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Student environmental group at UCF turns activism into action

Photo: Photo by Aldrin Caplulong, License: N/A, Created: 2011:04:22 14:23:16

Photo by Aldrin Caplulong

IDEAS Guys - (from left) IDEAS vice president Sebastian Church and co-founders Chris Castro and Hank Harding have helped their organization branch out to other campuses and into the community

Hank Harding knows "Lake IDEAS" - a pond at the southwestern end of the east Orlando campus of the University of Central Florida - better than most anyone. Giving a tour to a reporter, Harding names the native plant species bordering the lake, and, further removed from the shore, the species that once thrived before he took a shovel to the ground. "That's an invasive," Harding says, gesturing at a felled camphor tree. "The major ingredient in Vicks VapoRub. I actually helped take that 
one down."

In the spring of 2008, this lake was retention pond 3A, where water bottles, plastic bags and errant lacrosse balls from nearby athletic fields littered the shore. It was around that time when Harding, a newly declared environmental science major, met another new recruit to his field, Chris Castro, in his environmental sociology class. Inspired by the subject matter and the dearth of environmental action on campus, the two launched a group the following summer called Intellectual Decisions on Environmental Awareness Solutions (IDEAS). They started small, adopting pond 3A and recruiting a handful of friends to clean it up. But with a dose of scientific curiosity and youthful ambition, the group grew quickly.

IDEAS at UCF has convinced student government to not only recycle its paper but use recycled paper; introduced local school kids to the concepts of recycling, renewable energy and sustainability; spawned a lake-restoration company that turns a small profit; is currently developing a new prototype of "aquaponic" small-scale agriculture; and helped to create the U.S. Department of Energy's student ambassadors program, among many other things.

Aware of its own success, IDEAS created a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with the same name that acts as a repository of information for like-minded students to launch similar hands-on campaigns at their campuses. Today, there are IDEAS chapters at 10 universities across the country, "professional" chapters in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and even a chapter at a high school in Miami. At the end of this month, Viktor El-Saieh, former president of the Florida International University chapter of IDEAS, will be in Haiti, teaching children to "upcycle" plastic bottles by shaping them into sculptures and marketable goods.

The federal government knows about IDEAS - Castro interned for the Department of Energy in the summer of 2009 - and has praised the group's "Kill-a-Watt" energy savings campaign. In June, the Florida Wildlife Federation will name IDEAS the "conservation organization of the year."

"I think more and more people are seeing that these guys are action figures," says Linda Stewart, a former Orange County Commissioner who presented IDEAS with the county's Green Leaf Award for Environmental Excellence last December. "They're not just talking."

The group's name is not just a clever acronym, but an organizing model: students from various backgrounds propose their own environmental initiatives, and then sympathetic group members supply the manpower to make that person's idea a reality.

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