Pop culturally speaking, the idea of a future city suggests an array of fantastical images. The keen space age optimism of the mid-twentieth century is ubiquitous in images of the 1939 World's Fair, at Disney's Tomorrowland, in Buck Rogers serials, on The Jetsons, and in many other sources. On the bleaker side, there are Blade Runner and The Matrix, with their visions of the world gone bad. But for the young teenagers competing in the fifteenth annual National Engineers Week Future City Competition, held in February in Washington, DC, success wasn't about telling fictional stories. Instead, the competition challenged students to imagine viable solutions to real-life problems.
The idea behind Future City is to provide an opportunity for seventh and eighth graders to explore the realities of engineering, planning, energy generation, and other related disciplines in a more hands-on way than traditional textbook study provides. The competition also fosters teamwork among students, as well as with teachers and members of the private sector.
You know that familiar refrain about American students underperforming in science and math? It's hard to reconcile that with Future City. The competition won't create leaders overnight, but if even one out of twenty student competitors enters one of these professions -- and so far the ratio has proven to be much higher -- then the event has more than justified itself and the efforts of its organizers.
Not unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, the nationwide competition starts as a series of regional face-offs, which then feed into the finals in Washington. Working in teams of 3, students design a host of infrastructure, transportation, housing, and energy features -- at first with SimCity 3000 software.
The teams then write a city abstract and an essay about using engineering to solve an important social need. (This year's theme was using fuel cells to power a city of the future.) Next, they present and defend their cities before engineer judges at the competition. They work with a faculty adviser as well as a professional mentor, but the guiding principle is that the cities they design are their own. About 30,000 students from more than 1,000 schools participated in this year's competition.
In an almost too-perfect case of poetic justice, the qualifying team from St. Thomas More Catholic School, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana -- a city that doubled in size overnight with Hurricane Katrina refugees -- walked away with first place this year. The middle school students -- Jake Bowers, Emily Ponti, and Krisha Sherburne -- teamed up with their teacher, Shirley Newman, and a volunteer mentor, chemical engineer Guy Macarios.
"I remember when we came into DC on the plane -- it was all white on the ground," Sherburne says. "We went and played in the snow and ice skated at the Japanese memorial. We'd hardly ever seen snow before." For winning first place, they'll soon take another trip, to attend Space Camp, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, in Huntsville, Alabama.
Bowers, Ponti, and Sherburne's first-place entry imagined a city called Mwinda, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (The name means "light" in Lingala, a language spoken in that country.) The design sought to improve the fortunes of ordinary citizens there by providing power, housing, water, food, and transportation. Situated near the Equator, Mwinda is very deliberately located on the Fimi River, which flows from Lake Mai-Ndombe, in order to provide easy access to water; there are also rich mineral deposits nearby.
At the core of the winning St. Thomas More entry is a focus on renewable energy sources. Mwinda not only generates all its own energy through alternative sources but also creates a surplus that is sold to other cities. Energy is generated through fuel cells powered with hydrogen collected from phytohydrogen generators (genetically enhanced algal cultures that produce the element as a by-product) and with solar-collector hydrogen generators.
A second alternative-energy system, called Tsetse (named after the mythological African goddess of lightning), uses massive lightning-containment capacitors composed of dielectric glass and conductive metals from waste. "There are more lightning strikes there than anywhere in the world," Ponti says.
"Since we went through so much trouble here in Louisiana, I really wanted to try and fix the problems they were having," she explains. "In the Congo, 51 percent of their population does not have potable water. And they need more adequate housing, just like we did."
St. Thomas More is no stranger to the winner's circle at this competition: Teams from the school have won its regional Future City competition for the past eight years. Its students have also been in the national finals for four of those years, and 3 of them won the competition two years ago.
"Baton Rouge has become a lab for our students," Newman says. "Our population doubled overnight after Katrina. We have a tremendous traffic problem now. This is probably one of the few areas of the country where the housing boom is just everywhere. Our shelters are full. And we want the kids competing in Future City to see that.
"We'd take them on drives through the city and share how their city has changed," she adds. "Then they begin to understand the details of it: the roads in disrepair, the need for potable water. My challenge to them is to find a problem to solve. And this year they did a good job, because they chose a good place: the Congo. It's got a lot of problems -- poverty, disease, and lack of adequate housing."
The school's consistently outstanding performance at the annual competition has more than a little to do with Newman, who utilizes a unique method of evaluating all her middle school students -- Future City competitors or otherwise. At the beginning of each school year, she surveys them to determine whether they are right-brain or left-brain dominant. She also keeps notes and records on each student's learning style.
"If I don't know who they are and how they approach tasks, it's very hard to teach or even assign material to them," Newman says. "I know, for example, that left-brains are very analytical. They get very upset without order. The right-brain is happy any way the information comes in. The way they have to research and brainstorm in this competition, even the most left-brained thinkers have to be creative. This year, I had three right-brained kids, so that affected the way I could teach them."
Newman also believes the fact that she teaches English and language arts, rather than math or science, gives her an advantage. "A lot of the key to success in Future City is the reading and researching that goes into it," she explains.
The Future City competition includes a robust roster of alumni who have gone on to careers in city planning, engineering, architecture, and a host of related professions. And, of course, that's one of the principal inspirations for the competition.
"One of the greatest challenges for those of us with engineering at the core of our businesses is securing a talented and diverse workforce for the future," says Greg Bentley, CEO of Bentley Systems, which operates Space Camp. "Our company has joined many others in supporting the National Engineers Week Future City Competition, which captures the attention of students when their choice of courses could have otherwise foreclosed engineering as a pursuit. The combination of engineer mentors, hands-on learning, and teamwork engages students' imaginations and their interest in engineering."
Future City also illuminates many of the pragmatic challenges of seeing projects come to fruition in the real world. "All the talents that engineers use in their careers -- math, science, language arts, communication skills -- the students in Future City must use, too," says Carol Rieg, the competition's national director. "And, like engineers, they do so through research, teamwork, and compromise. These important lessons come not from books but from hands-on projects like Future City."
What's more, the competition provides an example of how businesses in the private sector can become institutionalized partners of the educational system in preparing young minds for the years ahead -- the ones they will actually live in. Those more fanciful visions of the future -- the ones populated with jet packs and flying cars -- don't do much for the real engineers of tomorrow. Or, for that matter, the residents of Mwinda.
Brian Libby is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for the New York Times, the Oregonian, and Salon.com.