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The Virtual World Lets Students Ponder How to Save Mother Earth

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In: The South End
By: Katie Yonushewski Contributing Writer
November 14, 2006

Experts in the environmental field have begun using the Internet as a way to brainstorm new environmental solutions.

An online chat on Monday afternoon discussed the ways that today’s college students are developing solutions to pressing sustainability challenges in the developing and developed world.

Julie Beth Zimmerman, program director of “People, Prosperity and the Planet” (P3), led the chat. P3 is a design competition for the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that awards project funding to student teams.

Joining Zimmerman was an Oberlin College alumnus and one of the 2005 winners of the P3 competition, Michael Murray.

The P3 Award Competition is a national design competition for sustainability that is open to undergraduate and graduate students at U.S. colleges. Students enter their solutions to sustainability challenges and compete to win funding to research, develop and implement their designs.

In 2006, the EPA awarded $420,000 to 42 student teams. These winners are already using their grants to develop alternative energy sources, clean water solutions for rural communities, designs for sustainable buildings, green labeling strategies for products, bio-based materials and more. The University of Michigan was awarded funding last year for its design — growing alternative sustainable buildings from natural fiber, biodegradable or recyclable materials.

Zimmerman defined sustainability as working towards continuing economic prosperity while protecting the natural systems of the planet and providing a high quality of life for its people.

Murray said one way to promote environmental awareness on campuses is by publicizing the costs associated with energy use on campus — including electricity and natural gas.

When it comes to cities like Detroit, Murray said that there is a lot of work to do socially, in terms of alleviating poverty, creating livable communities and reducing crime in inner city areas. He adds that making a city more walkable, increases social capital and reduces poverty.

On the environmental side, many cities are pursing public transportation projects, which make commercial resources more accessible for people and reduce transportation-related environmental impacts.

Murray said that the students at Oberlin College promoted recycling by taking a week’s worth of trash bags and piling them on central campus for all to see. “The pile was over 30 feet high, and certainly made an impression on me,” Murray said.

Recycling is one way that students can help to improve the sustainability of their campus. WSU is in the early stages of doing just that by being involved with recycleDetroit, a volunteer-motivated program that provides education and awareness about recycling in Detroit. It is a once-a-month, full-scale neighborhood recycling collection. It partners with recycleMidtown, which collects over 2,000 pounds of recyclables from Detroiters.

Sarah Kubik started recycleDetroit and is working to keep this program running and successful. Funding for recycleDetroit’s campaign has been personally funded, supported by Recyclean and from minimal donations it received at the Midtown collection spot.

Kubik said, “It takes ‘green’ to be green!”

Motivated and energetic students would be a huge asset to this program," she said. “Students are passive and need to speak up and get involved.”

After 20 years of not listening to concerned citizens, Detroit is in a crisis of public health concerns and quality of life issues, a page on recycleDetroit’s Web site reads, referring to Detroit’s trash incinerator.

When asked if college students are more concerned with the environment then previous generations Murray answered, “Well it’s difficult to quantify, but I would say ‘yes.’”

Murray added that the growing environmental concern has a lot to do with climate change having such media prominence post-Katrina. Also, rising fuel prices helped bring the issues into the public mind.

Zimmerman encourages students to send innovative ideas to the P3 Award Competition so EPA can support students’ efforts.

For more information regarding the P3 Award Competition, visit www.epa.gov/P3

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