Students Win $20,000 Samsung Prize to Study Wisconsin Island’s Wastewater Challenges

Students Win $20,000 Samsung Prize to Study Wisconsin Island’s Wastewater Challenges

Breanna McGrane (from left), Jake Kooiker, Aidan Purinton, Joseph Lux and Spencer Johnson discuss the results of their testing involving wet wipes. (Photos courtesy of Washington Island School)

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Washington Island lies in Lake Michigan off the end of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula. It’s home to about 800 year-round residents; the summer population swells to about 2,000.

That’s not counting thousands of tourists who ride ferryboats from the mainland to enjoy great scenery, restaurants, shopping, hiking, bicycling, and a slow, quiet pace of life. The island’s geology and the seasonal spike in residents and visitors creates challenges in managing wastewater from the island’s septic systems (about 800) and holding tanks (about 200, mostly at summer residents’ homes).

Eighth graders at the Washington Island School are tackling those challenges head-on. Under teacher Miranda Dahlke, they’re applying skills in science, technology, engineering and math to help educate residents and visitors about septic systems and how to use them properly. Their project, chosen as best in the state under the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest, earned them a $20,000 technology grant this year.


To enter the Solve for Tomorrow Contest, the students had to work on the solution to a community problem. Dahlke and her students chose to focus on wastewater. A centralized treatment plant would be prohibitively expensive and difficult to construct on the island’s limestone substrate. It would also disrupt the island’s treasured scenery and be complex to operate because of the vast difference between summer and winter flows. Furthermore, it would discharge effluent into pristine waters.

That makes field spreading not only the most economical, but also the most environmentally sound way for the island to manage its wastewater, notes Donna Briesemeister, chair of the town of Washington Island’s Wastewater Advisory Committee and a music teacher at the school. Pumpers on the island include Smalls Excavating and Sanitary Systems owned by Lou Small, and Johnson’s Island Sanitation owned by Ivan Johnson

“There are three main types of systems on the island,” student Aidan Purinton notes. “There are normal septic tanks where the solids flow to the bottom and the water goes out into the drainfield, trickles into the ground and cleans itself, and goes back into the water table. That’s if you have a lot of good soil. Up here, the soil is super rocky and there isn’t good digging soil, so they create mound systems in a lot of places. Then there are the holding tanks. That was one of the main focuses of our project.”

The island generates about 80,000 gallons of septage and holding tank waste during winter and about 945,000 gallons during the rest of the year. Student Breanna McGrane notes that the waste is land-applied for most of the year. In winter when the ground is frozen, it is placed in tanks, then transferred to trucks, which travel by ferry to the mainland and deliver the material to the wastewater treatment plant in the Door County community of Sister Bay.

At first, the students envisioned a project aimed at a technical solution to the island’s seasonal wastewater issues, but they soon decided that was beyond their capacity, Dahlke says. So they opted for a multipronged program of public outreach and education about the proper use of septic systems and holding tanks.

That includes advising residents and tourists not to flush harmful items like wipes down the toilets. To demonstrate the problem, they tested wet wipes to see whether they would break down in water, vinegar and ammonia. “They didn’t break down for the most part,” student Jake Kooiker says. “Most of the wet wipes retained their shape.” The students produced a three-minute video that includes the results of the wipes experiment. The next phase includes finding venues for showing the video to the relevant audiences.


Meanwhile the kids used a 3D printer to create models of the island’s waste collections and treatment systems “to show people what they’re actually working with,” student Spencer Johnson says. “We created models of a holding tank, a recirculating sand system and the septic system with a drainage field.” They created the 3D designs using a SketchUp program and downloaded them to the printer.

The students are also creating a comic-book-style brochure to demonstrate proper septic system usage. “We decided to make some kind of cartoon because children like reading things like that,” student Joseph Lux says. “We also decided to have some information, like a brochure, to spread around the island.” The concept is to show one character doing things improperly and a “smart kid” explaining the right way.

Eventually, the students hope to have their educational materials available in a variety of settings: on board the ferryboats; as part of the safety message given to passengers by the ferry operators; at hotels, restaurants and other businesses frequented by tourists; in the library and visitor center; as information for real estate agents to give to clients purchasing or looking for homes; and elsewhere.


In the longer term, Dahlke and her students hope to sustain the connections they have made with a variety of resources, which include:

  • Mike Schell, operations supervisor at the Sister Bay treatment facility
  • Steve Galarneau, director of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Office of Great Waters
  • Peter Hurth, P.E., president of Baudhuin Surveying & Engineering, a consultant to the town of Washington Island Wastewater Advisory Committee
  • Dave Ullrich, advisor to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

One outcome of the students’ work is a partnership between the school and the Wastewater Advisory Committee. The goal is to have a student representative continue working with that committee.

Briesemeister is enthusiastic about the students’ work: “It’s an important story we’ve been trying to tell for 30 years. I’m thankful for their teachers and their principal (Michelle Kanipes). They are the people who have the vision. The children are really very bright and work well together. They understand, they get it and they’re motivated. They want their community to be safe and to not be contributing to Great Lakes pollution.

“To the students’ credit, the teachers’ credit and the school’s credit, they’re saying, ‘This is our local problem — what can we do to help make this understandable?’ I was proud of the young people because they learned and they were involved,” Briesemeister continues. “We’re hoping that the children, by being in the limelight and being publicized will be able to help tell the story that our way of managing wastewater is not backward. This is cutting-edge.”

Dahlke says, “We would hope these kids eventually would be the ones highly educated about what the future will look like with septic systems on the island.”


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