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Can Savvy Students Save the Planet?

(Sunday, April 13, 2008 -- Washington Post: EcoWise) - Though the facts about climate change, pollution and pesticides are alarming, not all green news is gloom and doom. Thanks to the ever-expanding environmental movement, there has been a surge of creative ideas for making industries more sustainable -- and many of those clever concepts are coming from some of the nation's younger minds.

You can see the future up close starting April 20 at the Environmental Protection Agency's People, Prosperity and the Planet competition. The event, part of the EPA's National Sustainable Design Expo on the Mall for Earth Day (April 22), will showcase new sustainable technologies and policy programs devised by student teams from colleges nationwide.

One of the winners of last year's People, Prosperity and the Planet competition was the University of Virginia's "Learning Barge" project, an off-the-grid, floating field station powered by solar and wind energy.

The P3 competition, in its fourth year and co-sponsored by the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education, invites teams of students to devise a plan to promote sustainability using science and technology. The finalists -- 56 groups from 29 states that received grants of $10,000 -- will be on hand April 20 to 22, presenting their projects to the public using models and demonstrations.

What to expect? The projects range from community development proposals (plans for encouraging bicycle use, for instance) to feats of biochemistry (a scheme for creating natural plastics with wastewater; a solar cell that uses chlorophyll). Many focus on solutions for the developing world, such as plans for safe drinking water and wind power from kites.

Young people make some of the best environmental innovators, says Chris Zarba, deputy director of the EPA's National Center for Environmental Research and one of the event organizers. "They grew up in a different world; it's not the same disposable society anymore," he says. "They're also very comfortable with technology. I'm continually blown away by what they come up with."

A panel of experts from the National Academy of Sciences exit EPA will pick six winners, which will be announced the evening of April 22. These P3 Award recipients will receive up to $75,000 to help bring their concepts into production.

The second word in the contest's title, "prosperity," is a crucial element of the judging, Zarba says. Investors and business owners attend P3 looking to tap into the next big green thing. "We've had a number of success stories where students have formed their own companies and are actually profitable," Zarba says. "The whole idea is to bring these new and innovative ideas to the business community and the rest of the world."

-- Eviana Hartman exit EPA

National Sustainable Design Expo: April 20, noon-5 p.m.; April 21, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; April 22, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. On the Mall exit EPA between Third and Fourth streets. Free. http://www.epa.gov/ncer/p3/expo.

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