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Eye-Opening Experiences

The World Is Our Classroom Makes Learning Meaningful

Sue Towers, left, and Nora Patton

Sue Towers, left, and Nora Patton say The World Is Our Classroom helps expose students to a wide variety of careers.

Sarah Topey never used to think twice about the water that came from the faucets in her home.

But after spending a recent day touring West Parish Water Filtration Plant and Cobble Mountain Reservoir in Westfield with her class, the 12-year-old not only had fun and learned important lessons about water filtration, she returned home with a dream.

“I hope I can do an internship there when I’m in college,” said the seventh-grader from STEM Middle School in Springfield. “I like science, and think I might like to work in a water plant. This helped me see how things happen in real life, and it’s good for the environment.”

The field trip was part of a program called The World Is Our Classroom Inc. (WIOC), and Executive Director Nora Burke Patton says it was founded on the principle that students learn best when they see classroom lessons reinforced in the real world.

“It runs from fifth grade through high school, and by partnering with urban school systems, institutions of higher education, and businesses, WIOC not only reinforces classroom lessons, but also opens young minds to employment opportunities,” she said, adding that the program was launched in 2002 through a collaboration of area businesses and school systems, and has exposed more than 20,000 schoolchildren from Springfield, Holyoke, and Westfield to memorable experiences that can lead to careers.

In fact, Katherine Pederson, executive director of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, says Topey’s dream of a college internship is realistic, and she hopes to interview and hire a job candidate in the future who took part in the program and was intrigued enough to pursue a career in the field.

“We hope some of the students who come here will choose to study water or wastewater management and become stewards of our natural resources,” said Pederson, explaining that jobs range from business managers to accountants; from laborers to engineers, with entry-level salaries for candidates without a college education starting between $30,000 and $34,000 and topping out at about $120,000 for engineers.

Jobs in water- and wastewater-treatment plants are going unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants, and demand is only expected to rise. “The Baby Boomers working in these professions are nearing retirement, and young people are not choosing these careers,” said Pederson. “So it’s becoming more and more difficult to find operators.

“Every town and city in the country has a water and sewer department or a combined department, and these jobs will be there forever,” she went on. “So we feel very fortunate to have a program that starts the dialogue about them, and about water, in fifth grade. We hope that, by the time the students are in seventh grade, they will start thinking about careers.”

Pederson added that the tours are educational. “It’s important for students to learn that, when they turn on a faucet and water comes out, it’s not just magic, and it’s also good for them to understand what we do here to make sure the community has safe drinking water and enough water for fire protection,” she said. “We also think of the students as future ratepayers. They will become the decision makers in the community, so it’s good for them to know why wastewater costs more than water.

“This program is a first step,” she continued, “but it’s an important one, and we are happy to have this partnership. It’s been a positive experience for everyone involved.”

Learning Curves

The idea for the WIOC was born more than a decade ago after United Water signed a 20-year contract with the Springfield Water and Sewer Department to operate and maintain its wastewater-treatment plant and flood-control system.

“We wanted to make a long-term commitment to the community, and because we’re an environmental company, the idea of doing something involving stewardship and education resonated strongly with us,” said Don Goodroe, area manager for United Water.

So the company teamed up with Patton, Springfield Water and Sewer, and Springfield Public Schools. It also hired Springfield College Professor Robert Barkman to create a curriculum for fifth-grade students based on the state science framework that would teach them about the importance of water, the complexity of managing it, and the critical role wastewater-treatment plants play in keeping it clean.

A group of seventh-grade Springfield students

A group of seventh-grade Springfield students recently toured the West Parish Water Filtration Plant and Cobble Mountain Reservoir in Westfield.

The pilot project, which kicked off 12 years ago, was called “A Day at Bondi’s Island Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility,” and included a tour of the facility, where students learned physical, earth, and life sciences as well as technology and design engineering.

“The program was a perfect nexus of all our needs,” said Goodroe. “We were providing education focused on environmental stewardship, and although fifth-graders are not usually thinking about jobs, the program exposed them to people working in occupations they might not have known about.”

The outcome was so successful that the WIOC was incorporated as a nonprofit organization, which allowed it to grow and expand.

As a result, today all Springfield fifth-graders visit Bondi’s Island, while all seventh-graders spend a day at Cobble Mountain in Westfield. There are preparatory and follow-up lessons in the classroom, and teachers whose students visit the site early in the year refer to their experiences throughout the course of study, while those who visit near the time of the MCAS exam say it makes the material students need to know easier to remember and understand.

“Everything the students are taught during the field trips reinforces what they learn in the classroom,” said Patton, as she spoke about the program while STEM Middle School students ate lunch on picnic tables at Cobble Mountain Reservoir. “This morning, they learned about where drinking water comes from and also learned about ecosystems, microorganisms, plant habitats, and animal life when they went into streams in the watershed and used nets to catch crayfish, salamanders, frogs, and toads.”

Ron St. Amand says the program is a great way to help students understand the relationship between book learning and the outside world.

“It blends inquiry, problem solving, and collaboration,” said the director of science for Springfield Public Schools, adding that his staff worked closely with the program directors to design the curriculum for The World Is Our Classroom.

St. Amand pointed to an engineering design challenge that gives students the opportunity to attempt to clean mock wastewater at Bondi’s Island as an example of an activity that provides a hands-on, memorable learning experience. “There is also a water-cycle game in which kids pretend to be water molecules and move between rivers, glaciers, the atmosphere, and groundwater to simulate what the water cycle is like, before pollution is introduced into the game,” he said.

“Another activity called Molecules in Motion gives kids the opportunity to look under a microscope, see microbes in wastewater, and learn they are food for microorganisms, which addresses many areas of science,” he went on.

St. Amand believes the program is stimulating and inspirational. “It supports the curriculum and also opens students’ eyes to potential job opportunities, which will help motivate them to study,” he said, noting that the majority of students in Springfield are minorities who are often underrepresented in STEM careers.

Down to a Science

The program expanded into the Holyoke Public School system in 2004, and through a partnership that includes Holyoke Community College, fifth-grade students began spending a day at Hazen Paper Co.

“The trip there exposes students to earth and space science, life science, and physical science, in addition to technology and engineering, and also introduces them to the paper-making process and related manufacturing careers,” Patton said.

The morning session consists of a tour of the facility, including the opportunity to observe a large gravure printer in operation, interactive lessons called “Molecules in Motion” and “The Water Cycle and Life Cycle of the Oak Tree,” and a reflection period during which students are asked to write or draw something that showcases their experience. After lunch, they take part in a challenging design activity and are given the opportunity to make their own paper.

CEO and President John Hazen said that, when Patton asked him to get involved, he was happy to do so.

“The idea of engaging with kids in Holyoke intrigued me, and I thought it sounded like an interesting way to connect with the community; I also thought my employees would be energized by it,” he said, noting that, earlier that year, a group of retirees had toured the company, and his staff found it satisfying to have them see what they do at work.

Hazen has been involved with the WIOC for 10 years and believes it is important because many of the students would not get another opportunity to see how a Holyoke manufacturing firm operates.

“When we teach them how to make paper, it opens up their world. Our employees talk with them about their jobs because we want to create a fantastic experience and plant seeds at a young age about career opportunities,” he told BusinessWest.  “It has gone very well, and we have never had a bad experience. The kids are so stimulated that they become very engaged in the activities.”

His only challenge was to find a space large enough to house the students, but Hazen refurbished an attic area for the purpose and has since used it for other meetings. “The program is very energizing, and my employees love to see the school bus arrive. It brings meaning to the workplace and ultimately is about providing jobs for families and the community,” he said.

In another fifth-grade program, Mestek Inc. partners with Westfield Public Schools, STCC, and the Westfield Manufacturing Education Initiative to increase interest in heating and cooling systems, water cycles, weather, and the environment.

Mestek Marketing Manager Matt Kleszczynski says the company enjoys supporting the program.

“Kids don’t learn a lot about manufacturing in the classroom, so we open our facility to them and give them tours through the plant, as well as insight into what we do, how we do it, and how their houses get heat and hot water, which is something kids don’t usually think about,” he noted.

The students walk through the entire assembly line, which allows them to see how components to baseboard heating are manufactured. “The tours are conducted by volunteers who provide them with tutelage on each of the specific jobs,” Kleszczynski said. “We like to give back to the community, and this exposes students to alternative professional avenues in the field of manufacturing, which is valuable, as a lot of kids like to work with their hands.”

He added that Mestek has had a long-standing relationship with the WIOC program. “We are busy, but we make sure we schedule time for this.”

Class Act

Patton said The World Is Our Classroom continues to grow, and next October, students from Chicopee Public Schools will visit the Chicopee Water Pollution Control Facility.

In addition, a One Day Medical Encounter program for high-school students that took place in the past is expected to resume next fall. It is focused on the 10th-grade biology curriculum and exposes students to alternative careers in medicine by bringing them into patient-simulation labs at local community colleges.

“These mini-hospital settings provide a real-world environment in which students work directly with healthcare educators while learning about anatomy and physiology, laboratory diagnosis, cell structure, and function and genetics,” Patton said.

Goodroe is proud that the program evolved from United Water’s desire to be a good corporate citizen. “I look forward to the day when I can hire a student who came through the program,” he said, adding that the company operates throughout New England and created a similar program in Killingly, Conn. that allows students to visit a wastewater-treatment plant there.

Patton noted that The World Is Our Classroom is funded by grants, with cooperation from area businesses.

“Our goal is for each program to be self-sustaining,” she said. “But the experiences students have can be life-changing, and it helps businesses to start recruiting tomorrow’s workforce by exposing kids to careers that have great promise.”

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