Brightwater: An Opportunity for Connection


The treatment facility employs state-of-the-art technology for a cleaner effluent and odorless operation.

by Cynthia Thomashow

T3he Metro bus opens its doors, releasing 40 fourth-graders who have ridden an hour from South Seattle to the Brightwater Water Treatment Center in Woodinville, Washington. “We’re in the wilderness!” squeals one of the young boys. To his credit, the landscape is very different from his urban schoolyard. But, just 20 years ago Brightwater was an industrial site, housing an old soup factory and a scrap-metal heap. Now it is home to a state-of- the-art water treatment center, flourishing wetlands, a LEED Platinum environmental education center, and 40+ acres of woods and fields crisscrossed by trails and abundant wildlife.

In 2011, IslandWood, an environmental education center on Bainbridge Island, Washington, won the contract to provide educational programming at Brightwater in partnership with Seattle Public Utilities to a mostly urban population. The Center is a laboratory and gathering place filled with interpretive displays that creatively connect water quality, engineered waste treatment processes, and the health of the Puget Sound to everyday life choices. IslandWood educators use this site to deliver field-study approaches that enhance science curriculum in the King County schools. Woven into every lesson is relevance of the field-based learning to the home environment of the urban students.

Students enter BrightwaterCenterOver 4,000 students come through the doors of Brightwater each year to study Freshwater Ecosystems, Land Forms and Humans in the Water Cycle with IslandWood educators. Sparked by the question, “Which pond at Brightwater has more types of water bugs, Storm Pond (an untreated storm water runoff catchment) or Otter Pond (a pond fed by a stream originating in the watershed above the treatment plant)?” Students may spend half the day mucking through wetlands, climbing hilly fields, and dipping their nets into containment ponds to collect macro-invertebrates. Student make observations and predictions about freshwater ecosystems in the field, collect specimens, tabulate data using microscopes in the lab and discuss their results together.

Another key question, “What happens when we ‘borrow’ water from the water cycle in our homes, schools and businesses?” begins the study of how humans participate in the water cycle every time they turn on their tap, run the dishwasher or go to the bathroom. During the Humans and the Water Cycle program, students experience the treatment process first-hand, discuss water issues in an interactive exhibit hall, and participate in a hands-on lab focusing on three different water-related STEM careers.

An ongoing professional development challenge for staff is to connect the field experiences to the actual neighborhoods where students live. The goal of IslandWood’s Brightwater Team is to ‘urbanize’ their signature field-based approach of getting kids outdoors to the urban settings where students live. Once a month, staff delve into the assumptions that define our goals around environmental education, considering equity issues, environmental justice and cultural competency as it relates to educational approaches. Every time a new group of students arrives at Brightwater, a conceptual shift moves the educators closer to relevant and meaningful engagement with the young urban leaders of tomorrow’s world.


An installation by artist Jane Tsong illustrates the treatment process to visitors through poetry, and “blesses” the water before it is released.

(Photo credit: Juan Hernandez.)