Taking Treatment Plants to the Classroom

A 360-degree virtual plant tour expands WSSC Water’s outreach and helps the staff keep up with a growing volume of schools’ requests

Taking Treatment Plants to the Classroom

Nicole Horvath, environmental outreach coordinator, led the creation of the virtual tour of the WSSC Water wastewater treatment plants.

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WSSC Water faced increasing demands for student tours but didn’t have rooms large enough or sufficient staff to accommodate as many as 90 students at one time. 

In response the utility created an award-winning Introduction to Wastewater Treatment Virtual Unit for educators that highlights two of its wastewater treatment plants with a virtual tour and a curriculum guide. 

WSSC Water, Maryland’s largest water and sewer utility, serves about 2 million customers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and covers a 1,000-square-mile service area. It has nearly 6,000 miles of water distribution pipeline and more than 5,600 miles of sewers. 

“Requests for adult groups and other public tours were manageable because those groups are usually smaller,” says Nicole Horvath, environmental outreach coordinator. “But large student groups were more and more difficult to facilitate.” When COVID came along the tours were paused, but educators still came to the utility looking for options. 

Finding inspiration

Horvath saw a nature center virtual tour online with 360-degree photos and thought that technology could help fulfill all the requests for school tours. The idea was to create a virtual tour of the wastewater treatment plants for students to view in their classrooms. That way, Horvath reasoned, schools could avoid the expense and staff time of putting tours together. 

She ran the idea past two treatment plant operators, Bradley Yeakle from the Seneca plant, and Brian Persing from the Piscataway plant. They thought it was a great idea; they helped Horvath with pictures of the plants and reviewed her content. 

“It didn’t take us long to review the content because we know our plants so well,” says Yeakle. Persing and other operators at his plant took pictures and determined the best angles to capture the treatment steps. Intern Aki Stephens and staff photographer Ronald Williams also contributed. The entire project was completed in-house. 

Horvath observes, “We finished the program for middle and high school students in six months while still doing our regular jobs. We worked on the virtual tour when we had some extra time. There was no cost to create the tour. If you have the free Google Earth app, it is pretty user-friendly to design.” They started work in spring 2021 and finished in fall 2021. 

Educator outreach

Once the virtual tour was completed and reviewed by other staff members, Horvath took it to the schools. The educators loved it but wanted a total curriculum package. Utility staff took the curriculum from an existing teacher training day and added the tour program to it. 

That gave teachers the complete package they needed to instruct their students. They walk younger students through the tour online or display it on a smart board. Older students receive a link by way of their desk computers. Students complete worksheets as they navigate the tour. They can follow along at their desks as their teacher uses the facility guide provided as part of the program. 

Along with 360-degree views of the facilities, the students observe the various treatment processes. A video embedded in the tour shows all the extra work the operators go through to collect and dispose of items people improperly flush down the toilet.  

Teachers and students are pleased with the program, according to Horvath. As of spring 2023, some 800 students who were not able to take an in-person tour of the facilities had seen the virtual tour. It is available to any school in the service area: public, private and homeschooled. 

More applications

The virtual tour concept has uses beyond the classroom. The Piscataway plant is working on a bio-energy project, and Persing thought that a virtual tour would be a great tool to use for that project. When completed, he plans to use it for onboarding team members. 

The original virtual tour is also used along with hands-on lab activities in a day-long Sewer Science education program for high school students. In addition, other area utilities have asked for Horvath’s help in putting a virtual tour together for use in employee training. 

For ingenuity in creating the tour, WSSC Water received the 2023 National Environmental Achievement Award in public information and education from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. 

“Receiving this award from NACWA reinforces our commitment to educate tomorrow’s leaders on our clean-water mission,” says Kishia Powell, general manager and CEO. “We hope to pique young and curious minds and instill a desire to join us in protecting the environment.” 

Horvath observes, “We’re one of the largest utilities in the country, and we are always willing to share how we created this virtual tour with other utilities.” 

Utilities interested in creating their own virtual tour may contact the WSSC Water education team at communityoutreach@wsscwater.com. Information about WSSC Water’s full suite of educational programs is available at wsscwater.com/steam.


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