Magazine article Technology & Learning

The Fantastic and the Real

Magazine article Technology & Learning

The Fantastic and the Real

Article excerpt

The National Engineers Week Future City Competition provides compelling evidence of the power of pairing computer software and technology with traditional hands-on activities to teach challenging subject matter and also harder- to- measure "real" workplace skills. Now in its 13th year, the Competition asks middle school students to work in teams to design some aspect of a city's future. This year's theme: "How can futuristic transportation systems efficiently use aggregate materials--crushed stone, sand, and gravel--as a basic construction product?"

Dry stuff? No way. A visit to the Web site (www.futurecity.org) reveals the creativity of young imaginations taken wing: ice planets of the distant future; subterranean towns; cities fueled by cold fusion; habitats on the Martian equator, in Antarctica and on a floating island in the Pacific; "Cardiopolis," where artificial hearts are manufactured; hydrogen-fueled vehicles, space elevators, finger phones, and holographic butterflies. Though the settings may be fanciful, however, it's real problems that students address, including global warming, education, pollution, healthcare and aging.

Kids begin their designs on the computer using Maxis' (now part of Electronic Arts) classic Sam City simulation software program and move from there to constructing real models. Finalists are flown to Washington D.C. to showcase their projects and compete with others, with the grand prize winners moving on to the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.

Competition public relations consultant Donald Lehr of the New York-based Nolan/Lehr Group, makes it a point to follow up with past winners to learn where they are now and to find out what long-term impact the program has had on their lives. Below, a sampling of recent responses.

Matt, 23: 1993 winner, Tilden Middle School, Rockville, MD

"There's nothing wrong with setting high goals."

Graduated: Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York

Major: Communications, TV and Radio production

Currently: Working for the CBS television program "Survivor."

Even though the competition was years ago, it's still an inspiration that I draw on. Being in my mid-twenties now I can appreciate what a major accomplishment it was for two of my friends and I to successfully follow an idea from conception to completion, and along the way gain some recognition (and let's not forget getting to meet and speak with the President!!).

I took away many valuable lessons from the competition. It was my first real public speaking role. I worked in a group, which exposed me to many of the basic group dynamics and roles I would later have to take on to be successful in college, and now in the work place. Up to the point of the competition I had been somewhat independent, and bring forced to sit down and work out roles, and then stick to them to complete a project was an invaluable lesson.

Alexandra, 20; 1995 winner, Central School, Glencoe, IL "... I realize now that all changes start out as ideas, models, and only later result in real change."

Currently: Junior, Middlebury College in Vermont

Major: International/Environmental Studies with a focus in East Asia and China

The many hours we spent on the computer, building the model, practicing our speech, forced us to work as a team. Every person was an integral part and it was amazing to see what can result when people work together well. I also learned that creativity plays an important role in engineering and the environmental field--that it is important to realize that there really are no boundaries to what you can do. …

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