in which students get a snapshot of a day in the life of a wastewater treatment plant operator. They spend a half-day at a water resource recovery facility and then learn about primary, secondary and advanced treatment. The day ends with a tour of the facility.

Youth group activities

Another audience for outreach on water careers includes Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and environmental groups. The Wonders of Water Girl Scout Journey Day is held in fall and in spring. The one-day program contributes to the girls’ requirements for the Wonders of Water Journey.

During the program Girl Scout Brownies (second and third grade) do hands-on activities to help them learn about water filtration, wastewater treatment, watersheds and the water cycle. The day includes a Water Heroines presentation where the girls hear from women at WSSC Water who work in nontraditional careers such as meter readers, chemical engineers, truck drivers, welders and pipe technicians.

The scouts who attend take back what they learn and share it with their community through stream cleanup days, creating posters and in various other ways.

The utility also assists with teacher professional development programs in the summer. During the trainings, educators learn about watersheds and how WSSC Water takes care of the environment.

Popular programs

The programs are so popular that the utility instituted a lottery system to make sure all public, private and home-schooled children get a chance to take part. Due to the COVID-19 virus, several programs have become virtual; the water festival for now is on hold.

The programs started out attracting 500 to 600 students per year; they now reach 2,500. The utility continues to receive positive feedback about its STEAM initiatives. Horvath recalls, “One young girl came up to us after a program and said, ‘I really thought I was not going to like this, but now I’m really glad I came!’”   


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