Sustainability is central to all engineering projects and is becoming even more critical as our concern for environmental health is exacerbated by climate change and the need to produce “green” energy and conserve precious resources. Our global environment and economy are so inextricably intertwined that engineers must consider environmental impact in every financial decision they make, which is why the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University is committed to providing engineering students with the resources they need to address this challenge.

Given the growing importance of sustainability, it’s no wonder that undergraduate students in all fields of engineering who can highlight their experience solving environmental issues will be in the highest demand. If you are or know an undergraduate-level engineering student who wants to gain this valuable experience and, at the same time, make a real environmental difference, the WERC Environmental Design Contest might just be the perfect competition to foster an understanding of environmental issues!

The WERC Environmental Design Contest was founded over three decades ago by New Mexico State University’s College of Engineering, creating an opportunity for college students that has led to careers in academia, major engineering firms, and government agencies such as the EPA. Engineering professionals who have participated in the WERC competition have called it “an engineering education opportunity of a lifetime.” Modeled after an engineering Request for Proposals (RFP), this competition asks students to spend 3-6 months as “professional engineers,” creating a complete engineering design, including bench-scale testing and a business plan for full-scale implementation. It also gives students the chance to pitch their business plans during an exciting event called “Flash Talks”, a Shark-Tank-inspired setting where students give a 3-minute pitch of their designs to judges who pose as “investors.”

The contest culminates with oral presentations and bench-scale demonstrations in Las Cruces, NM, April 16-19, 2023. Winners are eligible for an award pool of $30,000 for their solutions, and top papers are published in IEEE’s Xplore journal. As an amazing bonus, students competing in the WERC Environmental Design Contest have the opportunity to meet with academic, government, and industry experts, providing them with valuable networking contacts to advance their research and potential career opportunities.

In 2022, a student reflected, “The interaction with the judges made this an even greater learning experience that we will carry into our careers. They helped us understand practical limitations and issues based on their real-world experiences.”

For the 2023 competition, students can choose from six project topics – “tasks” – all of which are designed by businesses and organizations with an immediate interest in competitors’ solutions to real-world problems. There are tasks for most fields of engineering. A seventh open task is also available for teams who want to select their own challenge to solve. The tasks this season are:

  • Beneficial wastewater reuse for rural communities
  • Vehicle-to-grid resiliency
  • Reducing water loss in mine tailings facilities
  • Detecting microplastics in reservoirs
  • Ammonia recovery from produced water
  • A NASA task – to be determined
  • Open task

How to Get Involved

Interested in the WERC Environmental Design Contest? Check out their guidelines to see if you or your team would be eligible. Sign up for their informational webinar on either July 20, 2022, or August 10, 2022 at 12:00PM Mountain Time to learn more about how to get started!

Informational webinars are 45 minutes long and give future competitors an introduction to the contest and the “hows” and “whys” of getting involved. Faculty, government, and industry speakers will be present to explain how the tasks are developed, how teams receive mentoring from professional engineers, and strategies for participating in the competition!

Register for July 20th

Register for August 10th

Article highlights:

  • The UL Innovative Education Award with $250,000 in program support has become a prestigious recognition award for the leading environmental education programs.
  • STEM Competitions have won in the past, but many programs that are eligible for this award don’t realize it.
  • Applications are due February 21, 2018

At ICS most of the competitions we talk about are student focused challenges. These competitions can be found in all shapes and sizes and cover nearly every subject you can think of. Of course, on top of all of this student attention, there are also competitions for educators and educational organizations. Most of these come in the form of awards or grant programs that reward excellence in the programs themselves rather than on a particular educational topic.

Over the last few months, ICS has been diving into the field of environmental education and exploring all of the student competitions that help inspire and educate our youth about global sustainability, conservation, and our environment. You can find more than 40 environmentally focused academic competitions for K-12 students in the US alone on the ICS competition database. While exploring the field of environmental competitions, we had the great opportunity to meet up with the leaders of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE).

Back in 2015, NAAEE partnered with Underwriters Laboratories to launch the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Innovative Education Award. This has quickly become one of the most prestigious awards for environmental education programs. However, it flies under the radar for many organizations that may be excellent candidates to win. The award  provides a $250,000 award purse with a $100,000 unrestricted grand prize to support your programs. Many programs that would be eligible don’t actually realize that they are potential winners because they don’t think they’re an “environmental” organization.

According to Christiane Maertens, the NAAEE Deputy Director, “ULIEA winners have come from all kinds of programs. In 2018 and beyond we’re especially excited about recognizing how engineering programs are using the environment to help advance STEM education. But most of all we look for excellence in how the programs are designed and how they impact their students. Any organization that uses the environment to teach STEM topics could be a winner!” Past winners have come from a wide variety of organizations. Some local or regional based programs, some nation-wide. Some deal directly with environmental sustainability and conservation, while others use the environment to teach a slew of other STEM topics.


STEM Competitions can take the Top Spot.

In 2015, the Future City Competition took home the $100,000 Grand Prize. So competitions and challenge-based programs can win big in these top environmental education awards. In fact, we think the time is right for more competition and challenge-based-learning programs to gain this level of recognition. One of the resources that NAAEE provides for organizations looking to apply for this award is the chance to review parts of past winners’ submissions. You can check out the Future City Competition winning submission on the Innovative Education Award website and see what it takes for a competition-based program to take on the top spot in this award.

We encourage all of our ICS colleagues who are involved in environmental education in any way, to apply for this award. If you have a national challenge on ocean science, apply. If you have a local community-based program using forest excursions to teach students about math, apply. If you explore how new technologies are influencing the future of our planet, apply! If you run a student competition (or other non-profit program) involving the environment in any way, on local, regional, or national scales, you should apply for this opportunity.

To better understand how to prepare your application, first review the past award winners. NAAEE lists all of the award winners for the past three years and provides an opportunity to review information included in their applications. For competition based programs we especially encourage you to review the Future City submission to see how you can highlight your competition’s environmental connections.

The deadline to apply for the 4th annual UL Innovative Education Award is February 21st 2018. So get cracking for your shot at the $250,000 in organizational awards!