A team of UCLA undergraduate students has won a national competition sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking innovative plans for stormwater management. The team proposed to redesign elements of a Los Angeles elementary school to improve its environmental sustainability.

The students will split $5,000 in prize money for their project, which focused on Brockton Avenue Elementary School, 3 miles southwest of the UCLA campus. An additional $5,000 prize from the EPA will support UCLA research and training in green infrastructure.

The project, Little Steps to a Sustainable Future, received top honors in the Campus RainWorks Challenge’s demonstration project category. In all, 50 teams of college students from 20 states submitted proposals last fall in the competition’s two categories. The winners of the eighth annual contest were announced April 29.

The EPA’s announcement praised the UCLA team for engaging a wide range of the elementary school’s stakeholders, resulting in a “realistic redesign capable of managing stormwater runoff,” and for incorporating “a variety of green infrastructure practices” and “providing hands-on environmental education that will connect students to their watershed.”

The UCLA team was made up of Allison Lee, the project’s leader, Camille Ituralde, Samuel Hwang, Annika Melquist and Patience Olsen, all of whom are civil engineering majors, as well as environmental science majors Joyce Lee and Kyle Willenborg.

“As an engineering student, it is easy to fall prey to the mentality that an engineer’s only role is to develop the absolute ‘best’ technical solution,” Hwang said. “However, this project acted as a much-needed reminder that an engineering solution, designed and implemented without regard for the people it is meant to serve, would greatly hinder its potential to make a positive impact.”

The proposal incorporated six improvements, including installing a roof covered with drought-resistant grass on one of the buildings. The switch would help keep the building’s interior cooler and reduce the amount of energy used for air conditioning.

The team also suggested adding some bioremediation zones to the school grounds. Layers of plants, mulch, stones and soils would naturally filter out bacteria and pollutants that rainwater picks up before it goes into nearby storm drains, and eventually the Pacific Ocean.

In addition, the design called for the addition of drought-tolerant trees and plants; replacing asphalt with permeable pavement to allow rainwater to filter through the covering into the ground, rather than turning into storm runoff; and installing an underground cistern to hold captured stormwater for use during drier months.

The students estimated that during a significant rainfall event over a 24-hour period, the improvements would capture 10,000 cubic feet of water that would otherwise have become runoff.

“Stormwater runoff is a significant source of water pollution in America, and managing runoff remains a complex environmental challenge for local communities across the Pacific Southwest,” said John Busterud, the EPA’s pacific southwest regional administrator. “This year’s winners have skillfully transformed classroom knowledge into innovative and replicable solutions for stormwater management.”

The projected cost of the enhancement is $144,000, with another $14,000 per year for maintenance. Although it is not yet known whether the project will be implemented, the students suggested that it could be funded through Los Angeles County’s Measure W, a parcel tax that passed in 2018 to add several hundred million dollars across the county for storm and wastewater capture and treatment.

While working on the design, the team visited the school several times and demonstrated water conservation concepts and techniques to Brockton students.

“The most rewarding part of this project definitely had to be working with the students at the elementary school,” Joyce Lee said. “Knowing that our work can foster that curiosity and desire to learn more really showed me the importance of education and engagement with kids, no matter how young they may be.”

The team was advised by Sanjay Mohanty, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. He leads a research group at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering that studies sustainable water resource management and teaches an undergraduate course on green infrastructure. The team also worked with Robert Laughton, a maintenance and operations director at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“This is one inspiring example of how UCLA students are engaging with our local community and sharing their classroom learning with an elementary school in LAUSD,” Mohanty said. “They went above and beyond in their efforts on every aspect of this team project, and I’m really proud of them.”