Program Offers Multi-Faceted Learning With Training Laboratory

Program Offers Multi-Faceted Learning With Training Laboratory
Mike Smith runs the Water Quality Management program at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colo.

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Mike Smith’s enthusiasm and energy for the Water Quality Management program at Red Rocks Community College is contagious. And his pride in the curriculum he’s helped build is clearly justified. 

Located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Lakewood, Colo., the college has what might be one of the most extensive water quality management programs in the United States with a state-of-the-art 35-foot enclosed mobile laboratory used for coursework and as an emergency response unit in the event of a water-borne outbreak. 

“There’s really no other institution with anywhere near the offerings we have,” says Smith, department chair, program coordinator and lead faculty. “And we have a vision to do more to expand our regional offerings in order to make our programs even more successful.” 

Multi-faceted program 

The comprehensive Water Quality Management Technology (WQM) program prepares students for employment in water and wastewater operations and also offers courses to prepare operators currently working in the field for higher certification. 

According to Smith, nine different water management certificate programs are available in addition to the Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree. (See sidebar) “These certificate programs represent specific areas of interest that can help students gain experience and build their credentials,” he says. “Every accredited course is also approved by the Colorado Plant Operators Certification Board for 10-hour training-unit increments (TU).” 

Smith says the outlook is bright for the future of the program, which he took over in 1996. A former student in the program himself, Smith felt the self-paced classes — come and pick up a textbook, go back and read it, then return and take the test — was an educational model that lacked what students needed to really learn and succeed at their jobs or getting a job. Smith also earned a Bachelor’s degree in environmental technology from Metro State University and a Master’s degree in chemical engineering from Colorado University. 

“I took a right turn when it came to thinking about how to build a successful vocational tech program,” Smith explains. “In the past, training in our industry was largely based on need-to-know criteria. I started out by introducing more technical content to upgrade our courses and provide a more rounded education offering.” 

Degree and certifications 

The AAS degree in Water Quality Management Technology is a two-year program at full-time attendance (12 credits/semester). Education and training in water, wastewater, industrial treatment, water distribution and wastewater collection systems are some of the areas of studies that are offered. This program is a technical science program, heavy on math and science topics like chemistry and microbiology but geared for those who do not have backgrounds in the disciplines. 

The fast-tracked program provides material in the first semester that is directly applicable to obtaining the state operator’s license. Students are eligible to apply for industry jobs once they receive an entry-level license in any of the water management disciplines. The department encourages students to take the licensing test following their first semester, especially when getting a job quickly is important. 

“I suggest students wait until near the end of the first semester to pick their elective classes,” Smith explains. “Better yet, if they line up a job first, they can consult with their employer to find out which courses will provide the most benefit to them on the job – as well as to the operation of the plant where they’ll be working. And many utilities have educational benefits which cover continued education once they’re employed.” 

With the development of a much improved curriculum, Smith’s next goal was to get the entire program online, but hesitated when it became clear the cost of doing so would easily double the tuition. “With many of our business partners footing the bill for their employees to continue or improve their water quality related education, why would we want to hit them with that added cost?” he asks. 

Hybrid classes provide solution 

Instead, Red Rocks will begin offering hybrid-online classes across Colorado this summer for people who want to start a career in water treatment by preparing for the Class D water and wastewater treatment license exam, advance to a higher state operator license, or renew their existing state operator license.

“The hybrid program is a great solution because it’s a combination of online work and at least one in-person class,” Smith says. “And this summer, we’re excited to launch our new mobile laboratory which will circulate to four communities around the state to support our hybrid program while it is being field-tested.” It will also provide educational support for the department’s W2AVE program. 

The W2AVE (Water and Wastewater Applied Vocational Education) is an innovative one-week condensed program of non-credit, college-level courses in water and wastewater management. This program can serve as a refresher for those in the field needing training units, those preparing for higher level certification, or as a fast-track option for those seeking a stable career in the industry but unable to attend the full degree program. 

Taking it on the road 

Red Rocks’ mobile lab is the most visible feature of two three-year grants totaling more than $1.3 million awarded to the WQM technology program in October 2011 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Labor. The goal of both grants was to provide outreach education and educational development to supply highly qualified employees to the water and wastewater industry. 

“Our 35-foot enclosed mobile lab is unlike anything the industry has ever seen,” Smith says. “It consists of a four-station mobile lab in which every analysis within our Basic Water Analysis and Bacteriological and Biological Water Analysis courses can be performed.” 

The unit is also prepared to operate as an emergency response mobile laboratory and provide testing support in the event of a water-borne outbreak. The trailer has a value of $175,000 with an additional $28,000 upgrade for the laboratory configuration. It was outfitted with more than $100,000 worth of laboratory equipment. 

Preparing for industry needs 

Smith is understandably excited about the department’s future plans, which have been built with an eye toward the 6,000 WQM jobs projected to become available between now and 2016 in Colorado alone. 

“We have plans to add three more courses to our program,” he says. “The first will be a conservation program, unlike the ones typically offered. This one will take a much larger view of regional resource management. And we have a grant that will enable us to market it out of state as well. 

“The second program will be desalination, targeted largely at our international students. It will be advanced and very technical, solely with international applications. And the third one will be all about hydroelectric power.” 

Accountability for education quality 

Like many others in the industry, a career in water management was not Smith’s original vocational objective. But at 18 years old he ended up working for the local water district as a water meter reader, which turned into a full-time operator position at the water treatment plant for two years before he was named superintendent. During this time, he took classes at Red Rocks, eventually transferring his major to the water quality program. As he completed his final exam in 1992, the instructor asked if he’d teach the hydraulics section of the program, and in 1996 he was asked to run the entire water quality program, achieving tenure in 2006. 

With a long history in the water industry and his extensive experience as an educator in the field, it’s natural to ask Smith where he stands on the need for national certification standards for operators. His response comes without hesitation: “While there is no lack of educational offerings in water quality management today, there still needs to be accountability for the quality of that education. 

“Here at Red Rocks, we did our own investigation, comparing ourselves to the national need-to-know criteria, and looked at what other programs were doing,” he says. “When we compared our data to everything else offered, we discovered we are the only program in the United States that meets all 592 points in the national need-to-know criteria promoted by ABC. There are many ‘mom and pop’ training programs out there, but there’s no accountability to anyone that they’re actually teaching the right things. 

“We’re not at odds with the objective of the ABC Guidelines currently being vetted, but concerned that accountability is being overlooked. We have tremendous faith in the education we provide here and the curriculum we’ve developed. We’re willing to put ourselves out there and ask anyone to tell us where we can still improve,” he concludes. 

SIDEBAR: Water Quality Management Program 

In addition to a two-year Associate of Applied Science (AAS) Degree in Water Quality Management designed to provide students with the education required to obtain entry-level employment upon completion, the Red Rocks Water Quality Management Program also currently offers certificates (with Training Units) in the following categories:

  • Introduction to Water Treatment
  • Introduction to Wastewater Treatment
  • Water Distribution and Collection
  • Water Quality Analysis
  • Treatment Mathematics
  • Experience and Education
  • Wastewater Treatment Operator Certification (D-A)
  • Water Treatment Operator Certification (D-A)
  • Source Control and Water Audit 

W2AVE Applied Water/Wastewater Vocational Education Program

  • Combined Levels 1-4 Water Distribution and Wastewater Collection Systems
  • Entry Level Water Treatment Operations
  • Entry Level Wastewater Treatment Operations
  • Advanced Water Treatment
  • Advanced Wastewater Treatment 

Program Divisions

  • AAS Degree and Certificate Program
  • W2AVE Short School Program
  • International Development
  • Outreach Education
  • Job Placement and Diversity Support Office
  • Training Laboratories


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