The city of Zumala sits on the Nile Delta. Edible mushrooms feed on plastic waste and plants filter the water for residents and businesses. Suspended tubular trains carry the city’s 300,000 people from place to place, high above the buildings.
The fictional city cost less than $100 to build and was designed by 10 middle-schoolers.
Each year, participants compete in a given topic or theme; this year’s was “the power of public spaces.”
“We incorporated that into every aspect of our city,” said 13-year-old Gwen Havern, an eighth grader at St. Bede's. “In the residential zone, we have community gardens; in the commercial zone, we have various sightseeing towers, and we have underwater gardens, which are like domes that provide a controlled environment for plants to flourish.”
The competition begins with the virtual design game, “Sim City.” Teams then write an essay and a project plan, and build a scale model. At the competitions, judges question presenters about the economic and environmental factors, social issues and sustainability affecting the town.
St. Bede's, a private Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh school serving about 300 students ages 3 to eighth grade, has participated for a consecutive 18 years -- every year the regional competition has been held in Pittsburgh.
This year’s win over 28 other teams marks eight for the school, more than any other competitor. They’ll be attending the national competition this weekend in Washington D.C.
Betsy Killmeyer, science teacher at St. Bede’s, has been the Future City adviser that whole time. She said continuity has helped her understand the pace and style of the program.
“There is definitely a learning curve for Future City,” Killmeyer said.
One thing that’s stayed consistent, she said, is her recruitment strategy. Since the beginning, Killmeyer said she's had the middle school teams talk about their cities with younger students.
“They see the production of the team members,” Killmeyer said. “They become interested.”
Before they leave for nationals, St. Bede’s will hold a pep rally for the Future City team. Killmeyer said just as some schools celebrate athletic success, St. Bede’s highlights their academic performers.
“Sharing the excitement with the student body, letting people know who may not know yet what Future city is and sort of helping them understand that the girls worked very, very hard,” Killmeyer said.
Eighth grader Anna Cappella said seeing her predecessors' projects years ago influenced her to join.
“Every team has just been sort of a part of the school’s history,” said Cappella, 13. “I have been looking forward to it since I was in the third grade watching the team go to nationals.”
Havern, who helps present for the team, said because teachers don’t incentivize the program, team members end up being more dedicated and motivated.
“I was never forcefully prompted to do Future City,” she said. “It’s only the kids who really want to do it. I think that’s really important.”
Carnegie Science Center's STEM Coordinator Linda Ortenzo said while that’s definitely a factor, she hopes the program’s success inspires other districts to include Future City in to their science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes.
“Clearly we would love to see all middle schoolers have the opportunity,” Ortenzo said. “It demonstrates all the essential skills that students need and allow them to take the content that they would be learning anyway, and learning it in so much more of a deeper way.”
Ortenzo said she’s encouraged when she sees her teams made up of mostly girls, especially given the historic shortage of women in the field. According to the National Science Foundation’s 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators, women make up about 29 percent of the STEM workforce.
“We’re very happy to have these girls coming in being extremely successful in the competition along with their male counterparts and just showing them that this is a career for them,” Ortenzo said.
Carl Schwartz, Future City committee chair, said programs like his help make STEM education tangible at a time when it really matters to students.
“They’ve seen what a nurse does by watching TV, they kind of think (they know) what a lawyer does. But what is out there on television that says what an engineer does?” Schwartz said.