How Win-Win Collaborations Benefit the Wastewater Industry

Industry and education come together in a symbiotic learning opportunity that exposes youth to lab work

How Win-Win Collaborations Benefit the Wastewater Industry

David Shellenbarger of TRU leads students through a wastewater treatment plant pour. (Photo Courtesy of TRU)

After reaching out to area businesses about working with students, Gaston College in Dallas, North Carolina, got a response that surpassed all expectations. Collaboration with Two Rivers Utilities in the city of Gastonia has given students an exceptional lab experience, while also providing valuable data collection services for TRU.

Students perform nitrification rate testing on samples from two wastewater treatment plants. The project is offered each semester for Susan Whittemore’s biology class, and involves a tour of TRU facilities, lab training by operators and technicians from TRU, as well as a 10-day testing period back at the Gaston College lab.

Treatment plants all over the country struggle when it comes to manpower and resources for in-house testing, but with this partnership, TRU taps into inexpensive data collection while exposing the industry to a new generation of potential operators.

Fulfilling many needs

TRU needed help with data collection, and Gaston College was looking for a hands-on learning experience for their students. Until the student partnership was brought on board, TRU was only rate testing every two to three years.

“The testing requires a great deal of laboratory space and the devotion of a laboratory technician for a week each time each treatment plant is tested,” according to a written statement from TRU. “The laboratory must also continuously support the daily process control testing, daily NPDES permit-required testing, all samples from TRU’s industrial pretreatment program, as well as commercial samples that are analyzed to generate revenue. This is challenging with the space and staff available.”

So when Gaston College sent the call out to area businesses in 2013 seeking to develop community service projects, TRU jumped at the opportunity.

“They’re helping my students out, giving my students the opportunity to actually work with industry-standard equipment, and have them get a feel for what it’s like to work in a real lab,” says Susan Whittemore, the Gaston College instructor behind the project, pursuing a master’s degree in biology.

Student Caitlin Edwards performs nitrification rate testing for TRU in the Gaston College lab. (Photo courtesy of Susan Whittemore)
Student Caitlin Edwards performs nitrification rate testing for TRU in the Gaston College lab. (Photo courtesy of Susan Whittemore)

The project

It starts with a simple tour of the Crowder’s Creek wastewater treatment plant in the TRU system led by plant operations staff, focusing on the treatment process. Students are guided through the biological nutrient removal process, and lab technicians show them all the necessary lab techniques required by the rate testing.

Then they return to Gaston College, where Whittemore has worked with Annette McMurray, TRU laboratory supervisor, to acquire equipment and supplies for Gaston College’s own lab environment.

TRU staff travels to the community college to get the students started on jar testing, and then it’s 10 days of monitoring and data collection.

“I require them to do a minimum of three hours per student, and then many do more than that,” Whittemore says. “I monitor them, but they pretty much run it the whole time.

“It gives them an opportunity to experience that kind of real-world, real-level research. They don’t ordinarily get this in a regular biology class. Some of them get very excited, and they love it, and they discover that working in a lab is something they might want to pursue in the future.”

The students also learn proper data collection and management, even graphing the information to send on to TRU. The utility uses students’ data to supplement their own less-frequent rate testing.

Kevin Graves of TRU answers a student's question during a tour. (Photo Courtesy of TRU)
Kevin Graves of TRU answers a student's question during a tour. (Photo Courtesy of TRU)

Benefits and conclusion

“It is gratifying to be a part of helping educate students about career possibilities in the wastewater field,” says Stephanie Scheringer, division manager of wastewater treatment for TRU. “Wastewater can be a very well-hidden gem, but it is a vital service to our communities and we need the next generation of bright minds to enter this field.”

Everyone in this field knows that one of the biggest challenges facing the industry is finding new operators and technicians, and it’s programs like this that benefit not only the organizations involved, but also the industry as a whole.

Industry exposure to the nearly 500 students that have gone through Whittemore’s class and subsequently participated in the TRU rate testing project is invaluable.

“I’ve had several students come back that have gone on to four-year colleges, and four-year universities, and say how they appreciate that experience. It helped them make a decision to become future science majors, where they thought they were not interested in science before, and that they really appreciated that experience,” Whittemore says.

It’s these kind of creative solutions that allow the wastewater industry to grow and thrive.

“TRU staff enjoys the enthusiasm of Susan Whittemore and her students.  The partnership has benefitted TRU in that Gaston College provides data, but the much larger positive impact is in reaching the students,” Scheringer says. “I am very proud of the TRU staff and their work and dedication to this partnership with Gaston College.”


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