A couple of weeks ago I was able to attend the third annual International Sustainable World Project Olympiad
(fondly known as I-SWEEEP) in Houston, Tex. The event brought together over 600 students from 69 different countries, all competing with science research projects in energy, the environment or engineering. In the aim of brevity, I'll simply say that it was as awesome as its acronym.
Returning to reality has been the hard part. Of course, I miss staying in the swanky Hyatt hotel where we were all housed. I miss hearing four different languages in the elevator, playing solar panels* with my roommate, or watching event staff roll around the convention center on Segways. But what I truly miss the most is the atmosphere (and I'm not referring to Houston's lovely humidity).
Here's the thing: environmentalism can be incredibly depressing at times, even for the most tried and true of tree huggers. The last few weeks in particular have been brutal. (Hello massive oil spill, stalled Senate climate bill, and White House decision to offshore drill.) And all the while climate change continues to worsen, and we continue to be stuck in a rut of complacency, denial and irresponsibility.
Worst of all, there's no sense of hope.
Compare that political reality to the sight of 478 booths packed into a giant convention center, each offering a different idea to solve one of the planet's numerous problems. We saw a girl from Utah who invented a device that harnesses three types of energy (solar, wind and wave), two boys from Albania who created an X-ray machine with packing tape and thumbtacks, a boy from Malaysia who successfully made low-cost paper from waste palm stems, and a pair from Kazakhstan who tested new materials from recycled waste glass.
Even our Westchester County crew had some insane projects. Debbie studied the ideal bubble size for effective carbon sequestration and placed third in the environment category. Adam tested different plant varieties for their use in green roofs and placed first in environment. Chris designed a new way to detect ice on highways and placed first in engineering. (Though his research isn't directly related to sustainability, we determined that failure to adopt it could result in undue harm to baby seals.)
My point? Our generation wants to solve these issues. From Afghanistan to Vietnam, students — as young as ten — are thinking of new ideas and real solutions. And our motivation extends far beyond fear due to the severity of climate change. Sustainability is the way to create a better world, and I think that's the true inspiration behind the I-SWEEEP projects. So for all those leaders still tethered to the past, I believe you'd best catch on or else step aside.
The view looking down at the hotel lobby from the 25th floor, where our room was.
The Albanian team (Clirim Gjinika and Klajdi Shahini) with their project, "Structure Examination Machine."
Part of the team from Kazakhstan (Gulsara Zhailaubekkyzy and Laura Rais) with her project, "The Problems of Recycling Waste Glass Material in Order to Obtain New, Low-Cost Materials."
*Solar panels is the green version of the popular game “punch buggy.” Every time a person sees a photovoltaic module (as opposed to a Volkswagen), he or she has the right to punch his or her companion and scream “SOLAR PANEL!” as loud as humanly possible. I highly recommend it for a guaranteed good time.
Special thanks to WESEF and its sponsors, Mr. Blueglass and Ms. Longo for organizing and supporting our trip to I-SWEEEP!
Photos: Maddy Yozwiak