At first glance, the future city may look disconcertingly like the alleys, gutters, and vacant lots of today's deteriorating inner cities: an old air filter, a broken globe, a discarded lamp shade, a Star Wars model.
But look again. The recycled parts have been elegantly reconstructed as a gleaming model of a city deep below the Atlantic Ocean. There, 300,000 inhabitants beneath pressure-deflecting domes busy themselves by producing energy from geothermal vents and beaming it to electricity-hungry cities around the globe.
At least, that's how it works in the fertile minds of middle-schoolers here at St. John Lutheran School in Rochester, Mich. And the judges of the 10th annual National Engineers Week Future City Competition apparently caught a glimpse of their vision. Eight sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders representing the school won a regional contest and will go on to the finals next week in Washington, D.C., to compete against 28 other regional winners.
"One of the things we've found through the years that has made the competition so successful is that it is experiential, hands-on learning, but also that the learning goes on long after the competition is over," says Carol Rieg, national director of the Future City Competition. "Perhaps they'll never look at a road again and wonder how it got there. They've learned about zoning, budgets, and trade-offs and compromises."
The four-part competition begins with students using popular SimCity computer software to design a city. Guided primarily by a teacher and an engineer-mentor, the team then selects a portion of the city and builds a model. They have to keep the cost below $100, which encourages the use of recycled material. Next, they write an essay on a specific engineering problem. Finally, they present the model to judges as if they are city planners at a council meeting.
The Future City Competition has grown rapidly. Beginning with 175 schools and 600 students in 1992, it now counts 950 schools and 30,000 student participants.
One heartening sign is that half of the participants are girls, who have historically lagged in earning science and math degrees.
Ms. Rieg attributes at least some of the growth to an international study, released in 1998, that showed US high school seniors ranked near the bottom among industrialized nations in math and science.
The three eighth-graders from St. John who will travel to Washington to present the team's model were part of the school's winning regional team last year as well. The trio came back from the capital intent on topping themselves this year, and spent much of the summer in the library trying to settle on a distinctive concept for a new city.
The lightbulb moment came when they stumbled upon a quote. "It was by a marine biologist, and he said there's a perception that we've already explored the seas, but in reality we know more about Mars than the oceans," Nada Zhody says.
They logged nearly 200 hours of designing, brainstorming, critiquing, and building. Four engineers, two science teachers, and two parents advised the team. After weeks of preparation, the city named Robust was born, located in the district of Sitnalta (based on the backward spelling of Atlantis, as in the Atlantis Massif, a spot along the mid-Atlantic ridge with plenty of geothermal activity).
The main elements of the model are three domes (two halves of a globe and a lampshade) which house spaces for living, working, and recreation. A people- and cargo-mover runs between them, powered by the motors and heads of scrapped computers and VCRs.
Vertical tubes simulate the geothermal power plant. In theory, sea water would cascade downward, spin a turbine, and then be swallowed in a geothermal vent and expelled as steam, which would help turn a second turbine. The resulting electrical energy would be sent through a superconducting wire to a floating particle-beam transmitter, which would zap the electrical energy to a satellite.
Parents, teachers, and the engineering mentor can explain concepts and show how things work, but the students construct the model to simulate technology, without using actual water or electricity.
"It's really remarkable what kids this age can achieve," says John Pfund, the team's sponsoring teacher.
"The best part to come out of this for her is how to work in a team," says Karen Delaney of her daughter Katelyn, a sixth-grader on the St. John team. "And there's a lot more to it than just the engineering. The presentation skills they learn are invaluable."
William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, has been to the Future City finals in the past - which he describes as a cross between a science fair and a rock concert.
"The reality of engineering is that you create solutions to human problems, and that act of creativity is a lot of fun," Mr. Wulf says.
Although he believes the competition helps break down the nerd stereotype, he's not sure that will be enough to counteract the downward trend in engineering enrollment (which is 20 percent lower than in 1983).
Whether or not students decide to pursue engineering after participating in the contest, they value the broader lessons the experience offers. Craig Roush, a member of the 1995 National Champion Future City team as a seventh-grader in Wisconsin, is now a New York University student and hopes to become a newspaper film critic.
"It might sound a bit hokey," he says, "but it showed me if you put your whole effort into anything, you can do it."