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Killip Water Harvest

Joshua Calban, 10, gets a hole cut in the water filter that he designed Wednesday afternoon in his classroom at Killip Elementary School. Joshua and his classmates were given the engineering task of designing and building a filter to clean water collected from the school roof so that it can be used in a school garden. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

Jake Bacon

The kids at Killip Elementary School are teaming up with a group of Northern Arizona University engineering students to build a water catchment and filtration system to water their school garden.

Second-grade teacher Tim Begley and fifth-grade teacher Katie Butterfield came up with the idea in the fall. For a whole school year, the kids in both classes teamed up to learn all about conservation, potential toxins and different types of water filtration systems. 

“We learned about how, when the water comes down, we can filter it out and use it in the garden, and we learned how conserving water is important because it’s a natural resource,” said Killip fifth-grader Jessica Perez. “We’re working on conserving our resources in class and learning about different things that can harm the environment.”

The students wrote persuasive letters to local businesses, which prompted the C-A-L Ranch store on North Fourth Street to donate several rain barrels. Next, they needed to design a system that would let them safely collect water from the roof in the barrels, filter out all the harmful debris and deliver it to the plants in the garden.

* * *

Mindy Bell, STEM coordinator for Flagstaff STEM City, had the answer. She helped hook up Begley and Butterfield with the NAU student group Global Engineering Outreach at the beginning of the spring semester. Together, the NAU students and the Killip students got to work on their designs.

“Killip is using the Next Generation Science Standards,” Bell said. “Those have the engineering design process built into them, so the school is really on the forefront.”

Last week, Butterfield’s fifth-graders finally got to present their design ideas to around a half-dozen NAU students with Global Engineering Outreach.

“I was thinking, maybe we could put in some gutters, and then, since it doesn’t rain a lot, we’ll just leave little leaks,” said Killip fifth-grader Logan Koppe as he showed the entire class his drawing, complete with smiling flowers and a rain barrel asking when it would be his turn. “The water will come in and then it will fill the barrel.”

Other students came up with ideas like adding multiple rain barrels to the collection system and including sand and rock filters to keep debris out of the garden.

After every presentation, the second and fifth-graders gave their classmates a loud “Oh yeah!” of encouragement.

* * *

Next, the NAU students got a chance to show what they came up with. Their design, which included many of the ideas proposed by the Killip kids, called for workers to install a gutter system on the school’s roof leading to separate summer and winter collection systems. 

In the winter system, snow would be allowed to melt through a sand filter into a rain barrel. The sand would filter out any debris. In the summer system, dirty water would flow into a “flush tank,” where the heavy debris would collect at the bottom to be washed down a drain in the school yard. The clean water left over after that process would flow into a series of raised, connected barrels to be gravity fed to the plants.

“Imagine that you have a drum and the piping is connected through the top,” said NAU engineering student Makenzi Beltran. “Once it fills up, all the clean water can’t go into that drum anymore, so it’s just going to carry over into the next drum.”

* * *

The Killip students had a lot of questions about the filtration system. A lot of them had a difficult time envisioning how the first tank in the summer system would keep debris out of the other barrels. Begley leaned over to Butterfield and suggested an experiment: let the kids try it on a small scale before the end of the semester so they could see how the debris would be left behind when the clean water spilled over into the next container.

Other kids were worried about the contaminants they could not see, such as chemicals in the water coming off the roof.

“I’m thinking about putting another layer on the roof, put it on top, and blocking off the chemicals from going into the water,” said Killip fifth-grader Malcolm John.

Butterfield was impressed with how the water filtration system was getting her students to think about all the lessons she had taught them over the year.

“There are a lot of kids talking about acid rain because we were talking about the rainwater cycle,” Butterfield said. “It’s interesting to see the connections that they’ve made.”

* * *

It turns out, John hit the nail right on the head. The NAU students explained that the roof at Killip Elementary is covered with asphalt and shingles, both of which leech toxic chemicals into the water rolling off the roof. As long as the asphalt and shingles are there, it will be unsafe and against state regulations to use the water from the roof to water the plants in the Killip garden.

 “If we can find a way to modify the roof so that it complies with the rules and regulations, then I think we can go ahead and move forward with it,” explained NAU engineering student Ariel Suarez. “I think that’s the only problem that’s holding you guys back at this point.”

The engineering students now have to come up with way to cover the Killip roof with a substance that will make the rainwater safe for gardening.

“Whatever we do, we have to make it safe and it has to be durable,” Beltran said.

The NAU students hope to come back to Killip next semester with a solution to the roof problem. When they do, they will be working with a brand new group of second- and fifth-graders. But just because they will soon pass the torch to the next group does not mean the learning is over for Begley and Butterfield’s current students.

“The direction we were going to go with this next, at least for the end of the year, is collecting different water samples and having them test them, and then making filters and having them test them again,” Begley said.

Both teachers are hoping that Killip will one day get its rainwater collection system.

“We’ll just keep going and hopefully keep improving upon it,” Butterfield said. “This is such a wonderful part of our school, this garden. Our kids work in it all year.”

Michelle McManimon can be reached at or 556-2261.


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