Sewer Science Plunges in to Environmental Education

When I told my 8-year-old neighbor about Sewer Science, he asked, “Is that like detention?”

I suppose a high school science laboratory that teaches students about wastewater treatment (how poop is managed) could seem like punishment to a third grader.

“That’s gross,” he said.

Fortunately, there are young people who can tolerate the gross and the necessary as they confront subjects even more distasteful to most American students than human waste: biology, microbiology, chemistry, physics, and even math and engineering.

According to the report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” our students are not keeping up with their counterparts in other countries. After secondary school, fewer US students pursue science and engineering degrees than is the case of students in other countries.

Sewer Science is coming to the rescue. The week long lab is used in numerous California school districts to reach students throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego County. The program was recognized with an EPA Pacific Southwest Environmental Award.

In the Sewer Science laboratory, high school students are steeped in science:

  • they manipulate Plexiglas models of treatment operations and analyze the wastewater as it is treated;
  • they measure pH, turbidity, ammonia, and chemical oxygen demand;
  • view and identify the sludge organisms using microscopes and identification charts;
  • they discuss expected results, review their analytical results, and decide on the next step to make in the treatment of their waste.

At the lab’s conclusion, the students plot their data and compare their final results to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) effluent standards. Sewer Science addresses the challenges of hands-on interdisciplinary learning while providing a unique and much-needed high school outreach program for the wastewater industry.

According to the American Water Works Association, “almost 50% of today’s water and wastewater operators will retire within the next five to seven years. They’ll need to be replaced.”

So not only is Sewer Science equipping high school students with fundamental science skills as the rest of the country fumbles, but the program is preparing kids for jobs in an industry with dire need for fresh faces.
Sewer Science isn’t detention — it’s a lucky break for the wastewater industry, the American scientific community, and everyone who drinks water.

About the author: Charlotte Ely spent two years jumping from office to office through the Environmental Intern Program. She landed in EPA’s Pacific Southwest Sustainable Water Infrastructure and Climate Change program in the fall of 2008, and plans to stay put for a while.

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