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Students create model cities for annual competition

Welcome to Buffalo in the year 2114.

It’s changed quite a bit, but there are some familiar buildings still standing – like One Seneca Tower. It’s still Buffalo’s tallest structure, but without the office space. Instead, its 38 floors have been turned into a vertical farming site.

A few blocks away, a full-length mirror sits atop a warehouse-sized charging station that’s hard to miss because it’s painted completely green. The mirror on the roof serves as a solar panel, befitting the municipality’s new name: Solar City Buffalo.

But among the biggest changes in this futuristic Buffalo: there’s no fracking allowed; no one uses natural gas; there are no fast-food chains; and guns are strictly prohibited.

“There are metal detectors throughout the city to detect weapons,” said Steven Small, the city’s “investor.” “I don’t like guns.” However one-barrel shotguns are allowed for hunting purposes.

Steven is among a team of 15 eighth-graders from the Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School – formerly Futures Academy – in the Fruit Belt who designed and developed a forward-looking city for the annual regional Future City competition, which was held earlier this winter at St. Mary’s Academy.

Futures Preparatory also is one of 11 schools across the country tapped by the National Society of Professional Engineers to pilot a new curriculum for the program. As one of the pilot schools, Futures was not allowed to place in this year’s competition, which attracted 24 schools from across Western New York.

The top five winners at the regional level were: first place – Alternative School for Math and Science in Corning; second – St. Mary’s School in Swormville; third – Christ the King School in Snyder; fourth – Transit Middle School in the Williamsville Central School District; fifth – Mill Middle School, also in Williamsville.

The only other Buffalo school to participate at last month’s regional competition was the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School, said Gavin Luter, a University at Buffalo doctoral student who mentors the students at Futures. Most of the other schools were charters or Catholic schools, as well as schools in the Williamsville district.

The local participants were among the 33,000 students from across the country who take part each year in the competition, which challenges students to draw from a variety of skill sets – from engineering and math to urban planning – to design their cities.

“It’s a lot about teamwork and project management,” said Randy Gammiero, a gifted and talented teacher at Williamsville’s Mill Middle School. “There are a lot of different areas they need to focus on.”

The theme for this year’s competition was Feeding Future Cities. Teams had to identify problems and solutions to finding availability of healthy foods for generations to come, Luter said. The Futures team picked a potentially dangerous problem facing Buffalo in the future: the risk of becoming a food desert.

“That’s a city that has a lot of fast-food restaurants and groceries are hard to get to for people to get healthy food,” said Romeo Anthony, Solar City Buffalo’s  “engineer.”

“And the people have heart disease, obesity and diabetes,” he said.

Underdeveloped neighborhoods like some in Buffalo are experiencing this already, the boys said.

Their solution included creating a vertical farming site at the former HSBC Tower. Vertical farming uses large structures that have the technology to grow plants, Romeo explained.

Big beds of carrots take up space on the floors of the tall, red building in the students’ model. Fruit- and vegetable-bearing plants grow up and down the outside of the building. Workers in the future will use window-washing equipment to go up and down the building to harvest and pick the produce, Romeo said.

The students also built an aquaponic system, in which the carrot plants grow above a tank of water filled with tilapia. The feces from the fish is fertilizer for the carrots, “Mayor” Antonio Haley explained.

“It’s a natural filtration system,” he said. “The carrots keep the water clean for the fish and the fish make fertilizer for the carrots.”

And the carrots and tilapia have nutrients that combat heart disease, obesity and diabetes, Steven said.

The kids also designed a tube as a working prop to pump water into the building for the carrots and fish. The tubing system was based on a scientific principle called the Bernoulli pump, but the students had no idea about that when they were designing it, Luter said.

“They didn’t know until the judges asked them, ‘Do you realize you used a physics concept that makes it work?’ ” Luter said.

The Futures students flew to Washington, D.C., last July for training. But the 11 schools selected for the engineers organization’s pilot program were not allowed to be chosen as a top-five school so as not to give them an edge, Luter said.

But the young crew who designed Solar City Buffalo didn’t mind. They were happy to participate and create their vision of a city that would work in the next century.

“This may be in the future,” Antonio said. “This takes us from the past into the future.”