GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In the last 20 years alone, Michigan has dealt with a number of threats to communities’ water: the rise of PFAS pollution, the Line 6B oil spill near Marshall and the PCB contamination that devastated the Kalamazoo River. Not to mention the Flint water crisis, Benton Harbor’s lead pipes and countless industrial sites that need to be remediated before being cleared for new use.
That’s why Northwest Michigan College in Traverse City is launching a new degree program specifically designed to train people on monitoring and cleaning polluted water. The new associate’s degree in water quality environmental technology — or Wet Tech for short — will be made available next fall.
Hans Van Sumeren, the executive director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at NMC, said the two-year program will give students an advantage when heading into the workforce or serve as a step toward other science careers.
“It’s your core sciences, your biology, chemistry, geology, because you are dealing with soil, sediment, water, structure of the soil. And then core competencies and technical areas like surveying, because a lot of these technicians actually use total stations or RTK (real-time kinematic surveying) for positioning or laying out a site,” Van Sumeren told News 8.
The program will also offer courses to get students familiar with engineering equipment and tools like computer-aided design, more commonly known as CAD.
“The equipment that we use breaks all the time. So by having a core understanding of how to use a multimeter and an oscilloscope, how to solder … troubleshooting keeps a technician in the field longer and keeps the company from spending dollars in terms of wasted time out in the field,” Van Sumeren said.
His plan is for students to be able to hit the ground running once they have earned their degree.
“Our goal here is to create laboratories where these students are actively using the equipment in a mock collection or sampling activity that replicates exactly what they’ll do in the field,” Van Sumeren said. “So they can understand the nuances of proper data collection, the chain of custody of this data, which is critical in environmental remediation activities. The samples you take have to be properly cared and stored.”
Van Sumeren expects the Wet Tech degree program to be a success, just like the other programs the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute has started in the last several years.
“The state authorized select areas at community colleges in Michigan to offer (a bachelor’s degree) in maritime technology, so we immediately built that marine technology into a four-year platform. And to date, every student who has been a part of that program, every graduate is employed in the industry. (They have) high-paying jobs, they live in Michigan, they fly to work, they work all over the world,” he said. “The opportunity to create wet tech really built around that same strategy because we listened to the industry. We listened to what they weren’t getting from traditional academic programs.”
Van Sumeren said blue economy jobs — focused on the preservation and regeneration of our marine environments — are growing, particularly in Michigan.
“You can work in just about any county in Michigan with this type of skill set, cause these issues exist everywhere,” Van Sumeren said. “PFAS is obviously one that is at the top of mind with everybody now, but if you look at that from a perspective of other types of pollutants and contaminants, it’s the idea that we’re better at measuring these levels in the soil and in the water. We’re understanding the impact on human health and wildlife, and we’re starting to know that we need to do a better job at remediating these things when we find them.”
The Wet Tech program will become the fifth focus for the GLWSI, joining degree programs in marine technology and freshwater studies, the GLWSI’s Marine Center and the Great Lakes Maritime Academy.