Students Tackle Sustainability Challenges in EPA P3 Competition

At the "People, Prosperity and the Planet" (P3) competition, students presented solutions to complex environmental problems to a panel of expert judges convened by AAAS.
Ronald Aguilar | Kathleen O'Neil

When Michigan State University Ph.D. student Ronald Aguilar wanted to find a project for an Environmental Protection Agency student competition that benefits people and the environment, he knew he wanted to help the Shuabb aboriginal people of his native Costa Rica. An avid hiker, he had seen some of the isolated communities there that lack basic sanitation and clean water, let alone ways to provide an income. A university office connected him with a group of indigenous women in the Talamanca region who wanted to create an ecotourism site but first needed to have reliable sanitation, water, and energy sources approved by the state tourism board.

"Their region is one of the poorest. They only have two incomes — bananas and cacao — and they earn little money because almost all the profit is cut by the intermediate people," Aguilar said.

Aguilar, who is also an agricultural engineer on the faculty of the University of Costa Rica, worked with a team of other Michigan State students to develop a water filtration system and a wastewater system that treats greywater, digests human waste, and generates biogas that can be used for power. Using money from the first phase of EPA's P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) Competition, they installed the drinking water filtration system while on winter break in 2014 and completed designs of the other elements.

"These kids are putting technical expertise, passion, and a lot of energy into these projects. Overall, I get a real sense of hope."

P3 Judge Jorge Vanegas

Because the indigenous community lives in such an inaccessible area, they don't have much interaction with strangers, and didn't know if they could trust the students, despite wanting the help, Aguilar said. "But after they met us and saw the work we did, they were happy. They are hoping we will come back to implement the second phase of the project."

It seems they will get their wish, and the Shuabb community will be another step closer to creating an ecotourism enterprise. After the Michigan State team presented its progress to judges on 11-12 April at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Alexandria, Virginia, it was selected as one of seven that will be funded to complete the second phase of its project.

A total of 42 teams of undergraduate and graduate students that had already been awarded initial grants of $15,000 were competing for a second round of P3 grants of up to $75,000 to complete their projects. The AAAS Research Competitiveness Program coordinated the judging of the competition, which is now in its 11th year.

To help EPA select the P3 award winners, AAAS RCP assembled a panel of 18 scientists and engineers from around the country, whose expertise in a variety of disciplines, including green chemistry, water quality, solar energy, architecture, and mechanical engineering, are well-aligned with the competing projects. These judges completed evaluations of the scientific and technical merit, overall sustainability, and educational components of each team's written proposals, and they interviewed student teams at the P3 Expo. AAAS RCP then convened the panel to discuss the judging results and provide final recommendations to the EPA administrators.

Some teams drew upon students in several disciplines to develop high-tech materials, such as "smart windows" with transparent solar collectors that adjust how much light they let in as the sun moves. Another demonstrated how a floating island on a green roof can collect rainwater to reduce storm water runoff in urban areas.

Edith Martinez-Guerra of Mississippi State University speaks to Jorge Vanegas about her team's wastewater treatment project | Kathleen O'Neil

"There are projects that deal with very sophisticated, technical things and others that are very simple and elegant. They put a spotlight on a problem and a solution — there's no political agenda," said Jorge Vanegas, dean of the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University, and a veteran P3 Competition judge.

Vanegas says he has seen the projects increase in complexity and quality since the competition began in 2004. They are also more student-led now, rather than advisor-led, he said.

"These kids are putting technical expertise, passion, and a lot of energy into these projects. Overall, I get a real sense of hope," Vanegas said, which he wishes they could share with more people. "We should have much more public interest in these projects."

Some of the teams' biggest challenges were social problems, not technical ones. A team from Michigan Technological University (MTU), located on the state's upper peninsula where copper mining once boomed, is trying to encourage communities to use water from abandoned mines as a geothermal energy source for a heat pump system that can heat and cool buildings. Its five engineering and four social science students developed a guidebook and a tabletop model to describe how such systems work.

They estimate that at least 750,000 people live within a half-mile of a flooded mine shaft. The team has held community meetings in nearby Calumet, Michigan, and has talked to groups in Pennsylvania, Colorado and New Mexico that are also interested in the idea. There are about 30 systems that use mine shaft water in this way around the world, including one at MTU's research center and six others in the United States.

"I think communities will embrace the idea as long as it pays off financially," said Nicolette Slagle, an MTU environmental engineering science student. However, because the sites may still be privately owned, building such a system would require some negotiation as well as communities coordination to provide the upfront investment and permitting.

"Communities need this technology to help provide heat in an environmentally-friendly way," said David Anna, another engineering student on the MTU team. "And it's a way for communities to take back abandoned mines for themselves."