STEM – Joseph Gale Elementary

STEM – Joseph Gale Elementary

The Utility of Partnerships – Joseph Gale Elementary

Because clean water is part of daily life and it’s readily available, we often take it for granted. It’s easy to see why local utilities, wastewater included, don’t always come to mind as educational partners. In fact, many utilities are eager to partner with schools and community groups to provide relevant and valuable hands-on learning opportunities for students of all ages.

by Ely O’Connor
Clean Water Services


Joseph Gale students explore a marsh at Fernhill Wetlands as part of an erosion unit.

Because clean water is part of daily life and it’s readily available, we often take it for granted. It’s easy to see why local utilities, wastewater included, don’t always come to mind as educational partners. In fact, many utilities are eager to partner with schools and community groups to provide relevant and valuable hands-on learning opportunities for students of all ages.

Everything we do at Clean Water Services (CWS) aims to protect public health, while enhancing the natural environment Oregon’s Tualatin River Watershed. Combining science and nature, we work in partnership with others to safeguard the river’s health and vitality, ensure the economic success of our region and protect public health for more than 560,000 residents and businesses in urban Washington County.

Education is a big part of work and through participation in the Portland Metro STEM Partnership (PMSP), we’ve connected with several schools and classes that are seeking the very resources, expertise and experiences we offer. These partnerships have led to into the development of in-depth units, standards-aligned curriculum and hands-on experiences for students. Far from the one-off programming we seek to minimize.

Our partnership with the fourth grade classes at Joseph Gale Elementary in Forest Grove is one example of how non-formal educators can lend expertise and relevance to increase student understanding of complex subjects. Over the course of the 2014-15 school year, 60 fourth grade students participated in four classroom and four field experiences to investigate and understand human impacts on erosion in their watershed. To supplement teacher-led lessons, CWS staff led students on tours at Fernhill Wetlands and Forest Grove wastewater treatment facility (less than a mile from school), led field activities to measure erosion potential along a rural stream and identified and planted native species for erosion control. In class, CWS staff led lessons about the Tualatin Watershed, erosion cause and effect, explored a watershed model, and identified and planted native plant species on school grounds.


Beaverton and Forest Grove science teachers get a behind-the-scenes look at how we clean water.

CWS and Hillsboro Water staff also collaborated with the PMSP, Forest Grove and Beaverton School District science teachers to develop a water chemistry unit in 2014-15. The water professionals helped teachers work through lab logistics and protocol, with one Forest Grove teacher training in our lab with certified staff. On a professional development day ten Forest Grove and Beaverton chemistry teachers were co-trained on lab protocol and attended a specialized tour of our Rock Creek facility to learn more about the how we use chemistry (and other science disciplines) to clean water to nearly drinking water standards. In the spring nearly 400 chemistry students at Forest Grove, Aloha and Westview high schools participated in the newly developed unit. CWS staff also attended Forest Grove and Aloha science career fairs to talk about STEM and water careers.

This partnership brought capacity to our education and outreach efforts through leveraging resources. In the past, working directly with 400 students would have been a challenge.By training the teachers and assisting with curriculum development, we’ve extended our reach and supported the development of standards-based units. We love working directly with students when possible, but would definitely like to replicate the teacher training and support model.

Both of these partnerships brought the opportunity to engage hundreds of students and several teachers in our community in a way that meets our education goals and supports NGSS and STEM learning. We’ve also been able to use Clean Water Services resources and staff in a sustainable way to extend classroom learning and show real-world applications in the local community.

I would encourage looking for non-formal education partners inside your community but outside the norm. Connect with your local utilities, cities, business and non-profits to show students local examples and bring context to lessons.

To learn more about Clean Water Services’ education programs check out our Student Education Annual Report or contact Ely O’Connor.

Educating About Water

Educating About Water

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.)