WASHINGTON — A team of middle schoolers from Rochester, Mich., beat out hundreds of other students on Tuesday to win a $7,500 prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to Space Camp by building the best futuristic city design.
The first place winner, Michigan’s St. John Lutheran School, and the four other finalists — from New Jersey, N
orthern Texas, the Great Plains and Northern California regions — presented their proposed futuristic cities to the judges and the other 32 teams for the final round of competition. Future City, sponsored by private firms such as Shell Oil and Bentley Systems Inc., aims to inspire more young students to pursue engineering careers by engaging them in engineering and problem solving from young age, creating imaginative solutions to real world obstacles.
Greg Bentley, the CEO of Bentley Systems, Inc., said he loves the enthusiasm with which middle schoolers present their ideas.
“They work together so willingly, it’s really inspiring to be here,” he said. The prize money given to first, second and third place teams goes to the math and science programs at their schools.
Every year, the participants are given a particular engineering challenge to incorporate into their design. This year, the competition’s 21st year, the challenge was to create a transportation system in and around a city that could eliminate street congestion while limiting pollution. Students tackled the problem from a variety of angles, including vacuum tubes, quantum levitation and underground systems.
The team from Michigan created a city in China named Gongping. Their transportation system of tubes connecting various sectors of their city is titled F-A-I-R, standing for Flexible, Accessible, Integrated and Renewable. The team stressed the point of accessibility, saying that a mass transportation system is only worthwhile if everyone can use it. Their model included a light-up display of the system.
Some of the cities are based on existing places with transportation woes. New Jersey’s team, which took second place, chose to set its future city in New Zealand.
“I really liked that they have indigenous people with a strong connection to nature,” said Nigel Dasilva, an eighth grader who wore a mask with a yellow beak in his role as a native bird for their presentation skit.
The New Jersey team members said building the model, which must use recycled materials and cost less than $100 to complete, was their favorite part of the project. They said they learned a lot about engineering, how to work together, and to not procrastinate.
The reason to focus on such young kids, said Bentley, is that they need to be engaged in engineering and problem solving in their early grades so they want to take advanced science and math classes to develop the skills to create a sustainable future.
In 2012, an independent evaluation of the program by the Concord Evaluation Group found that 53 percent of competing students said that Future City helped them see themselves as engineers someday while 80 percent said it helped them see math and science as important to their future. Forty-six percent of the study participants were female, while only 14 percent of adult engineers were women, according to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.
Allison Kindig, who won this year’s Alumna of the Year award, said that competing in Future City in 2007 inspired her to take an engineering course her first semester of college. She is now in her third year studying industrial engineering, business and public policy at the University of Iowa.
“I’m still competing in a Future City competition,” she said, “but now my judges are the men, women and children in the towns and villages we’re trying to improve… The world needs problem solvers. These lessons you learned while creating these cities are so applicable.”