Education

Future City taps into tomorrow with water theme this year

Middle school program aims to engage students in STEM fields

Taft Middle School students Nathan Pearson, 13, of Cedar Rapids (middle) and Catherine Yokanovich, 13, of Cedar Rapids (right), show Cedar Rapids City Council member Susie Weinacht (left) Neoteric Aswan, the city they created for Future City, on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. Weinacht was a judge during the regional competition of Future City, a program for sixth through eighth graders to use engineering principles to create sustainability solutions for cities of the future. (Michaela Ramm/The Gazette)
Taft Middle School students Nathan Pearson, 13, of Cedar Rapids (middle) and Catherine Yokanovich, 13, of Cedar Rapids (right), show Cedar Rapids City Council member Susie Weinacht (left) Neoteric Aswan, the city they created for Future City, on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. Weinacht was a judge during the regional competition of Future City, a program for sixth through eighth graders to use engineering principles to create sustainability solutions for cities of the future. (Michaela Ramm/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Most Iowans don’t think twice when they turn on the faucet to get a glass of water, but Future City — a program that teaches middle school students about engineering — is asking students to think critically about the water they drink by designing a resilient water system.

Students in sixth, seventh and eighth grade in schools across Iowa and beyond will use engineering tools to create resilient water systems for a city they design this school year as part of the Future City program.

This is the 28th year for the international competition sponsored by DiscoverE, an organization that supports engineering and technology education.

Deb Siebenga, coordinator of the talented and gifted program at Franklin Middle School in Cedar Rapids, has taught Future City to her students for almost a decade. She said it helps students develop skills of teamwork, problem-solving and critical thinking.

“I think those skills are missing a lot of times in kids’ regular classrooms,” Siebenga said.

Students work in groups of three or more to design a resilient city with the year’s theme in mind. Teams must design a city, define the problem, come up with solutions and design a scale model using no more than $100 worth of recycled material. They also will write a 1,500-word essay about their city and create a virtual city using SimCity software. Then, they will present their project to a panel of professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

More than 40,000 students in 1,500 schools nationwide participate in Future City annually.

Last year, one of the Future City teams from Franklin won its competition in Iowa and went on to compete in Washington, D.C.

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This year’s Iowa regional final will be held in January at Prairie Point Middle School in Cedar Rapids. The winners then face off at the finals in Washington, D.C. in February.

In Iowa, schools in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Keota, New Hampton, Spirit Lake, Lineville, Clark, Waukee and South Winneshiek participate in the program, said Samantha Dahlby, Iowa regional coordinator for Future City.

She noted that middle school is a critical time for students, when they’re discovering what they’re interested in before going into high school and choosing extracurricular classes.

“They have the developmental capacity to think more broadly about their environment and the world. It’s important for students to understand that science, technology and engineering, they aren’t scary. Anyone can do it. This gives them a general understanding of (STEM).”

At Franklin, Future City is a nine-week class with about 60 students each year. The school hosts its own competition in December to determine which team will go to the Iowa regional competition.

Students in Siebenga’s Future City class are mentored by retired Rockwell Collins engineer Paul Salamon. He comes into the classroom daily to give students insight into their projects.

“I couldn’t do it without him,” Siebenga said.

Future City program manager Maggie Dressel said the cities can be real or imaginary.

“Some teams choose to imagine the future where they live,” Dressel said. “We’ve also had teams go to other planets.”

She said that for more than 80 percent of participants, Future City is their first experience with engineering. So the hope is that the program sparks the idea in some students that they can grow up and be engineers.

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“There’s a really great quote from a former participant of the program,” Dressel said. “‘It’s important for us to be thinking about these things because we’re the ones who are running the future.’ They understand these are big issues in our world, and they’re not going away.”

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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