“Oh! That felt really weird,” Keelin Mathews said.
The 15-year-old was scooping macro invertebrates out of a tub of water, when a crayfish brushed against her plastic spoon, startling her.
The Common Ground High School student (at right in photo) never thought much about the little critters in water, or what their presence means to water quality. But after a few hours on the banks of the Mill River, she said, “It does make sense.”
Keelin, along with nine other students from her high school, was participating in the fourth Water Boot Camp, a week-long program designed to introduce high school students to environmental-related careers at public water utilities like the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority.
While Keelin said she’s not convinced she wants a career working for a water authority, it’s not completely off the table.
“I really do like biology,” she said. “With more experiences like this, maybe it could happen.”
Even a maybe is good news to the ears of Regional Water Authority President and CEO Larry Bingaman (pictured in the photo at center). Bingaman’s workforce is aging out—plenty of jobs will be available at his shop in years to come. He has hopes that exposing young people to career opportunities with the water authority now will make them prime candidates for hiring in the future.
Students like 16-year-old Tyrone Walker (pictured) are the kinds of young future employees water utilities would like to attract. Science is a close second to math in terms of Tyrone’s favorite subjects at school. He doesn’t know what kind of career he wants to pursue; he decided to participate in the boot camp to try something new.
“I still don’t know yet,” he said of whether he’d consider a career with a water authority. “Maybe.”
Bingaman said public utilities hire people with all kinds of backgrounds such as the obvious environmental sciences, but also the not so obvious, like business or engineering.
He said many people find their way into the field purely by accident. The boot camp is designed to steer people into the industry in a more intentional manner.
Bingaman was one of those people who found his way into the public utility industry by accident. He got his start working for an oil company, and went on to work for a defense contractor before he was recruited to work for the water authority.
“I’ve found it to be a rewarding and exciting career,” he said.
But it’s an exciting career in an industry that is rapidly aging.
In the case of the water authority, Bingaman said, in the next five years half of the workforce will be eligible for retirement. He said he’s not expecting the work force to retire all at once. But he said it means “that there are going to be opportunities, and we want them to know how to get ready when they go to college.”
In addition to getting a chance to wade in the Mill River, collect water samples and specimens such as stone flies and water pennies, the students also get to hang out with people like John Triana and Lisa DiFrancisco (pictured in the photo at left), who both work for the authority and actually have backgrounds in the environment.
Triana (pictured), who is the authority’s real estate manager, and DiFrancisco, an educator for the authority, spent Wednesday wading into the water with the students and helping them identify all of the things they discovered in the water.
“I found a crayfish,” 16-year-old Ben Weingart called out. Ben (pictured above) would find several crayfish throughout the morning in addition to snails, eels and various types of flies.
He attributed his eye for invertebrates “to luck more than anything.” He likes science but is much more interested in writing.
A week-long boot camp on water authority careers hasn’t changed his plans to become a novelist, but it’s been a good reason to get out of the house. “I was tired of sitting around at home,” he said.
Jalyn Johnson (pictured squatting in the water) said she was already a fan of science. She is leaning toward a career in forensic toxicology, or “something with a setting in a laboratory.” After a morning spent turning over rocks, in water nearly up to her hips, the 15-year-old said she still preferred the lab to being outside, but she did enjoy finding the crayfish and learned a lot about water.
“I used to think water was just water,” she said. “I didn’t really care about the things that lived in it.”
Through the course of the week the students are exposed to other positions in the authority including environmental analyst, watershed protection specialist, and water quality analyst. Bingaman said the students also work on individual projects that they present at the last day of camp as part of a graduation ceremony.
Aaliyah Lopez, 17, said she wanted to participate in the boot camp to see what it was all about.
She’s still undecided about a career, but she said she had fun. “Especially being out at the second site,” she said of wading and collecting specimen near the Lake Whitney waterfall. “I really enjoyed how we all came together and learned different things.”