Students Earn EPA Grant For Work In Panama

Day Greenberg

By Day GreenbergThe Daily Northwestern

Five McCormick students won a $75,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for creating solar power stations and improving waste water treatment in small communities in Panama.

Seniors Eric Lai and Jennifer Kessler, junior Laura Anne MacDonald, sophomore Elizabeth Hohl and freshman Ankur Asthana are all members of Northwestern’s Engineers for a Sustainable World. The group has been working on the projects for more than a year and received the award last Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

They competed against 40 teams from colleges across the country for the EPA’s third annual P3 Award for “People, Prosperity and the Planet.” The contest encourages sustainability in six areas – agriculture, materials and chemicals, water, the environment, energy and information technology – said P3 Program Manager Cynthia Nolt-Helms.

All the competing teams had already won a $10,000 EPA grant a year ago to fund the first phase of their projects.

Last week, teams flew to Washington to present how they used their initial grant and what they would do with a second one. The NU team was among six to win the largest grant at the competition.

“We were very doubtful. We all kind of felt that we didn’t really have a chance,” Hohl said. “We were happily shocked and surprised when we received the grant, and I really think we will use the money effectively.”

With the first grant, the NU team provided a solar energy system for the community of Santa Domingo, Panama. The community previously relied on used car batteries that had to be charged at a station two to four hours away.

The NU team created a solar power station that can charge the batteries inside the community itself. They designed the station on campus and traveled to Panama three times to supervise its construction.

The improvements help the community to power a school lighting system, home appliances and electric fences that protect cattle from jaguar attacks.

“It was a win-win for everyone,” said McCormick Prof. Joseph Fitzpatrick, a faculty advisor for the group. “It saves money, reduces greenhouse gases and the cattle ranchers don’t have to kill jaguars, an endangered species. We can add this all up and say we really got a winner.”

The team also spent three days in Portobelo, Panama, teaching a group of young students and their adult supervisors how to build a more effective waste water treatment system.

With the second grant, NU’s Engineers for a Sustainable World is planning three more trips to Panama, where they will expand their solar energy system to two more villages and repair a septic tank that serves about 200 people but hasn’t been pumped in 15 years. They will also implement a new plumbing design and educate the community on how to take care of the tank independently.

The projects received help from two non-governmental organizations that are temporarily in Panama. The students said they hope they can help local communities sustain their systems beyond the time the organizations pull out.

“You can do amazing things with only a small group of students,” Asthana said. “A lot of students who may not be a part of (Engineers for a Sustainable World) could enjoy it and be a part of this.”

The three winning teams from Illinois universities were also invited to a Thursday morning brunch with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill, but NU’s team could not attend because its flight back to campus was scheduled for the same morning.

“We would love to have a rain check on that,” Hohl said.

Reach Day Greenberg at [email protected]