July 2010, Vol. 22, No.7

Small Communities

Majoring in Decentralized Wastewater Management

John R. Buchanan

It is frequently stated that knowledge comes from experience. Because you have found this article, it is likely that you have experience (and, therefore, knowledge) about some aspect of wastewater collection, treatment, dispersal, and/or management. Our chosen profession has many knowledgeable individuals who provide technical solutions to municipalities that have wastewater problems. However, there is a highly specialized topic within the wastewater industry that is in need of fresh faces and new minds that can think beyond a 200-mm-diameter (8-in.-diameter) gravity sewer line — individual and small community wastewater systems.

This is not to say that small community systems have been ignored. Our predecessors in this specialized topic have set a high bar for professionalism and creative engineering. Small communities have greatly benefited from the practitioners who gained knowledge about how small systems are different from regional wastewater systems. These engineers and scientists understood that the soil is a unit process that can provide dependable wastewater renovation.

Knowledge has been generated from their experience. However, we face a problem. The common denominator of these practitioners is that most of them are older than 60. Many of these knowledgeable individuals are now sorting through their tackle boxes rather than sorting out problems with small wastewater systems.

These individuals did not receive college coursework on decentralized wastewater management (DWM); they took what they learned about big systems and developed solutions for individual and small community wastewater systems. They solved problems for their clients and for their communities. They found out what worked and what didn’t — risking their reputations by trying new technologies. As an industry, we must find a means of preserving this knowledge and deliver this experience-based information to the next generation of wastewater professionals.

Available Teaching Tools

Where does a student go to learn about decentralized wastewater treatment and management? Much has been learned about how to decentralize our approach to renovating wastewater, yet very little of this information is presented at the college level. In response to this, the Consortium of Institutes for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment (CIDWT) developed academic curricula for the education of future wastewater professionals. Funded by a grant from the National Decentralized Water Resources Capacity Development Project (now known as the Decentralized Water Resources Collaborative), CIDWT academic members produced a series of ready-to-use educational modules for engineering and science students. These modules include instructor’s guides, reference materials, slide presentations, and homework assignments (with answers).

While the modules were mostly written by CIDWT academic members, the reviewers provided field experience. CIDWT recruited installers, manufacturers, regulators, and practicing engineers to review the modules. This process strengthened the practical application of these educational instruments.

Before these modules were made available, they were “test-driven” in classrooms. Each writer was asked to teach from the modules, with the students serving as the final reviewers. Feedback from students was used to fine-tune the presentations and add clarity where students had questions.

The CIDWT curriculum for university courses can be found online at www.onsiteconsortium.org/univ_curric.html. According to the Web site, the target audience for the materials is third- and fourth-year engineering students. The modules also can be adapted for undergraduate and graduate-level university courses in environmental health and other nonengineering curricula. 

Creating the Demand

Creating the modules was the easy part. The hard part is getting the modules into the classroom. Before a class can be offered, there has to be a demand. Students must want to take DWM courses, and employers must seek students with DWM instruction.

This is where you have a role to play. We need you to help create this demand.

If you see the benefit of the DWM approach, we need you to ask your local college or university whether it has provided its students with any level of appreciation for this specialized topic. If the professors in these colleges and universities see that there is a competitive advantage for their institutions in providing DWM instruction, changes can be made to the academic curriculum.

Another way that professionals with DWM experience can help create and maintain interest in DWM education is by guest-lecturing. There are many engineering and environmental science professors; however, only a few have direct experience in this industry.


Preparing for Tomorrow

In reality, it is unlikely that universities will develop entire majors in DWM. However, with the proper encouragement, colleges and universities will include the relevant concepts as feasible alternatives to traditional, large-scale central sewer systems.

The current economy has inflicted great damage to the talent pool within the DWM industry. During the housing boom, small communities were growing and needed engineering and science support. Small-system practitioners were hiring the next generation of professionals. Unfortunately, many of the new faces that were being trained are now working in other areas.

The economy will recover, and the demand for this talent will return. In the meantime, it’s important that, as an industry, we continue to introduce fresh faces to the DWM approach.


John R. Buchanan is an associate professor in the Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science Department at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) and chair of the 2008–2009 executive board of the Consortium of Institutes for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment.

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