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EnviroScape environmental models from JT&A Inc. teach children and adults about watershed pollution in a fun, interactive way. Customers include public agencies, parent-teacher associations, garden clubs, elementary schools, and corporations. Visit www.enviroscapes.com. Photo: JT&A Inc.

By Jenni Spinner

Children will be asking for all sorts of toys this holiday season, from baby dolls that cry to tiny cars that beep. One company offers playthings that do more than simply amuse: They also teach children of all ages about the effects of pollution on their surroundings.

Sized to fit on a tabletop, EnviroScape is a line of 3D models that illustrate residential, recreational, agricultural, industrial, and transportation areas, each representing possible sources of pollution. Kids and adults use everyday items like drink mix (representing chemicals) and cocoa powder (for loose soil) to witness how their individual actions and those of others impact water quality.

“It sells itself,” says Carlene Bahler, president of JT&A, the Chantilly, Va.-based company that makes the EnviroScape models. “It teaches where water comes from, what happens when you flush the toilet, what happens when you pour something down the drain. People see and experience what pollution can do, and how their actions impact their environment.”

Founder Judy Taggart has a long history of environmental edification. According to Bahler, Taggart wrote, edited, and designed some of the first educational and outreach materials distributed about nonpoint source (NPS) pollution, watersheds, and wetlands. Since the firm's founding in 1984, it has worked closely with the EPA on such issues.

After decades of telling the public the story of pollution's dangers with brochures and speeches, Taggart realized there might be a more effective way to get the message across: a hands-on interactive visual.

In addition to the environmental expertise of JT&A employees, the concept benefited from input by federal, state and local agencies as well as educators and civilians. The same groups helped fine-tune each model, creating a line of tools that illustrates virtually all aspects of public works.

The Watershed/Nonpoint Source unit is the model that started it all. It consists of a U.S. National Park Service topographical map with a storm-drain pipe, houses, barn, factory, treatment plant, trees, cars, animals, and a user's guide that explains how a stormwater collection system works. Other models address wetlands protection, coastal use, drinking water, hazardous materials, and waste management.

“EnviroScape has literally taught thousands of students about water quality,” says Lynn Porter, education specialist with Hinds County (Miss.) Soil and Water Conservation District. “It allows them to visually understand how they contribute to water quality problems and how they can be part of the solution.”

In its quest to improve products to better fit client needs, JT&A actively solicits customer feedback. Right now, for example, the company is planning supplemental kits to support customers in highly urbanized environments.

With prices ranging around $785 for a model, and from $10 to $535 for the various kits and add-ons, Bahler reports that public agencies find the educational tools very affordable.

“The models are useful for departments that might not have the money for a full-time education outreach staff,” says Bahler. “They donate it to schools, bring it to community events, and educate the public that way.”

— Jenni Spinner (jspinwrites@gmail.com) is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former editor of PUBLIC WORKS.