By Christina Burchette
This year’s USA National Science & Engineering Festival was a huge event. The convention center in downtown Washington, DC was buzzing all weekend long with thousands of people coming to see the fascinating gizmos and gadgets on display by various companies and organizations (and to learn about science, of course).
While many of the exhibits boasted flashy set-ups and hi-tech gadgets that could awe anyone, our P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) student design competition participants were impressing passersby with the innovative genius of their simple, sustainable, and cost-effective projects. The EPA P3 design program invites college students to design environmental solutions that move us towards a sustainable future by benefiting people, promoting prosperity, and protecting the planet.
This year, 38 student teams received P3 Phase I grants of up to $15,000 to research and test the original projects that they presented at the USA Science & Engineering Festival. In a couple of months, some of these teams will be chosen to receive up to $75,000 in additional grant money to continue developing their projects and implement them in the field or marketplace.
When I wandered into the two rows of P3 teams, I was floored by the creativity and ingenuity of the projects—and how excited these students were to share their work.
One team told me that they created a self-sustaining mini-ecosystem comprised of just fish and vegetables. The fish waste provided fertilizer for the vegetables, and the vegetables kept the water clean for the fish to thrive. The system will provide organic food to those who need it most—the team was hoping to set up these systems at elementary schools for children who don’t get enough to eat at home. To add to that, the team plans to employ homeless vets to maintain and manage the mini-ecosystems. The project design is simple, completely organic and sustainable, and considers socioeconomic issues as well as environmental ones!
Another team used what they described as “home depot technology” to solve a problem that plagues major rivers that flow into the ocean: eutrophication, an excess of nutrients clogging waterways and sparking algal growth that absorbs oxygen that aquatic creatures depend on. Their project involved installing bioreactors with naturally-occurring bacteria at the edges of crop fields so that that bacteria could eat the excess nitrate that is washed away from fields by rain, instead of allowing it to flow off into waterways. It blew my mind how simple and effective their design was, and the fact that they said anyone could build it with the right tools.
What amazed me most about listening to all of the students and faculty talk about their projects is the fact that they’ve managed to develop such creative solutions to environmental issues that seem impossible to solve. It just goes to show how much we can accomplish with science, inspiration, and a little creativity.
About the Author: Christina Burchette is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.