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Portrait of a Graduate: AVID Tour OWASA

CMS AVID at OWASA Sixteen 7th grade AVID students from Culbreth Middle School (CMS) spent nearly four hours at the OWASA (Orange Water and Sewer Authority) facilities on November 10.  Led by Water Supply and Treatment Manager, Monica Dodson, the tour began with a brief introduction to the history of the water plant and ended with a pizza Lunch and Learn. When the students arrived by bus that morning, it’s unlikely any of them could name specific features of the public utility; however, when the tour wrapped up, they had heard a wide range of information, detailing the importance and complex operations of OWASA in our community. One student observed in a follow-up reflection, “I learned that it takes a lot of time and a lot of people to clean the water, and that it takes a lot of equipment and steps to get the water for us to use.”

The OWASA “STEM tour” is part of a series of Public School Foundation (PSF) funded experiential learning opportunities for 7th grade AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) students in all four CHCCS middle schools. The goal is to show students numerous STEM opportunities in order to encourage enrollment in STEM classes in high schools, and to help them make informed decisions about post-secondary education and careers. As highlighted in the Portrait of a Graduate in the Strategic Plan 2027, “Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is committed to providing all of its students with the knowledge, experiences and opportunities necessary for them to develop the competencies required for success in school, the workforce, and in life.”

Madeline Blobe, PSF executive director said, "The program aligns with the curriculum and exposes students to real world applications of what they are learning in the classroom. We all learn better by seeing and doing. These are the types of opportunities that ignite a love of learning. The Foundation helps empower teachers with grant funding for unique opportunities like this trip."


The first stop on the tour was a view of the “floc tanks,” the large pools of dark water where solids form into flocs, or clusters, in order to be removed from the wastewater (a process called flocculation). The water was murky and unfiltered, and students seemed impressed by HOW unappetizing it appeared.  After several students called out, “You mean we drink that water?” another student noted with seeming dismay, “It sure looks like soy sauce.”

But then the students learned about sedimentation and filtration processes and how stormwater and wastewater can be recycled. In one room, they saw the monitors that allow staff to view various sites on the OWASA campus as well as Jones Ferry Lake and Cane Creek reservoir. Dodson showed them the huge graph that charts water usage from the major tanks in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and she pointed out the dramatic downturn from 2018, when one water main broke and hobbled water supplies for much of the town.                                                                                                  

The size and complexity of various machines caught the attention of many students, especially the enormous belt filter press, which removes water from sludge (wastewater residuals) and transforms it into “cake.” There were quite a few wrinkled noses and “eeeww’s” as they watched Dodson break off a piece of cake to show them the solid byproduct. 

OWASA tour for AVID

From the spaces with big tanks and machines, Dodson took students to a laboratory where chemists run tests on water from the plant, as well as from the lakes and reservoirs that feed the plant. A laboratory analyst showed them how to test for coliform, as well as measure the level of chlorine and water hardness. Each student had a chance to step up to a microscope and view an algae sample from Cane Creek reservoir.  Lab analyst OWASA

The maintenance supervisor later introduced them to concepts like centrifugal force, hydraulics and chemical fusion. Finally, they met a utilities engineer who showed them schematics with different readings from the water supply distribution system, asking them questions about how they would interpret the colored maps.

After students had seen much of the plant, they gathered for lunch to hear entertaining and illuminating “career path” talks from six of the managers and supervisors. 

Culbreth AVID teacher John Denniston said, “Careerwise, I think it was impactful for students to see how you don't need to have your entire life/career plan mapped out early on. Each individual whose story we heard fell upon a career they loved at OWASA by chance; it wasn't a plan they had from middle school onward. This was impactful because my students often stress out and ask questions about far into the future, as though they need to have it planned already.”

OWASA maintenance

The $25,000 Achievers Grant from PSF was developed by Lead District Science Coach, Valerie Sellars. She said, “It is my pleasure to connect students with experiential learning opportunities that inspire and affirm each student that they can do STEM work."

Blobe said of the impact provided by grant funding, “Gifts from our generous community make programs like this possible and are not only an investment in our children, but also in our future."

Thank you to the OWASA staff who patiently and generously shared their knowledge and experiences with our students:

Monica Dodson, Water Supply and Treatment Manager
Brad McBane, Operations Supervisor at the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant
James Dodson, Maintenance Supervisor
Blake Morgan, Laboratory Analyst at the Jones Ferry Road Water Treatment Plant
Simon Lobdell, Utilities Engineer 
Blake Hodge, Communications Specialist