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Students Test the Science and Engineering Behind Water Systems


CELEBRATING SCIENCE FB coverIt’s that time of year, when King County Wastewater Treatment Division spends a lot of time with students.  During spring semester, our educators and students in our service area work together in elementary school programs about water systems.

We know that 4th and 5th grade students are good candidates for this education.  They are learning about science.  They are curious. They haven’t quite outgrown the bathroom humor phase.  They are the right age to help teach their parents good water/wastewater etiquette.  We’re pretty sure that after a class or a tour, these young wastewater stewards point out things their parents shouldn’t put down household drains, like disposable wipes and grease. These kids are into it and they get it.

WTD’s education and tour programs aren’t just about schooling young people on good disposal practices.  We are inspiring students to learn about water systems their generation will someday have to take over.  We reveal the science and engineering behind these systems to engage the next generation of public health protectors and infrastructure innovators.


Maple Elementary participates in the Wastewater Program

As part of the wastewater program, our education team visited Maple Elementary School in Seattle.  Their mission was to help 5th grade students explore through tours, learning and hands on experiments what happens to their water when it leaves their school.

Maple Elementary serves the Georgetown community where WTD will build the Georgetown  Wet Weather Treatment Station. This combined sewer overflow (CSO) facility will reduce untreated overflows of stormwater and wastewater into the Duwamish River in heavy rains. The project is a case study for students to learn about urban environmental issues in their own community.

WastewaterEngineersThese 5th graders are led by an award-winning teacher, Marcia Ventura, who is dedicated to making science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) accessible and engaging in the classroom. Ventura was named Washington STEM’s  February Teacher of the Month and received the Pasty Collins Award for Excellence in Education, Environment, and Community in 2015.

Ventura is helping to introduce Next Generation Science Standards into the classroom.  She believes that children have a knack for engineering and should be exposed to it early, rather than in college.  Her classroom is the ideal venue to turn students into engineers solving wastewater problems.

The program starts with a brainstorming session to help students understand that part of the water cycle they can’t always see:  the pipes coming to and leaving our homes, schools and businesses.  Then they tour South Treatment Plant, clipboards in hand, investigating the wastewater treatment process.

IMG_9472_edited-1Once they know how we get water dirty, and how it gets cleaned, they use fundamental science and engineering practices to design and test ways to clean water in a hands-on experiment.  They use an engineering design process, and even have to consider the cost of the materials they use.

Sierra Heights Elementary takes part in a new stormwater program

WTD’s education team has introduced a new program to their classroom toolkit.  Stormwater Solutions engages students in the systems that manage rain runoff from hard surfaces in urban areas.

People know more about the stormwater problem thanks to campaigns by agencies and organizations. We are becoming more aware of how runoff from yards and streets can wash pollution into our waterways. We know that in Seattle’s combined service area, stormwater and wastewater can fill the pipes in some areas, causing overflows into waterways.

But stormwater presents another problem for WTD throughout the region. Infiltration and inflow (I/I) sends stormwater into sewer pipes through roof downspouts and leaky sewers.  In heavy rains, I/I takes up about 50-70 percent of sewer capacity in areas outside the combined sewer system.  If rain fills sewer pipes too much, too often, WTD has to upgrade those pipes to maintain capacity and prevent overflows. 1002_IIsources_600

South Plant is an ideal location for students to learn about stormwater solutions. At South Plant, engineers, landscape architects, and an artist combined efforts to create Waterworks Gardens, where treatment ponds and a wetland funnel, filter, and release stormwater.

At Waterworks, runoff from the treatment plant grounds is collected and pumped into 11 ponds that settle out contaminants and sediments. Water is then released into the wetland below, helping to sustain plant life, microorganisms and wildlife. A path called Water Walk weaves through the ponds and wetland to join trails from the cities of Renton and Tukwila.


Copyright Lorna Jordan, Waterworks Gardens, 1997


Engineering design

The enginnering design process

In the Stormwater Solutions program, students explore Waterworks garden and wetland to help them tackle an engineering problem.  They start with models of the landscape to identify and define problems created by stormwater.  Then they venture out to Waterworks to investigate how engineers designed solutions.  Finally, they return to the classroom and apply that learning to design and test solutions in their models.

Teacher Julianna K. Dauble signed up 25 students from 4th and 5th grade classes at Sierra Heights Elementary for the new program.  A 20 minute drive from South Treatment Plant makes the treatment plant and grounds a convenient classroom for Sierra Heights students.

And Waterworks fits in with Dauble’s diverse passions.  She says that her biggest academic passion is science but that she likes to combine science, art and music. “Teaching is absolutely the only career I can imagine for myself,” she says, “and I have a deep love of learning and kids.”


The Grotto, photo by Joe Mabel, Waterworks Gardens

Throughout the school year, King County WTD invests in a range of hands-on learning programs like these.  We’re cultivating a new generation of scientists, engineers, architects and artists.  Along with their teachers, we know we need to engage youth in the science and engineering behind water systems. Inspired students will continue on to solve today’s problems and make water systems part of everyone’s future.



Waterworks Garden, photo by Joe Mabel