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The City of Portland, Oregon

Portland Water Bureau

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PSU Capstone Partnership

PSU Capstone Partnership

The Portland Water Bureau has been a long-time partner of the Portland State University Senior Capstone program. The Senior Capstone program is a community-based learning opportunity for students in their senior year of undergraduate studies. This unique academic-water utility partnership helps students learn how to make informed decisions about the future of water systems for themselves, their families, and their communities. It also serves to educate the next generation of potential water management professionals.

Course Background
Through the vision and direction of Professor Catherine Howells, Ph.D., the Portland Water Bureau and Portland State University (PSU) have forged a dynamic partnership to teach the course titled Portland's Water: History and Challenges.

Access to safe drinking water is essential for human survival, however society has become disconnected from this vital issue. In urban areas where populations are concentrated, citizens have little need to think about drinking water sources and the integrity of the infrastructure that delivers it, and thus are not necessarily educated consumers or water system advocates. Very little information about drinking water systems is taught in universities. 

Portland's Water: History and Challenges serves to address this deficit in education of public utilities information. This successful partnership between the Portland Water Bureau and PSU has the potential to serve as a model of how to build bridges between water utilities and their local universities in other major urban areas.

Course Description:
Portland’s Water focuses on the Bull Run Watershed (the source of Portland's drinking water), the delivery system and the work of the Portland Water Bureau to deliver safe drinking water to Portland’s taps. The students, with majors ranging from biochemistry to sociology and GIS to history, enroll in Portland's Water knowing almost nothing about how their water is delivered to the tap. By the end of a ten-week term, they have become informed citizens who share their excitement about tap water with their friends and neighbors. Course Content includes:

1. The history of the Portland Water Bureau;
2. Engineering, operations and maintenance of the distribution system;
3. Water quality and regulatory requirements;
4. Asset management;
5. Watershed protection and conservation;
6. Resilience; and
7. The intersection between climate change and drinking water; and
8. The influence of public involvement, outreach, and education.

The course content is brought to life with guest lectures from Portland Water Bureau subject matter experts, as well as field trips to the watershed and in-town facilities. Students learn in an inquiry based format that promotes critical thinking.  They are encouraged to ask questions of the diverse Portland Water Bureau experts who share their knowledge. Meeting these experts in person has a powerful impact on how the students relate to the Portland Water Bureau. They learn that expertise and pride in delivering clean drinking water is pervasive throughout the Portland Water Bureau.

Throughout the term, Capstone students work with the Water Bureau to develop community outreach products to inform their fellow citizens about the water system. Students produce thoughtfully researched ideas and proof of concept models that are then presented, or “pitched” to the Water Bureau as the “client”. This engagement model provides real lessons for students about creativity, teamwork, and accountability.

Projects are based on the student’s own original ideas and have included such diverse products as branding initiatives, public monument designs, videos, GIS and interactive maps, songs, board games, a zine, pamphlets, card games, and children's books.

Course Outcomes:
The active learning process and accountability to the Water Bureau as a community partner not only provides students with practical experience, but also serves to create informed citizens and inspires students to consider public service as a career path.

Conversely, the creativity of the student projects validates and inspires the Portland Water Bureau's staff, and provides the public affairs group with new ways to energize citizens about drinking water issues.

Perhaps the best way to describe the impact this PSU course has had on the students is to share their experiences in their own words:

“I look forward to sharing what I have learned with anyone who is willing to listen. I now realize the importance of a good water delivery system and how important it is to educate the public. I feel proud to live in an area with such a great water supply. I will never look at my clean, cold, cheap and constant glass of refreshing water the same way again.”

“I think the take home message I learned from this class that will stick with me is how insanely difficult it is to manage a public utility.... It seems to me that everyone should have this same understanding of what it takes to successfully run and manage a public utility.”

“This class has been a unique experience that has been different from the majority of classes I have taken at Portland State. The thing that made this class special was the personal interaction we got to have with the places we were learning about as well as the public servants at the Water Bureau who work on a daily basis to resolve problems in order to ensure Portlanders possess the best quality drinking water possible.”

“The course gave the opportunity to gain inside knowledge from a wide-ranging group of colorful, knowledgeable, and dedicated people at the Portland Water Bureau. The chance to learn from and form relationships with such professionals is an experience that I will not soon forget. It was a pleasure and an honor to gain and apply skills with fellow students that helped develop community outreach products for the Portland Water Bureau. The hands-on experience and community involvement was priceless.”

Read more quotes from past capstone students.

About the Project Coordinator
Catherine Howells is a passionate advocate for teaching about drinking water at the university level. She has researched the history and current state of water utilities throughout the United States and she is also the Faculty Advisor to the AWWA Student Chapter at PSU. Catherine created the Portland's Water curriculum with the Portland Water Bureau and PSU. As a PSU Adjunct Assistant Professor, she has been teaching her class for several years, every term, to packed houses and rave reviews.

Catherine is uniquely qualified to help create these partnerships between public utilities and academia. She has a PhD in History from UCLA and spent twenty years in international business where she created new processes for managing IT standardization and bridging cultures and technologies. She is now creating bridges between water utilities and universities.