Building More than Just Reservoirs: How Hillsboro, OR Turned Infrastructure into Engagement

ARTICLE | Aug 24, 2012

What do a new water reservoir, a tailgate party and workforce education have in common?  For the City of Hillsboro, Oregon Water Department, it was the perfect way to introduce the new 10 million gallon concrete reservoir to the neighborhood.  Rather than hold the typical open house in a government building with a PowerPoint presentation and talking heads, the fun folks at the Water Department thought it would be far more relaxing to invite the neighbors to a barbeque at the future reservoir site and just chat over hamburgers and root beer floats.

Staff set up tents, some chairs and fired up the barbeque and did something that in today’s fast-paced, online-centric world may seem old-fashioned: face-to-face talking with the neighbors.  And, the neighbors asked plenty of questions including what the impact of the reservoir would be on the water supply, how the drainage pond would affect mosquitoes, and what could be done to minimize construction noise impacts on a resident’s homing pigeons.

The barbeque open house was held almost one year before construction began, but it set the stage for innovative thinking for the Water Department.  The creative energy for the reservoir project became contagious as staff began to think about different ways to engage the community in this important project. 

Though water storage is vital to a community, access to safe drinking water is widely taken for granted in the United States.  Often, drinking water infrastructure goes unnoticed because of its quiet odor-free nature.  Getting people involved and excited about water infrastructure can be challenging, but not for the Hillsboro Water Department.

The Hillsboro reservoir is located across the street from Evergreen Middle School, so when construction began in spring 2012, it caught the attention of both the teachers and the students. An across-the-street field trip was a win-win for everyone so the reservoir project became an educational partnership.  It gave the City an opportunity to showcase tax dollars at work and it gave students an opportunity to get up close and personal with the project and learn about the technology used as well as possible career opportunities in water engineering.  It instantly became more than some big machines digging dirt and making noise. 

Ashwin Datta, a seventh grader at Evergreen Middle School was particularly intrigued to see a trailer full of control panels and monitors during a site tour. “You mean you run this whole construction site with computers?” Ashwin asked.  As an aspiring computer scientist or possible future engineer, Ashwin was thrilled to discover that computer and engineering sciences are so closely related he may be able to combine both passions into a dream job someday. 

Providing opportunities of discovery is precisely the reason that Hillsboro Water, CH2M Hill, the engineering firm for the project, and Ward Henshaw Construction decided to partner over the next two years with Evergreen Middle School to provide students an opportunity for hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning. Hillsboro Water is  offering a special one-time reservoir course to provide interested students with an opportunity to explore engineering principles through real life experiences.  The program will include tours, puzzle-solving, and earthquake simulations, all with an emphasis on engineering and technology.  Ashwin was the first student to sign on for the class and said, “I am excited because it is about engineering, and it’s going to be at the reservoir site so that sounds interesting.”

STEM jobs are the jobs of the future and are essential for developing the City’s technological innovation and global competitiveness.  The City of Hillsboro is Oregon’s fifth largest city with 92,530 people.  Situated in the heart of what is known as the “Silicon Forest”, the City of Hillsboro is helping to grow Oregon’s future and is often referred to as the economic engine of the state. Hillsboro is home to numerous high tech and clean tech companies, including Intel, Genentech, SolarWorld, TriQuint, Lattice Semi-Conductor and RadiSys, that continuously need a trained and educated workforce.  Intel, Genentech and SolarWorld alone have almost 18,000 employees. Oregon's economic growth depends on its ability to fill replacement and future STEM jobs and statewide estimates indicate by 2018, Oregon will need to fill 109,000 STEM related jobs.

The partnership between Hillsboro Water and Evergreen Middle School is beneficial to both because schools are struggling to fund STEM programs and Hillsboro Water has a stake in developing a future generation of engineers who can design and build infrastructure projects.  Evergreen Principal, Rian Petrick agrees,  “In these difficult economic times, where our schools are challenged by shrinking resources, we are thrilled to have this opportunity for our students to authentically participate in a real life Science and Engineering project." 

Who said water infrastructure and reservoirs has to be dry and boring? Certainly not the employees of the Hillsboro Water Department who are building awareness, excitement and a future plentiful supply of water in Hillsboro.

Please contact Tacy Steele at 503-615-6732 for information about this program or email her at tacys@ci.hillsboro.or.us.

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