How Do You Teach Little Kids About Water? Let Creative Characters Do Much of the Talking

Using clever characters and hands-on activities, a California sanitary district wins national award for program for grades K-2.

How Do You Teach Little Kids About Water? Let Creative Characters Do Much of the Talking

Second graders, using Central San’s classroom toilets, learn what happens when they flush.

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A few years ago, the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District learned that grades K-2 in its region were underserved in wastewater science and engineering education.

In response, staff members at the district (commonly called Central San) created a program that included Piper the Crew Leader, Kelvin the Chemist and Toot the Toilet. It addressed the shortfall and, in the bargain, earned a national award.

California is moving toward all schools complying with Next Generation Science Standards, which require educators to teach all ages with a learn-by-doing science and engineering approach.

“A lot of the educators didn’t have ideas on how to serve such young grade levels and make it challenging for them,” says Ben Lavender, district community affairs representative. “Our vision is to build more conscious customers through wastewater education, starting with the youngest grades and continuing year after year. If a kindergartner understands that what we put down our drains does not disappear, imagine how that student will think about wastewater and the environment by the time they graduate high school with 13 years of wastewater-based education.”

Taking to the road

Children as young as grades K-2 are not allowed to tour the district’s facilities for safety reasons, so Central San took the education program to the classroom. About one hour northeast of San Francisco, Central San serves about a half-million residents and more than 3,000 businesses within a 145-square-mile territory.

The award-winning Pipe Protectors program was created in 2017, but when Lavender joined the district in 2018, he fine-tuned it and added hands-on learning experiences. He took the characters and adapted them, along with the workbooks, to the younger grades to create the new classroom format.

Central San, with 12 school districts in its area, partners with a local educational organization, Sustainable Contra Costa (SCC), which takes the programs to the classroom and works with the children. SCC sets up the supplies and materials in one room at the school, and multiple classes rotate through to take part in hands-on wastewater lessons.

The program has helped the children understand wastewater’s complex path from their homes back to local waterways. The activities revolve around what children should and should not put down the drain and into toilets. Classes lasting about one hour tell how water is pushed and pulled through the treatment process and how the students create dirty water that needs to be cleaned.

The kids learn how a toilet works, what happens when they flush, and what is and is not flushable. “The simulated toilets used in the lessons include clear pipes, so if students have a hard time picturing something happening in the process, they see it right in front of them,” Lavender says. The items empty into a bucket attached to the toilet so that students can see what does and does not disintegrate.

In another activity, the children are shown the harmful effects of putting fats, oils and grease (FOG) down the drain.

Distance learning

When the pandemic hit, the classes switched to virtual. Through Zoom meetings, SCC instructors lead teachers and students in a live classroom format. Students still can take part in hands-on experiments individually at their homes, along with their parents.

Students bring items such as a square of toilet paper, a facial tissue and jars of water to the call. They are asked to put the paper items into the jar and shake them to see which one dissolves. Because of the live distance-learning option, the district expanded the program to include transitional kindergarten through grade five, enabling more kids to take part.

In the first school year with the in-person learning, the program taught 1,100 students across 42 classrooms; in the second year, it taught 1,600 over 68 classrooms. The 2020-21 virtual format had already reached 4,000 participants by February.

A winning program

The Pipe Protectors program won a national environmental achievement award for public information and education from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies for its innovative approach. The program won four other awards from regional associations for its original and creative ideas.

The teachers and students love how the program relates to their daily lives and how it connects them to their local environment. One young student was so taken with the class that he went home, designed a flyer on what he learned about FOG, printed out several copies, signed his name and school and put them in his neighbors’ mailboxes.  


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