Don’t Memorize Answers, Learn Processes

TREEO trainer makes the case for process-specific certifications
Don’t Memorize Answers, Learn Processes
Ron Trygar leads a hands-on training session at a wastewater facility, demonstrating the use of pH and ORP meters in a sampling sink that had running plant effluent water (reclaimed water) and how to compare readings from various meters.

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If Ron Trygar could change one thing about wastewater and drinking water treatment training and certifications, it would be replacing exams that test all types of processes with exams that focus on the basics and add process-specific certification exams. 

“Exams don’t always accurately reflect what operators do in their jobs,” he says, noting that a more focused approach would improve overall plant operations. Think about all those things you learned in high school. How often do you dissect frogs today? Do you go around calculating the surface area of polygons? While a well-rounded education when you’re young is important because it guides you to a career, the argument here is that once you’re on an established career path, it’s logical to receive specialty training for your daily work activities. 

Trygar, a certified environmental trainer (CET), is currently the only full-time trainer at the University of Florida TREEO Center, which trains almost 500 wastewater and 300 water treatment students annually. He is also a member of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Operator Certification Program Exam Review Committee. He recently spoke with Water System Operator to discuss his views on process-specific certification and the importance of trainer networking. 

WSO: What’s the biggest challenge of helping operators prepare for exams?

Trygar: One of the biggest challenges is that exams don’t always accurately reflect what operators do in their jobs. Unfortunately, if we’re going to prepare students to pass, we have no choice but to say, “This is what you need to know, even if you don’t use it in your plant.” 

Tests could be more pertinent; exam review committees are still including older techniques no longer used in every plant. For example, in Florida the passing rate for water treatment exams is low, perhaps because the questions don’t cover the reverse osmosis process used in many of Florida’s water treatment plants. 

WSO: What is the solution?

Trygar: There still needs to be a national exam for drinking water and wastewater basics — generic questions that cover math, chemistry, safety and regulations. Questions should test for very basic skills, such as how to correctly dose chlorine and other chemicals or how to solve a pounds-per-day formula. 

This is why it’s so important that, as trainers, we teach the process and not just exam answers. Operators need to be able to solve exam questions based on what they learned, not because they’ve memorized answers. 

Homeland Security suggests that operators know how to operate their facilities manually, so if the computerized SCADA systems failed, drinking water and wastewater could still be treated. They even encourage utilities to have operators occasionally run plants manually. 

Beyond that, I’d like to see operators take a specialty exam based on processes at the plant where they work or would like to work. If you want to work where a plant has surface water treatment or lime softening, you take a specialty exam based on just those processes, not everything else. 

As an operator, obtaining specialty certifications would help build your resume — and your skills — by the number of specialty licenses you obtain. If you wanted to move to a state where they have trickling filters or lagoons, you’d be able to show exam proficiency in those processes. 

WSO: Is it more difficult to learn a process without hands-on experience?

Trygar: The reason operators struggle so much with process test questions — and don’t move forward with their careers — is that they don’t have real-life experience in every process. 

I recommend operators struggling to learn a process not used at their own plant go out and visit one that does. Almost all states have a rural water association with circuit riders who provide technical assistance and training who can help with that. They’re an under-utilized resource. 

WSO: What other challenges affect the industry?

Trygar: Increased budget pressures created a lot of utility cutbacks, and they’re picky where they send operators for training. Some tell operators to find the least expensive training for their CEUs or they may pay for training but not travel costs, in which case it may be better to have a trainer come to them. At TREEO, we’ll customize on-site training to their needs by spending the prior day learning the plant, and getting pictures and data to build into the training program. 

We also now have software we can use to record and post lessons online, but I don’t think the industry is ready to go totally online. Many operators are hands-on, tactile learners. And we still find folks who haven’t used a computer that we need to help familiarize with computers so they can take their test. 

WSO: How does trainer networking fit into this?

Trygar: A lot of us trainers still know and respect each other, but we’re not connected like we used to be since the EPA used to fund the 104G Trainers program that provided opportunities for trainers to share and network. 

We all struggle to find new ways to help plant operators become better at their jobs, and do the best we can to share training techniques with each other. But there’s definitely a need for more networking opportunities among trainers so we keep operators on top of new techniques and ready to meet new challenges. 


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