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Remake Learning focuses on Pittsburgh’s leadership in the international movement to “remake learning” and create educational opportunities designed for our times, the Pittsburgh region’s need to prepare its young people for college and the work force by building on the basics and connecting students with hands-on learning experiences that develop relevant skills.This series of reports was made possible through a grant from the Grable Foundation.

Ellis School Students Try To Solve The Problems Of The Future

The Ellis School

In the year 2113, a city in the Katmandu Valley of Nepal will be surrounded by an earthquake mitigation system and crisscrossed by underground pneumatic tubes that will zip solid waste right out of your house. 

At least that is what a group of seventh and eighth graders at The Ellis School in Pittsburgh will be presenting next week at the national Future City competition.

“The whole point of this is to imagine 100 years in the future, but it has to be based on something that could really happen,” said Ellis School Science Teacher Karen Compton.

The team of eight middle school girls earned the right to represent the region, by winning the Future City contest held last month in Pittsburgh. If their 50-inch diorama, posters, computer simulation and live presentation bests the 35 other regional winners, the students will get to attend space camp.

“I definitely think we’re a little nervous for nationals, but proud that we made it that far. And to know that our ideas are one of the best in the whole country,” said eighth grader Lela Krackow. “So even if we do not win or place, I think we will all feel really proud about what we accomplished.”

The girls on the team had to write an essay last year as to why they should be selected for the squad. Once they were chosen, they quickly got down to work in the spring and continued their work with a week-long summer camp and uncounted hours of work outside of class during the current school year. 

“Some schools run it as a class and do the project with the whole classroom … We keep it around eight. Somewhere between eight and 10,” said Andrea Christian-Michaels, Ellis School Academic Learning Support teacher and Future City team advisor. 

That selectivity seems to be paying off for the 400-student all-girls school. Ellis has entered the competition eight times, winning the Pittsburgh regional four times and never placing below fifth at the regional level.  

Each year, the competition has a slightly different quirk.

“Last year it was that we had to create a vegetable and source of protein for our citizens. This year we had to create a solid waste management system,” said eighth grader Mishon Levine.

Since the city exists in the year 2113, the students decided garbage trucks were no longer the solution.

“Our process starts with the government. Manufacturers are required by law to place nano tags within their products, which helps us to identify them when we are sorting them in our centralized waste collectors underneath the city,” said eighth grader Maggie Ginter-Frankovitch.

And then comes the sorting.

“Lasers hit the nano tags and cause them to emit energy, and the energy is magnetically attracted to the walls of the sorter,” said eighth grader Lela Krackow.

The imagined system sends the organic waste to a composter, the recyclables are recycled and the rest, according to Krackow, is still put to good use.

“All other non-organic waste is sent to our plasma gasification centers, where it’s heated to over 3,000 degrees celsius by plasma torches. This creates ‘syngas,’ or synthesis gas, as well as slag. Syngas is used to heat buildings in our city and slag is used as building materials,” Krackow said.

That type of “out of the box thinking” started when the girls took a week out of their summer to work on the project. During that week, they took field trips and listened to lectures on things as exciting as zoning. Seventh grader Lowrie Woodside said it was worth giving up a week of summer.

“Sometimes, what you are learning in school isn’t the same thing as if you’re doing it in life. With this you have to apply it to real world problems,” Woodside said.

“It’s a little bit different, because in school, we all collaborate. But this is a project where it’s your own personal ideas coming out and so there was a lot of challenges of collaborating and communicating to make sure that everyone get a little of what they want in the end,” added Ginter-Frankovitch.

While the team worked together on the Future City project, the students did break up into sub-groups with specific tasks intended to highlight each girl’s strengths and interests.

“My daddy kept trying to persuade me to join the team, and I only thought it was like science and math stuff. And I’m not good at that stuff, but I like art and creating small buildings,” eighth grader Mary-Almah Davis said.  “That’s why I joined when I learned it was more about… problem solving. And my family was proud of me and happy, especially my dad.”

Credit The Ellis School
The Ellis School's Future City team with their model and their first place trophies from the Pittsburgh region. The team will be in Washington D.C. next week competing for the national title.

Christian-Michaels said the Future City competition is not just about getting the task done, it’s also about changing the way the team members think. She said throughout the process, the kids learned about the engineering design process, scientific writing and in general, expanded the way they think.

“I don’t think any of these girls, if they have a long-term project or a big project, will view it quite the same way because they know what working on this time frame was like,” said Christian-Michaels. “Seeing if you keep working at it, there is a payoff. So, I think it expands their awareness of some of those tasks.”

After winning the regionals in Pittsburgh last month, the members of the Ellis School team made a few tweaks to their supporting posters and their Back to the Future-inspired presentation.

“Once you get into nationals, it’s a whole other step, and it’s a whole other place and you can see all the best teams that have come from around the country and you get to see all these different ideas,” said Levine who was part of the “eye-opening experience” of last year’s national competition.

The members of the team all say they are just happy to be going to the nationals, but Christian-Michaels and Compton said there were tears last year when the team fell short of a national title. But Compton said they got over it quickly and were able to see the bigger picture.

“Pretty much every year, we have seen that by the time we get to regionals they feel so good about what they’ve done that they feel like ‘You know what, whether we win or not we did an awesome job, we did our best, we love our city and our idea,’” Compton said. “Having that sense of pride from what you accomplished and not needing that outside reinforcement (of a trophy) is really good to see.”

Compton said the process sticks with the kids well beyond the 10 months they spend working on it.

“We’ve had girls who are now in college, who went through this and two of them wrote me a letter last year at their graduation and said that this changed how they see everything and what they want to do with their lives and thanking us for making that process possible, and that mean a lot,” Compton said.

The 2016 Future City team from the Ellis School includes Grace Coffelt, Mary-Almah Davis, Maggie Ginter-Frankovitch, Lela Krackow, Adylade Krimmel, Mishon Levine, Alex Rushford and Lowrie Woodside.

The team will go through various rounds of elimination next week, with a national champion being crowned Wednesday.

The Remake Learning series is a collaboration of 90.5 WESA, WQED, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh.