Back to School: Educating the Nation’s Youth on Water Issues
By Ronald Y. Perez, WC&P Associate Editor
With school back in full swing, students’ attention has tuned to an all too familiar routine of lugging books to class. Some teachers, however, have begun broaching new topics aside from the three Rs to keep their interest. Schools now incorporate other wide-ranging studies and general concerns, such as the environment, into their curriculum. From earth sciences to air pollution, kids across the country are being exposed to the importance of ecology. Regardless of whether it’s acid rain or groundwater contamination, water quality binds these extremes together.
Playing an integral role in educating children are municipal water utilities, residential water treatment dealers and water districts that utilize in-house programs and others developed by national water-related associations to teach the universal message—water is essential, and there’s only so much of it for us to share.
The truly golden state
One of these programs was developed by the Water Education Foundation (WEF), a national, non-partisan group based in Sacramento, Calif., that focuses on urban, agricultural and industry concerns. WEF spearheads Project WET—Water Education for Teachers—a program that invites teachers to attend workshops on water education so they may pass on what they learn to students.
In 1999, 700 teachers using the WET program reported working with 300,000 students in California alone. Moreover, teachers are often invited to visit water treatment plants in their area.
Guilt as motivator
“California is fairly aggressive in implementing water education in schools because water is such an important issue. I came from the East, and the level of the education (on this topic) is far lower there than it is here,” said Arlene Post, customer and public affairs manager of Las Virgenes Water District, one of the 27 member agencies of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, based in Los Angeles. MWD operates as a wholesaler to 16 million people while Las Virgenes serves 65,000.
In addition to an annual poster contest and library book programs, fourth- and fifth-graders in the Las Virgenes area will be introduced to a new curriculum this upcoming school year. Post said science classes will have water awareness and environmental themes tied in with a take-home component where students will be asked to time the length of showers and other family-related water consumption and conservation practices. Post said the initial reaction has been very positive and one that’s spurred changes among her students’ families: “One of the parents came up to me and said, ‘Guilt is a great motivator, but guilt associated with your child is an extremely good motivator.’”
In terms of wastewater, every sixth grader in the Las Virgenes area will attend an environmental camp where they study ecological aspects of living close to the Pacific shore. The weeklong camp also emphasizes watershed management, waste streams, water use and a tour of a wastewater facility. Currently, about 4,000 district students a year are treated to a theater-like production that involves a half-hour educational show for schools.
Conflicts of interest
For every successful and highly visible program like Las Virgenes’, though, there are numerous cases like Lloyd Freeman’s. Freeman runs Freeman’s Water Works Inc. and Waterworks Publishing in Naples, Fla. Along with Susan Conner, vice president, Freeman publishes a book, “Drinking Water Quality—Taking Responsibility,” which is directed to all ages. Along with the book, Waterworks publishes a coloring book for younger generations.
Thinking this might be a good learning tool for local schools in Naples—where he has lived since 1993—Freeman decided to approach local school districts about his idea to inform kids on water issues. Politely rebuffed, he’s frustrated. “The educational outreach hasn’t reached maturity level,” Freeman said. “People put so much belief in government regulations, and these regulations are way below health standards. But the public doesn’t really want to hear that.” Recently, The Groundwater Federation based in Lincoln, Neb., agreed to include the coloring book in its kits to be distributed to fourth and fifth-graders in 200 schools primarily in Nebraska.
It would be remiss not to add that Freeman approaches his solutions on water issues via the distillation route. He then ticks off names of those who’ve lent their support in one form or another to his cause—PureWater, West Bend, WaterWise, the Water Quality Association and Mutual of Omaha’s water companies. And his books do tend to tout distillation as the overriding solution to water quality woes.
The water academy
Of course, if you really want to build awareness for water issues that will endure over time, you can build your own school. In Irving, Texas, that’s exactly what’s planned. The Irving Independent School District next August is scheduled to open a fourth high school—or “academy”—with five areas of specialization: applied technology, medical/dental care in early childhood, travel/tourism/marketing, legal and international studies, and visual arts and communications. Water quality will be incorporated in some fashion as well, although not as originally intended.
“We haven’t gotten any further than just the concept,” said Ralph Diaz, administrative assistant to the superintendent. “Once the environmental studies program was put on hold because of budget restraints, that drew our focus into other areas. It’s on the shelf right now.”
One of the first people contacted when considering a water quality component was Judy Grove, who recently left her position as Water Quality Association (WQA) education director. She put Diaz in touch with water treatment professionals in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “From a PR standpoint, it’s good for the industry,” Grove said. “It gives dealers potential employees and potential customers in the long run. We (WQA members) need to do the reaching out (to schools) and use our expertise.” Still, that’s a very long-term perspective.
“The awareness at the parent-student level on this subject isn’t there, so you have to start educating them. Everybody wants to be a doctor or a lawyer—some recognizable, traditional profession,” Diaz said. “But what’s happening is—with technology and everything that’s going on in the work environment—that’s changing. A lot of positions are being created” in commercial/industrial or municipal water treatment that will need to be filled eventually by those students.
Grants and schools
With money—or lack thereof—always an issue with cash-strapped schools spread across the country, having a major utility backing you carries a great advantage. But don’t assume you’ve got free reign to change things at random, said Brett Weingart, Oklahoma City Water & Wastewater Utilities acting director. That was his experience working with a local organization seeking to be the intermediary between the utility and schools.
On the verge of losing creative rights, the utility nixed the idea before it got off the ground. Instead, according to Weingart, the utility will provide open grants and have local schools tailor their proposals around its existing plans. In effect, schools choose what grades will be taught and to what depth. However, he doesn’t see many teachers taking advantage of that.
Weingart said the utility’s approach has shifted from programs it oversaw exclusively. Today, the utility feels it shouldn’t do the job of teaching children directly. Rather, it’s moving more toward allowing others to develop their own programs with the utility’s resources. That doesn’t necessarily mean teachers or schools. During National Drinking Water Week, for instance, the utility provided gift certificates to bookstores for local kids. For Weingart, the overall message remains: “We want to teach children what the city does to ensure they have safe, high-quality drinking water.”
Vicki Westbrook, conservation coordinator at the Environmental Resources Department of the city of Durham, N.C., agrees with Weingart’s assessment. She said it’s not that schools and teachers are averse to the idea of educating children about water issues, but time demands and state requirements are such that few teachers have space in their schedules to dedicate a sizable chunk to peripheral topics. This causes many schools to ask for citywide agencies or utilities to present the information directly to the students—a task that makes it virtually impossible to reach the majority of children, particularly in larger communities, she said.
Timing is everything
Regardless of what program you look at around the country, one thing is abundantly clear. Ultimately, adults determine what the future holds for children and their understanding of what’s required to provide quality drinking water to them. The key then becomes captivating the interest of students at just the right age, said Dave Munk, program manager of the National Energy Foundation (NEF) in Salt Lake City.
In conjunction with teachers, NEF currently presents “Learning to Be WaterWise” and “LivingWise” programs in Colorado, Texas and Utah. Students are given take-home kits that include a showerhead, aerator, flowbag and temperature cards. With feedback from teachers and schools, he said, it was determined that fifth and sixth grades are the best time to educate children on water issues. “Kids are the best way to reach and influence adults,” Munk said. And they’ll become water customers in their own right soon enough, which makes such programs even more crucial for educating consumers.
Considering the time constraints and mandatory paperwork placed on teachers today, it’s difficult to comprehend the impact thousands of them make every day so their students can better understand our role in the environment, including the water quality frequently taken for granted. The role of water treatment professionals at all levels cannot be understated as a valuable resource for teachers. “WQA cannot do it all,” Grove said. “(Working with students) will, to some degree, help legitimize the industry in the eyes of the community.” And certified people in the industry can get credit toward re-certification with documented proof of participation in an educational program, she added, whether an individual class presentation or long-term partnership with a school.
When government agencies, private entities and teachers are able to combine their efforts, children are the true beneficiaries. And it’s refreshing to know some are taking it upon themselves, along with the cooperation and dedication of countless teachers, to assist their communities by enlightening students on the importance of water.
“Municipal water companies often see water treatment dealers as competitors. The schools don’t know about us, but they do know the local water companies and utilities.”
Water Quality Association
FYI: Education & water treatment
For additional information, visit the websites of organizations mentioned in this article:
• Irving Independent School District—www.irving.isd.tenet.edu
• Oklahoma City Water & Wastewater Utilities—www.okc-cityhall.org
• City of Durham Environmental Resources Department—www.ci.durham.nc.us
• Water Quality Association—www.wqa.org
• The Groundwater Federation—www.groundwater.org