At two o'clock in the morning, the basketball stadium at New Mexico State University is silent and nearly empty--except for a cluster of students huddled around a sink. They are working out last-minute strategies before an international environmental design contest. And they've got to make sure their sink is working.
Actually, it's the filter under the sink that really matters. In a few hours, a group of judges will listen to team members explain how their filter, filled with recycled iron filings, removes arsenic from drinking water. They'll describe their research, their testing methods and their business plan. Every single one of the 14 students will speak. And right now, some of them are really nervous.
Cristi Gonzales, for one, is terrified. Shyness and lack of confidence in her English kept the civil engineering major from Puerto Rico from speaking in class. But now she is practicing her presentation, encouraged by her teammates. The UNH approach of using every team member at some point in the competition can be nerve wracking, say the students. It's harder than leaving the presentation to your most confident speakers, as the other teams do. But Kevin Gardner insists on the "we're all in this together" strategy.
"Even though winning can be a big incentive, I try to make it an educational mission," says the associate professor of civil engineering and student advisor. And the UNH students agree: everyone learns more. Plus, they win. In fact, the UNH team has wowed the judges for three years straight, bringing home first or second place in their category for innovative use of recycled materials to solve real problems. Among the winners? Gonzales, who said later, "It really was the best experience of my life."