Saturday, January 26, 2008

“Future City” Competition

On Saturday, January 26, I attended the
“Future City” competition, a science fair of sorts where middle school students write about, construct, and then simulate in SimCity 3000 a model future city.

According the Teacher Handbook, the projects had six parts to them:

  • Computer design of the future city in SimCity 3000 (80 points).
  • Computer evaluation of the future city (20 points).
  • Model of the future city (120 points).
  • Research essay (70 points).
  • Future city design abstract (20 points).
  • Oral presentation (90 points).
Other rules for the models included a size constraint of 25” X 50” X 20”, at least one moving part, and a parts value of less than $100, presumably to keep parents from “helping” through the use of work business materials.

Some of the kids’ ideas were downright ingenious. There was an underwater city, a city on another planet, and a city that depended on cloning the gland of a fictional fish to produce an alternative fuel. Mass transit systems were popular, as were nanotechnology, solar power, and wind power. Only a couple groups dared use nuclear power. None of them discussed politics directly, though that might have been a limitation of the SimCity game or the nature of the assignment itself, which focused on engineering more than social sciences. Two cities were located off Earth, one on the Moon, one in another star system completely. This was somewhat surprising, given these schools’ proximity to
Marshall Space Flight Center. Only the lunar city, “Moontopia” by the Academy for Science and Foreign Language, used space resources.

As a political junkie, one thing I wish had been emphasized more was the social impact of these various technologies. For example, people love their cars. How would these aspiring city founders get people to take only mass transit? The Teacher Guide does address the social aspects of the technologies in the lesson plans, but most of the kids talked about the technologies only.

One exception to this tech-heavy fair was a little creepy because of the way it addressed social issues. The group has positioned a camera at the highest point in the city to monitor the citizens for any signs of pollution, littering, or violence. In this way, they seemed to support a “Big Brother” (or “Big Teacher”) type of surveillance to have a world without violence. Someone needs to talk to their teacher about the tradeoffs between security and freedom.

The mix of students—both by sex and race—was interesting and refreshing. There was only one “typical science fair geek” with glasses and acne.

The presentations had a strong emphasis on environmental improvement, pollution reduction, and “clean” energy; there wasn’t much emphasis on capitalism, culture, or, again, space. I did not get to talk to all of the students. I left for lunch, and when I came back, some new entries appeared, but everyone was awaiting the judging. Nevertheless, I talked to as many of the groups as I could. The entries included:

“Moontopia” – Academy for Science and Foreign Language
This is one of the groups that set up while I was out. The city comprised a variety of cleverly made domes and enclosed city structures (my personal favorite was the CD container with the CDs inside acting as platforms supporting houses from a Monopoly game). The city obviously included solar power--though I was unable to determine if they had any other source--as well as a spaceport.

Submarina Isle –
Discovery Middle School
This was the underwater city. It was located near a geothermal vent near the Mid Ocean Ridge and was roofed over with a dome capable of supporting 30,000 pounds per square inch. The interior included housing, horticulture, and a mass transit line.

Raiderville –
Oak Park Middle School
Aside from being specifically located in the Pacific Northwest, this town could have been anywhere in America, including as it did a baseball field, basic utilities, and hybrid cars. The primary industrial power sources were solar and wind. I asked them if they were concerned about the lack of sunny days in Seattle; one of the boys, thinking on his feet, pointed out that it didn’t have to be near Seattle. “It’s further inland.” Ten points for quick thinking.

Faith City –
Faith Christian Academy
This was the group that included the fish cloning energy source. One of the kids explained to me that scientists had found a deep-sea fish in the Arctic that had a gland that produced the organic equivalent of antifreeze to survive in the deep ocean. “We just sort of extrapolated from there.” Ingenious. However, I’m curious they got away with the cloning aspect. Most of the opposition to cloning has come from Christians.

F.C.A.ville – Faith Christian Academy

Aquaville –
Alexander City Middle School

Gran Tierra – Haleyville Center of Technology

Eastwood – Eastwood Middle School
This was the creepy one with the surveillance tower. It also included monorails, parks, and solar power systems. Very neat, very pretty, very pollution-free, and very controlled. The goal, the kid who talked to me said, was “to have a place without violence.” At that age, I probably would’ve seen that as utopia, too.

Chicoville –
Episcopal Day School
This city was set in Central Mexico, near old Mayan territory. It featured a lot of composting and biofuels. It was named after an environmentalist named Chico, possibly Chico Mendez. One remarkable aesthetic feature of Chicoville was that all the buildings were gold in color. As one girl explained to me, “When you think of the Maya, you think of gold.”

Rosevilla –
Huntsville Middle School
This city featured solar, natural gas, and fusion power sources.

Eagleton 2 –
Challenger Middle School
This one was kind of fun, as the town featured a canal with ball-like vehicles that were driven around by magnets. The transport system featured a Batman logo and its own acronym: BAT – Ball and Air Transport. Eagleton 2 also sported health systems incorporating nanotechnology.

Eagle City – Challenger Middle School
These boys were the ones who included a nuclear power plant in their design. They stood out as well because they had a primary industry and source of income: a toxic waste conversion plant that both incinerated trash for fuel and converted said waste into non-allergenic peanut butter. Sign me up!

Challengeville – Challenger Middle School
The young ladies in charge here decided to place their domed city in Siberia, “where there’s unused land available.” Unlike some of the cities, Challengeville included private automobiles. They also featured egg-shaped monorail transports between living quarters and work places.

San Marino – Huntsville Middle School
These kids rebuilt or made off with the city of
San Marino on the Italian peninsula. They featured several energy sources and declared that they were energy exporters. The specific source of energy now eludes me, but included solar I believe. The team was also rather proud of their desalinization plant for obtaining clean drinking water.

Novus Atlantis –
Chambers Academy
This was another fun design—a floating city that moved through the ocean to keep the city at just the right temperature (68 to 72°F). The city had a small population. Given the energy requirements for moving an entire city, I believe their system included nuclear power.

Westropolis –
Duran Junior High
Westropolis was set on a plateau out west. They relied heavily on solar power, which they pointed out was more abundant because they had less atmosphere over their heads. As I recall one of the kids was very adamant about using mass transit only. "No cars?" I asked. "No."

Nano Nation –
Life Christian Academy
Aside from a rather decorative presentation (there was a giant mobile of the inner solar system hanging over the center of town), Nano Nation also featured some rather clever uses of nanotechnology, including earthquake protection.

Miranda –
Hampton Cove Middle School
This group won me over originally by their rather ingenious water reclamation and purification system. However, they also had more things to share. Miranda is located in the Hawaiian Islands, atop an extinct volcano—the name of which escapes me—near Maui. Its technologies included lightweight hovercraft (“LHCs,” I was proudly informed), nanotechnology, and teleportation to get around the city. The place also featured a research park, hospital, lighthouse, shopping mall, radio tower, and a “House of Worship” that served the world’s four largest religions (“We don’t want to offend anybody”). Their library featured holodeck-like “books” for reading experiences. They even had a restaurant that featured “open kitchen” style dining.

I guess you can tell which one was my favorite. The Hampton Cove kids impressed me by their attention to so many aspects of life in their city, including commerce, education, and transport. I wish them luck.

I didn’t get to talk to the teachers (this was the kids’ show), but I got an impression of the sorts of things the kids were being taught by their content. I don’t like all of it, but at least they’re being asked to think about and plan for the future. Of course if I don’t like what the kids are imagining, perhaps I’ll need to take a more active role in the sorts of dreams they are being fed.

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