Agencies in Minnesota use an innovative approach to educate students about the relationship between wastewater and groundwater.


To help instill environmental awareness and a stewardship ethic in students, educators are "flushing them down the toilet" in Pine County, Minn. The activity, part of the annual Freshwater Festival for fifth grade students, is sponsored by the Pokegama Lake Association, and it includes students from Mora, Hinckley and Pine City.

At the event, classes rotate through five stations where students learn about protection, preservation and conservation of water resources in a fun atmosphere. This year, Gretchen Sabel, subsurface sewage treatment system coordinator, and staffer Barb McCarthy from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, presented the components of wastewater and the septic system.

Fun and affordable

Sabel found the Flush the Kids activity at the website of the Cape Cod (Mass.) Groundwater Guardian Team (www.capecodgroundwater.org). "Finding the YouTube video of how it worked made it so simple," she says.

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Sabel chose cardboard boxes from a snowblower and a refrigerator to become the toilet and septic tank. "Be sure to use heavy-duty boxes because they get a lot of use," she says. "We had more than 150 kids crawl through them."

Piping connecting the two boxes and signifying the drainfield consisted of kiddie play tunnels. After cutting a large, rectangular hole in the side of the refrigerator box, Sabel covered it with garden fencing from her backyard. She bought fleece to illustrate the scum and sludge layers and loosely sewed them to the wire to create pockets.

To assemble the treatment train, Sabel cut holes in the boxes to insert the tunnels, then labeled the inlet and outlet pipe openings in the "septic tank." More labels identified the scum layer, effluent and sludge layer on the front of the box, which Sabel covered with an artificial putting green.

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"I laid an old drape over the snowblower box, then mounted the rear of the toilet seat to a piece of wood for stability before putting it in position," she says. The drainfield discharged to a lake, represented by a pan of water. Next to it, bottled water covered with more putting green signified groundwater.

Making 'sewage'

Meanwhile, McCarthy assembled sewage packages: food storage bags with slips of colored paper labeled as grease, solids, bacteria, phosphorous and nitrogen. "Barb thought of adding a sheet of toilet paper to make the concept of solids real for the kids," says Sabel.

Sabel and McCarthy coached the students on where the contaminants were treated and why it is important to remove phosphorous and nitrogen. Then teachers "flushed" them down the toilet to an appropriate sound effect from McCarthy's laptop computer. As the kids crawled through with their sewage packages, they put the solids slip of paper in the sludge layer and the grease slip in the scum layer.

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Emerging from the drainfield, they left the bacteria and phosphorous slips where they would bind up in the soil. Once out in the environment, they put the nitrogen slip next to the lake, then took a bottle of water.

"It reinforced the importance of properly treating wastewater because it eventually becomes someone's drinking water," says Sabel.


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