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Students Envision Transit of Tomorrow in Future City Competition

By Quinn Ford | January 26, 2014 10:07am
 Sixth, seventh and eighth graders from the Chicago area met Saturday for the 21st annual Future City Competition.
Future City Competition
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UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — Students at St. Paul of the Cross grade school in suburban Park Ridge think Iceland is the perfect place to build a new city.

Actually, it might have just one problem: elves.

More than 60 percent of the country's population believe elves exist and even reroute roads to avoid elf settlements, according to St. Paul of the Cross student Molly Gannon.

But Molly and her classmates still elected to plan their city, dubbed "Tendurborg," in Iceland for their entry into the Future City Competition held Saturday at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The 21st annual competition, hosted by a consortium of professional engineers as a way to boost students' interest in science and technology, asks elementary school students to design imaginary cities and find ways to make those cities work. Students built models from recycled materials with a budget of $100. This year's theme was transit.

Twenty-two teams from area schools competed, including squads from Chicago Academy Elementary School, Helen M. Hefferan Elementary School, Immaculate Conception School, Miles Davis Magnet Academy and Otis Elementary School.

On Saturday, Molly's teammate, Jack Fyda, said Iceland is a great location for a new city.

"Iceland has an overabundance of geothermal activity, so that's a quick and cost-effective power source," Jack said.

And Molly, who donned an elf outfit for their presentation, said their city plans didn't exclude the fairy tale creatures.

"We actually have an elf museum and a neighborhood where elves live in our model," she said.

In addition to the elf museum, Molly, Jack and their classmates planned a method of harnessing energy from the volcanoes sitting below Iceland as well a transportation system for the city.

Students worked with teachers and an engineering mentor for months to create their cities. Shawn Murphy, a coordinator for the competition and engineer working in Chicago, said the contest is a way to introduce young kids to concepts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"It opens their eyes to career possibilities, not just in engineering but any technical-related field," he said.

Murphy has been involved with the competition for 12 years beginning when he was an undergrad studying engineering at UIC. He said the competition gives students an idea what an engineer actually does, something he did not learn while he was in grade school.

"This is not something I did when I was young, and it took me a long time to figure out what my interests were," Murphy said. "You have so many options when you're a kid it's hard to pick something."

And Murphy said he is surprised "every year" by what the students can do.

"I was just not as sharp as these kids," he said, smiling. "They're very creative, but even technically, they just absorb so much in such a short amount of time. It's amazing."

Some city plans took on problems scientists say we may be facing in coming years. Students at Franklin Middle School in suburban Wheaton created "Nuevo Isla Transito," a city off the coast of Miami.

Eighth-grader Jake Canker said his team decided to look at Miami after they heard reports the city may be underwater by the end of the century.

And he said the plans for the city also help address plastic garbage currently being dumped in the ocean.

"What we did was we took that plastic, and we constructed it into plastic blocks that are bouyant...and constructed the city on top of those," he said.

Jake said the project was a way to learn about engineering for a few hours a week since the beginning of the school year, and he also said it helped him hone his teamwork skills.

"You have to respect others' opinion," Jake said. "Even sixth graders."

In the end, St. Paul of the Cross' "Tendurborg" won first place in the competition, earning the team a ticket to Washington, D.C., to take part in the national Future City Competition next month during National Engineers Week.

The winners of the national competition will take home $7,500 for their school as well as tickets to U.S. Space Camp.

Steven Manos, a student who worked on the winning "Tendurborg" city, smiled at the thought of going to space camp.

"That'd be awesome," he said.

But the chance of space camp or cash wasn't the reason Steven wanted to compete.

"The idea of planning an entire city to what you want it to be...to try to like push boundaries, try to do things that no one's done before, I thought that was really cool," he said.