Future City Has Young People Thinking About The Future Of The World -- And Their Place In It
Michael Gippetti, a 14-year-old at Valley Middle School in Oakland, New Jersey, is a fairly typical teen. He enjoys sports, names lunch as his favorite subject, and when he needs advice on how plastics can generate new cell growth in human organs, he asks Dr. Robert Langer, MIT’s pioneering biotechnology and materials science engineer and winner of the Draper Prize, considered the Nobel of the engineering field.
Gippetti, along with his twin James and classmate Mark Reischel, also 14, are big on plastics and human health these days. They're participating in the 12th annual National Engineers Week Future City Competition™, where middle school students create cities of the future and write a city abstract and an essay on solving an important social need with engineering. The 2004 essay theme is how plastics can be used to help senior citizens in the future, and the teammates from Valley Middle School -- like many of the estimated 30,000 students from 1,100 schools in this year’s competition -- aren’t shy about pulling out all stops to get what they need.
But, how exactly does an eighth-grader manage to pick the brain of one of the world’s most highly-respected, sought-after experts in the field of medical engineering?
“I heard there was a guy at MIT who knew a lot about plastics, a chemical engineer named Robert Langer,” understates Michael. “So, I emailed him and asked would it be possible to use plastics in cell regrowth.”
Soon Michael received Langer’s reply, and some newfound insights. “I learned that cell regrowth is possible. In the future we won’t need transplants anymore.”
Sponsored by the National Engineers Week Committee, a consortium of more than 100 engineering societies and corporations, Future City is one of the most successful not-for-profit educational programs of its kind. Students design their cities first on computer, using SimCity 3000 software donated to all schools by Maxis Corporation of Walnut Creek, California, and then build large, 3-D scale models. In January, student teams working with a teacher and volunteer engineer mentor from the community, present and defend their designs to a panel of judges at one of 34 regional competitions across the country. First place teams at qualifying competitions receive all-expense-paid trips to Washington, D.C. for national finals during National Engineers Week, February 22-28, 2004.
For Donna Tarsavage, a teacher at Helen Keller Middle School in Royal Oak, Michigan and an 11-year Future City veteran, getting young people to consider the future, and also their role in it, is the magic of the competition.
“The average 12- or 13-year-old doesn't think about what it’s like to be 80 or 90,” she says, “but this has forced them to.” She adds that over the years, she has seen her students become much more sophisticated and thoughtful. “They spend more time on research, they’re more aware and they think on a much larger scale. When we first started out, they wanted to design a future McDonald's. Now, they look to see what can they do for the city overall.”
The competition also gives students their first glimpse into engineering, a career option they might otherwise never consider. “For a long time I thought it was just men, but women are really involved in engineering,” says Melanie Adams, one of Tarsavage’s team members. “I learned engineering has a lot of science and math and I like that a lot so now I might be an engineer.”
Such sentiments are music to the ears of those who have long sought effective ways to get young people to develop the math and science skills necessary to make it as engineering students in college. And the volunteer engineer mentors play a pivotal role in that outreach.
For Jennifer Sokoloski, a junior civil engineering major at Rutgers University mentoring a team at Gaudineer Middle School in Springfield, New Jersey, helping young people to consider an engineering career is its own reward. “I like spending time with the kids to help them figure out what they want.” She’s also there to let the children know that there’s room for everyone in the profession. “All those reservations about women in engineering are out the window. People look up to women engineers.”
Jacques Lasseigne, a partner in a Louisiana structural engineering firm and mentor for a team at St. Thomas More School in Baton Rouge, says children can only understand engineering if they see it up close. “They have to be exposed to it,” he says, “and Future City absolutely opens up the field of engineering to them. I’ve never seen a program like it.”
The program’s organizers stress that exposure is the first step to developing a future engineering workforce, a point that Lasseigne readily endorses. “I’d tell any engineer who is considering mentoring in Future City that if you get the opportunity, take it,” he says. “It does so much to advance the engineering community by keying in young minds to our profession.”
The students also learn lessons that will help them in whatever field they choose, but especially engineering, says Carol Rieg, Future City’s national director. “All of the components of a successful engineering effort -- troubleshooting, creative vision, teamwork and cooperation -- come into play with Future City,” she says. “In addition to math, science, and language arts, these young people are addressing the problems they face today and developing the skills and self-confidence necessary to confront the challenges that lie ahead and succeed in the workplace.”
“It’s some of the best learning that students accomplish in their school day,” says John Baron, an eighth-grade science and math teacher at Atascocita Middle School in Humble, Texas, near Houston. “It taps into their imagination. They get to think.”
Of course, don’t bother telling that to the students in Future City -- they’re already convinced. “I heard about it and sounded really cool,” says Kristen Timsley, a 13-year-old on the Humble team. “Then I got into it and it is really cool. I like everything about it.”
“I like how you have to stretch your mind,” says Alexandria Johnson, a soft-spoken 12-year- old from Parks Middle School, located in an economically distressed part of Atlanta, Georgia. One of the ways it stretches minds is by letting children focus on the real world and what kind of city they want for themselves. “I would change the pollution and the violence,” says Alexandria’s teammate Zakia Brown, “and have more people who care about other people.”
Cooperation is one thing that Marissa Kallauger, a 13-year-old from Birchland Park Middle School in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, says she learned from Future City. “I know ‘getting along’ is a kindergarten thing,” she says, “but in Future City you find out why it’s really important.”
It was a tough lesson for Teresa Goeddel, 14, of Harding Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “It’s really difficult not snapping at each other when you’re really tired,” the 14-year-old says, but she learned how since her team has worked “all weekend and after school for two or three hours a day.”
Though it began as a mostly after-school project, increasingly Future City is being integrated into school curriculums. Still, student teams work overtime.
When asked why he chooses to spend his free time on Future City, Danny Ryan, 13, a member of the St. Thomas More team in Baton Rouge who enjoys playing the bass, is quick with an answer. “When I play the bass it helps me be a better guitar player,” he says. “Future City will help me with the future of my life.”
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- The 34 regional sites participating in the 2004 competition are: Alabama, Albany (NY), Buffalo, Northern California, Southern California, Chicago, Colorado, South Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Las Vegas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Milwaukee, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York City, North Carolina, Northern Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Omaha, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, St. Louis, Texas-Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas-Houston, Washington, D.C., and Washington State. For more information visit www.futurecity.org.
- The winning team (three students, teacher, and engineer mentor) from each qualifying regional Future City Competition receives an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., for the national finals. First place national team wins a trip to U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, provided by national finals host Bentley Systems, Incorporated, a leading engineering software company. Second-place team receives a $2,000 scholarship for the school's technology program, sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. A $1,000 scholarship for the third-place team's school technology curriculum is provided by The National Society of Professional Engineers. Numerous other prizes are presented at regional competitions.
- National Engineers Week, founded in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers, is dedicated to increasing public awareness and appreciation of the engineering profession and technology and is celebrated by thousands of engineers, engineering students, teachers and leaders in government and business. Co-chairs for 2004 are The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) / IEEE-USA and the Fluor Corporation. Visit National Engineers Week at www.eweek.org.
About the SimCityTM Franchise: Pursuing a lifelong fascination with simulations, legendary game designer Will Wright and his team at Maxis created the original SimCity in 1989. Critically acclaimed, it garnered dozens of awards and sold millions of copies both domestically and internationally. SimCity 2000TM followed in 1993. SimCity 3000TM, released in 1999, became the #1 selling PC game that year. SimCity 4 was released in January 2003 and continues to win awards and remain on top of the sales charts. SimCity 4 Deluxe Edition, which includes SimCity 4 and the latest SimCity 4 Rush Hour Expansion Pack, launched in September 2003 to rave reviews.
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