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'Sewage Stack' Explains Slude for Kids

Click on the trash can for information on sludge; click on the toilet for an introduction to water pollution-where it comes from and how it gets to the Boston Harbor.

The trash can, toilet, and four other similarly distinctive icons represent the major topics in "The Boston Harbor Sewage Stack," a new interactive software program for middle-school kids written by Carolyn A. Levi, communications director at the MIT Sea Grant College Program.

In addition to sludge and an introduction, the other major topics kids can explore through the program are the sewage system, storm sewers and CSOs (combined sewer overflows), the Boston Harbor cleanup, and what they can do to help reduce pollution. All of these sections come complete with interactive graphics (click on a factory to see what wastes it contributes) and even sound effects (click on a toilet handle and the computer audibly flushes).

It all began a little over a year ago, Dr. Levi said, "when I realized that it would be relatively simple to write a program on HyperCard that would teach kids about sewage and the Boston Harbor cleanup." (Over the years Sea Grant has sponsored several efforts targeted at K-12 students; part of its mandate is educational outreach.)

She applied for and received a grant from the Massachusetts Bays Program, and the project took off. After working on the program for seven months she had a product by the end of May 1992.

"It took a lot of time and thought," she said, "but it wasn't conceptually difficult because HyperCard is so easy to work with." What was difficult, she said, was "getting simple text and graphics that told the story together."

Throughout the process, Dr. Levi said, she had a great deal of help from educators at the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, who reviewed the final program "with a fine-tooth comb." She also gave the program to E. Eric Adams, a principal research engineer and senior lecturer in civil engineering who does research on Boston Harbor, and asked several of her colleagues at Sea Grant and their families to play with the program and tell her if and where they had trouble.

Since then more than 100 people and institutions have received the final program, which runs on all Macintosh computers with at least 2MB or RAM (HyperCard comes with the Mac). Those people and institutions include about 50 science teachers who attended the 1992 MIT Summer Institute, the New England Aquarium (which used Sewage Stack in a class it ran over the summer), the Museum of Science (which used the program in its Discovery Room), and graduate students at the MIT Parsons Laboratory who are using Sewage Stack in visits to middle and high schools.

Since the 1992-93 school year has only just begun, Dr. Levi hasn't yet surveyed teachers to get their feedback on the program. But when she does, she plans to ask them how they fit it into their curriculum, and how much kids really learn from it.

As for the future, "in the very long term we want to do this as a series," Dr. Levi said. "We'd like to have available for classrooms at various levels software that teaches the issues that we deal with here at Sea Grant-marine science and technology."

In the meantime, however, she hopes that Sewage Stack will help kids learn a little more about the sewage system and how it affects Boston Harbor. She concluded: "It's another way of getting kids to see where science fits in their lives."

If you would like to order a copy of the Boston Harbor Sewage Stack, or for more information, write Dr. Levi at Rm E38-270, or call her at x3-9309. The program is free for teachers and nonprofit organizations ($5 if you don't send a floppy disk and self-addressed stamped envelope) and $20 for the general public (regardless of whether you send a disk).

A version of this article appeared in the October 7, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 9).

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