Vail Daily column: Connecting lessons in the real world

Ali Stefancich
Valley Voices
Tim Drescher shows students how solids settle out during the wastewater treatment process.
Walking Mountains Science Center | Special to the Daily |

“It smells like my turtle,” exclaimed a young fifth-grader from Avon Elementary School covering his nose, but not the huge grin on his face. What is he referring to? The smell of the Wastewater Treatment Facility in Avon during a tour his class took as a supplemental field trip to their natural science curriculum.

“It’s cool to learn how to take care of nature and fix problems,” said one student.

“It was a lot of fun. I enjoy getting to actually try and figure things out instead of just thinking about it,” said another student as the class completed a mock oil spill cleanup.

These types of experiences are what Walking Mountains Science Center’s Avon In-School program run in partnership with Eagle County Schools is all about. Once a week, for 45 minutes, Avon Elementary School students join me for natural science education that complements standardized, state-approved science curricula. By meeting with teachers and studying the curricula, I use fun and interactive lessons to supplement the school-provided science education with lessons about local ecology and sustainability.

Recently my fifth-graders, in their explorations of the water cycle and pollution, experimented with water filtration. I simulated an oil spill, dirtying water with regular household cooking oil. The fifth-graders then used a variety of materials and methods to clean up the “pollution.” Students tried using spoons, sponges, detergents, filters and powders to purify the water. Even the most effective method still left the water slightly grimy. Some groups even found that their purification efforts resulted in secondary messes that were equally difficult to clean. Not only did the kids have a memorable and interactive class, they gained respect for the difficulties environmental organizations can face when trying to remedy pollution.

Support Local Journalism

To bring the lesson full circle, we recently visited Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Wastewater Treatment Facility in Avon so they could compare their techniques for clearning up oil spills with how cities treat wastewater. While most people would pass on the opportunity to see and smell wastewater, the kids were ecstatic. They learned how inorganic and organic materials are removed and got a chance to look at live microorganisms under a microscope. Most importantly, they left with information about what can be sent down the drain and what can’t, information they can use to educate their family and friends.

Experiments that engage students while connecting the lesson to real-world problems have a profound effect. After each day spent with my Avon Elementary School students, we have a discussion about what they learned. After cleaning up the “oil spill,” Cassie said, “Today I learned it is challenging to fix environmental problems so it’s better not to make them in the first place.”

After the Wastewater Treatment Facility tour, a student said, “I learned my mom shouldn’t flush baby wipes anymore because it gives Tim (our tour guide) headaches.” While this gave everyone a chuckle, it was great to see them taking what they learned and turning it into action.

These experiences reinforce the effectiveness of Walking Mountains Science Center’s Avon In-School program. We introduce students to a multi-dimensional approach to science; one where they can apply what they learn in the classroom to the world around them and think critically about the importance of science and sustainability.

Ali Stefancich is the Avon In-School instructor for Walking Mountains Science Center and can be reached at

Support Local Journalism