Use Your Imagination
Imagine a futuristic city where people zip to their destinations in underground pods powered by compressed air. Julia Brewer, Hannah Peterson, and Afnan Elsheikh, students from Harding Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, envisioned that virtual city for the Future City Competition, a program that gives middle schoolers across the country an opportunity to discover engineering.
“The mission of Future City is to give 6th, 7th and 8th grade students a chance to explore engineering and to try it on as a career,” said Thea Sahr, director of programs for the National Engineers Week Foundation, the group that hosts the Future City competitions. “And while you’re doing that, you’re going to get to explore so much more?about yourself, about your teammates, about problem solving, just what makes a city tick and what makes you tick.”
In the Future City Competition, teams of students design and build cities that incorporate future technologies to solve a specific engineering challenge. The teams first research solutions to this problem and then plan their city with SimCity software. They must then build a scale model using recycled materials and write an essay describing how their city’s design solves the engineering problem. The teams present their cities to a panel of professional judges at regional competitions in January, and the winners advance to the national finals in Washington, D.C. in February.
“It’s such a professional atmosphere,” Sahr said. “It’s kind of the first time kids are exposed to that level of professionalism.”
This year’s engineering challenge was controlling rainwater runoff. Cities are built of impervious surfaces?streets, sidewalks, and buildings?that prevent rainwater from seeping into the ground as it normally would. This means that water is swept into storm drains or streams where it can cause erosion and pollution problems. The Harding team offered a solution to this problem by giving their city an underground transportation system that used different types of pods, which were powered by compressed air and moved along frictionless magnetic tracks. This system helped reduce water runoff, and was energy-efficient.
“Roads actually are impervious surfaces, and they don’t allow water to soak through the ground,” Peterson said, “but with our underground transportation, it allows water to soak into the ground, filtering it naturally.”
Because their city was divided by a river, the team also included a system of ferries to carry citizens from one side to the other.
“It was very efficient because we had many different ways of transportation,” Brewer said.
At the national competition in Washington, the team won an award for having the best transportation system. When the team won its regional competition in January, each team member received a $1,000 scholarship to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Iowa or Iowa State University.
A study conducted during the 2011-2012 season indicated that Future City is succeeding in its goal of encouraging students to explore engineering as a career choice. The study found that 80% of students thought Future City “helped them see that math and science are important to their future.” Another 57% said the program “helped them see themselves as engineers someday,” and 58% said it made them want to continue with other engineering clubs or activities. Educators, parents, and mentors reported significant gains in students’ teamwork, public speaking, project management, writing, and other skills. Sahr noted one other significant statistic: of the 35,000 students around the country who participate in Future City, 46% are girls, who are underrepresented in the engineering field.
The study also found that what most surprised students about Future City was the amount of work the project took, Sahr said.
“But on the other side of that was they were equally surprised by how they rose to the challenge and what they created,” she said. “They were kind of surprised by their own ability to do that hard work.”
Sahr said Future City teams can be organized in many different ways. Teachers, Boy Scout or Girl Scout leaders, 4-H club leaders, or parents can all register and lead teams. About 50% of Future City programs are run as in-school activities. Some teams will meet every day, others once or twice a week, and the low registration fee of $25 and a $100 cap on model-making materials make the program accessible to schools or groups that otherwise couldn’t afford to compete. For teams that make it to nationals, Future City will cover most of their travel expenses.
A key part of every Future City team is a professional mentor with a background in engineering, architecture, city planning or other science and technology fields. Shannon Haas, the educator for her Future City team and the TAG (talented and gifted) program manager at Harding, said a Future City mentor is a teacher, a facilitator, and a coach whose job is to give students background information on how cities and different pieces of infrastructure work. For example, last year’s engineering problem dealt with energy transportation and distribution, so Haas invited a worker at a nearby nuclear power plant to come to class and describe how it worked.
“One of my students once said that Future City is the whole package,” Haas said. “It has to do with researching, problem solving, writing, presenting, all of it.”
But Haas and Sahr emphasized that the mentor’s role was only to guide students and help shape their ideas, not create them. Sahr said the students are in the lead when it comes to researching, designing, building, and presenting their cities.
“That’s their work up there,” she said. “And I think that that’s another part of what makes it special for these kids.”
The program also encourages students to be creative when solving problems. For example, Arshi Munjal, a member of another Future City team at Harding, said her team solved the water runoff problem by creating a “lily pad” city with different sections that actually float on water.
“When we started ours,” Munjal said, “we wanted to think of something that was kind of different so it would stand out from others.”
Sahr said Future City’s project-based approach captures students’ imaginations and showcases how engineering can make a difference in the world. She called Future City a “transformative” program that gives students the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.
“It’s looking at society and saying ‘what do we need to solve?’ How do we make cleaner water? How do we make our cities more livable? How do we transport people safely and effectively?” she said. “They bump into all of these bigger questions, and it expands their world view so much.”
Visit the Future City website to find out more about the competition, get more information about how to start your own team, or view photos of other teams’ Future City projects. The National Engineers Week Foundation website also has information on more engineering programs and activities for students.