Future Cities Competition

March 10, 2009

What will the cities of the future look like? How will emerging technologies be incorporated into the infrastructure? How will the people of the future spend their days? Who is most qualified to postulate the answers to these questions? The best visionaries may be attending a middle school near you.

Each year 7th and 8th graders across the country are challenged to participate in the Future Cities Competition. The students are judged on their performance in three areas: generating a computer model via Sim City, constructing a physical scale model, and writing essays about their city and an emerging technology. This year I volunteered to judge all three aspects. Engineers can also volunteer to mentor the teams.

Check out the Future Cities Web site or contact your local ASCE section to learn how you can participate in the 2010 contest.

The Sim City portion of the contest is pretty straight forward. I’m amazed at how the students are able to develop such robust cities given all the challenges posed in the game. My cities usually go bankrupt after fewer than 10 years and 25,000 citizens.

The essays are my favorite thing to judge. This year’s topic was related to home water use and waste water management. The students researched a number of innovative means for reducing water use and limiting demands on the public wastewater system. Many of their ideas utilized existing common-sense technology like low flow faucets and rainwater collection barrels. Some students really thought out-of-box and described elaborate purification systems to be implemented in orbiting space-cities. Fantastic or not, all of the papers I judged demonstrated a surprising level of thoughtfulness.

The computer cities and essays are submitted a few weeks before the physical models, which are presented in person. The models illustrate just a few blocks of their master city. Students primarily use recycled materials as their building components, and the total in-kind cost of the model is strictly limited to $100. You see lots of re-used plastic containers and packing Styrofoam. Some models are extraordinarily intricate and obviously take hundreds of man-hours to complete. I find it interesting to see the different ideas explored by students from inner city public schools vs. suburban schools. Guess which cities typically have more dense urban centers and which have more open space expressed.

While the full team might encompass ten or so students, only three are allowed to present the model. These students must prepare a five minute presentation and be ready to answer the judge’s questions. When judging, it’s obvious that students come from a broad range of backgrounds. For some, this is their first foray into public speaking. Others take to the oratory naturally and must be encouraged to involve their teammates. Their enthusiasm for their cities, however, is universal.

The winners of the regional competitions are awarded with all-expense paid trips to the national competition held in Washington, DC. The Future City competition is one of the main events highlighting National Engineer’s week, typically held in mid-February. This year’s national winners are from Bexley Middle School in Bexley, Ohio. Their grand prize is a trip to U.S. Space Camp.

This was the third year that I’ve judged the Chicago regional, and every time I am impressed with the thoughtfulness and enthusiasm of the students. It’s reassuring to know that these kids are considering the difficult challenges our future cities will face.

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