ENGINEERING Problem-Solving; Future City Would Use Fuel Cells

Article excerpt

Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

From styrofoam, plastic, Plexiglas, cork and wood, 10 students at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington are building a scale model of a future city they call Libertania.

As the students envision it, Libertania is a resort city located off of the coast of New York City on a man-made land mass shaped like the torch of the Statue of Liberty.

The students designed the city for the 15th annual National Engineers Week Future City Competition, sponsored, in part, by the National Engineers Week Foundation, a consortium of more than 100 professional and technical societies and major corporations.

The Future City Competition presents a problem to seventh- and eighth-graders about a pressing global need, while fostering their interest in math, science and engineering. This year's problem focuses on how to develop a future city that uses fuel cells for power.

"We have to figure out how to use fuel cells to generate the electricity a city needs," says Cassidy Nolen, technology education teacher at Kenmore Middle School.

Fuel cells convert water, through an electrochemical reaction, into hydrogen and oxygen to produce electrical power with heat and water as the only byproducts, Mr. Nolen says.

"The city has to be grounded in science," he says. "It has to be something that's attainable within 100 years of technology."

About 30,000 students from 1,110 schools are participating in regional competitions this month. (See sidebar for times and location.) The winners from the 38 regions will have a chance to face off in the finals competition Feb. 19-21 during National Engineers Week.

"They have to use a computer program .. that introduces them to a lot of engineering concepts and even some business ideas," says Susan Parsons, fellow member of the Baltimore-Washington Section of the Society of Women Engineers, an organization based out of Chicago that encourages women in engineering careers. She is director of contracts for DFI International, a defense and homeland security consulting firm in Northwest.

Students learn that jobs in technology involve more than sitting behind a computer, Ms. Parsons says.

"It opens a whole new world to them to see what kind of problems are faced by engineers, to get some problem-solving skills and maybe some interest in what new technologies are available," says Sajjad Durrani, president of the D.C. Council of Engineering and Architectural Societies (DCCEAS), one of the co-sponsors of the competition. He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering.

Instead of being given a formula to solve problems, students are given the problem and have to find their own formula, says My-anh Nguyen, an eighth-grader at Kenmore Middle School.

"It's not like anything else you do in school," she says. "You take our problems today and create your own formula and solve it yourself."

Students are required to use SimCity software to design their future city and to use the design as a blueprint for building a model out of recycled materials that cost no more than $100. The students are required to write an abstract describing their city and a 500- to 700-word essay explaining how the city uses fuel cells in residential, commercial and industrial zones without causing pollution.

"I'm anxious to see what the students come up with, because the question is very timely," says Carol Rieg, national director of the Future City Competition, headquartered in Alexandria. "They put their own spin on it as a 12- or 14-year-old looking at the future."

At the competition, three student presenters will present the model and written material to a panel of judges of volunteer engineers. The student presenters are part of a team, which consists of a teacher from their school who facilitates and advises the students on their project and an engineer who serves as their mentor. …