Daily Southtown: Lisa Sowa-Downs was searching last spring for an activity for her Cub Scout Pack, a group that includes 28 Scouts from Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood and East Side, as well as Whiting and Crown Point, Indiana.
Sowa-Downs, of Hegewisch, thought of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s nearby Calumet Water Reclamation Plant at 400 E 130th St. and began noodling round on the MWRD’s website. She found a children’s book about the make-believe journey of three curious preteens who enjoy researching water science related topics. Their tale of exploration reveals what happens after they flush the toilet.
A quest to find out what happens to “number one and two” may seem an unsavory topic, but the National Association of Clean Water Agencies recently honored the animated version of the book, “Where Does IT Go?” with a 2022 Environmental Achievement Award for public information and education video. The video features the book’s pages with narration and some sidebars containing additional information.
Offering an important lesson about water treatment, the book and video feature colorful illustrations, an easy-to-understand story, and plenty of science-related games and puzzles. MWRD also made the book available in Spanish, Chinese and Polish.
“When COVID hit, we were always looking for things to do online,” said Sowa-Downs who serves as a committee chair for Cub Scout Pack 773. “We’re also always looking for STEM related activities that introduce scouts to careers in science. This program really fit in.”
Sowa-Downs ended up ordering free print copies of the book from MWRD. Soon after, she and other Pack 773 volunteers delivered copies to Scouts’ homes.
Rebecca Wooley, MWRD public affairs specialist, conducted four presentations for Pack 773′s 28 members via Zoom. She modified each presentation for different age groupings, from kindergarten to fifth grade.
“For the younger kids, it was more about where things go and what not to put down the toilet,” Sowa-Downs said. “For the Webelos Scouts, it was more about testing to clean the water and learning about what is required to be an engineer — that a college degree is needed — and who works for the district. They learned a lot about job possibilities.”
Besides community groups like Cub Scout Pack 773, the book is also intended for elementary school students, said Allison Fore, MWRD’s public and intergovernmental affairs officer.
“It started out as a PowerPoint presentation, and we decided to make it into a book,” she said. “We basically brainstormed about what can we do to draw interest to what we do, and what are questions children ask?”
Young readers first meet water science explorers Yadira, Paul and Jessica, at SEPA station number 4. The Sidestream Elevated Pool Aeration is one of five facilities in Cook County featuring waterfalls that oxygenate water along the Cal-Sag Channel and Calumet Rivers.
The three explorers discuss their preliminary library research, which takes them back in time to the early 1900s, when raw sewage was dumped directly into the Chicago River.
A historic 1923 photo of the first water reclamation plant revealed the Calumet facility Sowa-Downs’s Cub Scouts and their families frequently drive past this on the Bishop Ford Freeway.
The oldest of MWRD’s seven reclamation plants, the Calumet serves 300 square miles in southern Cook County. That area includes Alsip, Blue Island, Bridgeview, Burbank, Burnham. Calumet City, Calumet Park, Chicago, Chicago Ridge, Country Club Hills, Crestwood, Dixmoor, Dolton, East Hazel Crest, Evergreen Park, Flossmoor, Ford Heights, Frankfort, Glenwood, Harvey, Hazel Crest, Hickory Hills, Homewood, Lansing, Lynwood, Markham, Matteson, Merrionette Park, Midlothian, Oak Forest, Oak Lawn, Olympia Fields, Orland Hills, Orland Park, Palos Heights, Palos Hills, Palos Park, Phoenix, Posen, Richton Park, Riverdale, Robbins, Sauk Village, South Chicago Heights, South Holland, Steger, Thornton, Tinley Park and Worth.
For the three young explorers, the magical part of the journey begins in Yadira’s bathroom. They take a ride down the toilet inside of a water bottle turned special underwater vessel. In doing this, they learn where dirty water flows — from homes through the sewer system below, then on to the reclamation plants. The journey shatters assumptions that flushing takes waste straight out to sea.
The first step to cleaning the water involves removing large debris, a process that reveals a notable irony. Readers learn that flushable wipes should never be flushed because they clog the screens at water treatment plants.
Next steps in the water treatment process include letting solids settle to the bottom of huge tanks, then unleashing microbes to remove harmful bacteria. Aeration, much like what happens at the SEPA waterfalls, also helps to purify the water.
The entire treatment process takes about 12 hours and requires constant monitoring and testing by technicians, engineers and scientists.
Treated water eventually enters the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Remaining solid waste undergoes additional treatment to be turned into compost for enriching soil.
The book journey ends at Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood along the Chicago River. Here, the explorers learn that almost a century of progress with water treatment has restored 70 species of fish to Chicago area waterways.
For Cub Scout Pack 773, reading the book and participating in related activities may not have warranted a merit badge, but the lesson still had plenty of merit.
“I think exercises like these help kids see what they need to be learning now so they can focus on careers later in life,” Sowa-Downs said.
Still, for those wanting substantiation of the lesson, the book contains a Certificate of STEM Excellence.
“I used to take piano and received a certificate for completing lessons, so I thought we should put a certificate in the back,” said Fore. She helped create and organize the book along with other MWRD staff members and graphic artist Mary Bowers.
The MWRD website features plenty of other educational materials and suggests additional lessons for community groups, including planting milkweed to attract monarch butterflies, another activity taken on by the scouts. More information is at www.mwrd.org.