Reducing pressure on a wastewater treatment plant to accelerate remediation of a polluted harbour

Maureen Padden
McMaster University
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Students present posters to community partners with strategies to reduce the quantity of water entering a local wastewater treatment plant or to improve the quality of water that needs to be treated. The strategies must be achievable and economic for the majority of people in the community. The presented information will also be summarized in an electronic format for community partners to use in the future for their advocacy work.

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This is a third-year course with students in geography, Earth sciences as well as students in other disciplines who have the prerequisites. Enrollment is typically 100-120 students.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must understand the how the local wastewater treatment plant is connected to Hamilton Harbour's designation as an Area of Concern in the Great Lake system. I will give lectures before and during their project focusing on the history of industrial and sewage pollution in the harbour. A guest speaker from our community partner, the Bay Area Restoration Council, and from a local watershed stewardship organization will also come talk to the students about their role in the remedial action plan.

During the first part of the course, the students will also have an introduction to environmental economics. The models we introduce may help the students develop strategies for changing the behaviors/habits of the general public.

How the activity is situated in the course

The group project is worth 35% of the course grade and begins in the second half of the course.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students integrate their scientific understanding of a local environmental problem with their social science understanding of how to motivate a large group of people to change their behavior.

Students also apply basic economic reasoning to an environmental problem.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students hone their communication skills, including visual, oral and written communication.

Description of the activity/assignment

The wastewater treatment plant in Hamilton, Ontario is unable to keep up with demand during heavy rainstorms. Combined sewage and stormwater lines in the oldest parts of the city trigger outflow of screened sewage directly into the harbour several times each year, after heavy rains. The harbour itself has been the focus of a remediation effort for several decades. Addressing both industrial legacy pollution and the municipal sewage problem is considered to be key to achieving the harbour's "delisting" as an area of concern in the Great Lake watershed.

This project requires students to help Hamilton residents reduce the pressure on the wastewater treatment plant by reducing the amount of water in the sewage system, the amount of water in the stormwater system or by ensuring that the water is relatively free of chemicals pollution. Some pharmaceuticals have been linked to a feminizing effect on the native fish in the harbour (Purdy, 2009). Students develop realistic strategies for residents to adopt and present their findings to a community partner, the Bay Area Restoration Council, involved with the remediation effort.

Students arrange themselves into groups of three or four during a regular lecture. Any students not present at that lecture will be assigned to a group by the instructor. The groups are then charged with writing and signing a contract detailing the responsibilities and consequences of the work. For example, groups may decide how many meetings may be missed and what happens if a member misses too many meetings. Typically, the most stringent consequence is that a member is removed from the group and must complete the assignment, on time, independently. There was one case of this last year.

The groups then sign up to conduct research into one of four different theme areas: grey water, stormwater, water waste in bathrooms and domestic chemicals. They then develop a strategy for an average household to reduce pressure on the wastewater treatment plant in one of these areas. The strategy must be economically feasible for most residents in the city. The groups meet with myself or a teaching assistant at least once during the project to talk about their plan.

The physical posters and electronic versions are all due on the same day and are then displayed in two separate "poster days." Students are given participation marks for giving feedback on notepads hung at each poster. Community partners form a panel of guest judges and talk to the students about their work, ask questions etc. The teaching assistants and I also visit each poster and ask questions. The guest judges award prizes to the best poster in each category (independent of any marks).

Last year, the best ten posters (judged by the guests and the instructors) were also invited to present their posters at the annual general meeting of the community partner. Members of the public circulated among the posters and talked to students about their work. Members of the press were also present. This annual meeting took place after the semester had ended. The plan for the next version of this project is to send the electronic files out to community partners so they can display them on their web pages or print them out and display them in offices, schools or other public places.

Determining whether students have met the goals

We will evaluate posters and brochures with a rubric targeting the effectiveness of the presentation, the effectiveness of the strategy and if it can reasonably be adopted by the average household in the community. A group contract and peer participation mark are also part of the project evaluation. The contract is intended to help the groups ensure that each individual is contributing to the project. Students assign the participation marks to their group mates and to themselves and part of the participation mark is satisfied when they leave written feedback at the other posters.

The marking key for the posters is attached below. The marking key was developed with the students during a scheduled lecture. They then voted on the relative weighting between "Style" or effective communication and "Content."

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Purdy, J. 2009, Effects of acetominophen and gemfibrozil on reproductive endpoints in zebrafish (Danio rerio), Ph.D. thesis, McMaster University.

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