On a foggy and chilly Saturday morning last week, children from across Western New York gathered at Mount St. Mary Academy for the 25th annual Future City Competition.
Even though the parking lot was filled with cars of every shape and size, there was a calm serenity in the air. Inside, the calm was cut short, as middle-schoolers in business suits darted into the gymnasium.
In the chaos in the gym, teams rehearsed presentations while judges made their way through the sea of tables.
This year, the competition hosted 15 schools with 19 teams of miniature engineers, future businessmen and women, and young leaders ready to change the world.
To many, Future City is seen as an extracurricular – just a group of kids getting together and making crafts.
However, it is much more than that.
"The goal of Future City was to interest kids in engineering careers, and it works," said Peg Simons, one of the coordinators of the competition. "It works on a variety of different skills and allows them to finesse each skill."
Simons, who has been involved with Future City in various capacities for 18 years, explained the rigorous process the children go through for four months leading up to the competition.
Each team has to design a virtual city using the "Sim City" program and run it for a hundred years.
They then have to focus on the specific topic assigned to them each year; this year’s topic was "The Power of Public Spaces." Next, they have to write two essays; one explaining their city, and another explaining their use and incorporation of public spaces.
The middle-schoolers then have to design and build a scale model of their city, sticking strictly to a specific scale and using recycled materials.
Finally, each team of three students must get up in front of judges and give a seven-minute presentation, then answer questions from the judges.
Future City "builds on the personality traits that get diminished," said Katelin Kostek, a teacher at Mount St. Mary. "The traits that get labeled as ‘nerdy.’ It encourages an engineering state of mind, and gets them excited about the fact that they are capable of doing things that they haven’t thought prior."
Bonnie Rizzo, a coordinator of Future City for five years, said the competition is a way of introducing kids to the whole new world of engineering.
"For me, this is the promotion of the engineering field," she said. "I think that students aren’t exposed to engineering as a discipline and they don’t really know engineers. They see doctors, they see lawyers, but engineering is kind of a hidden profession."
Rizzo hopes that children who are interested in math and science will want to go into this field later in life.
Inside the packed gymnasium on Saturday, eager children tinkered with their model cities, and crazed parents with multiple cameras circled around.
The sea of booths contained a array of displays assembled by children with a shockingly high level of sophistication for their age.
Mia Burgio, an eighth-grader from St. Mary’s in Swormville, was poised and commanding as she talked about her booth. Her team’s city, Hofu Reto, located on a small abandoned island off the coast of Japan called Hashima, centered around vast public space. To show off their public space, the team built a residential area connecting the citizens of the island to markets, shops, and other locations.
"The fact that all our residential buildings are connected is a great way for people to interact with each other," Mia said. "We have a multigenerational building in our connectors where people can work with the elderly and learn different skills."
The city emphasized clean technology and preserving the natural beauty of the island with underground transportation systems.
"Future City gave me a lot of confidence," Mia said. "I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. But because of this, I want now want to be a neurosurgeon because I find it so cool to see how science and math connect."
The depth of knowledge each team had about new forms of energy, cleaner ways of transportation, ways to use DNA to turn food into something else was so impressive, it was hard to imagine that only one team would walk away with first place and head to Washington, D.C., to compete in the national competition.
Five teams were picked to give final presentations: St. Peter’s Catholic, Public School 37, Mill Middle, Transit Middle and the Alternative School for Math and Science.
As the crowd gathered in the auditorium to await the final presentations, Mount St. Mary student volunteers dressed as "mad scientists" cheered the audience up with corny science jokes.
Of the five teams, two chose to build their cities in Western New York.
Public School 37’s presentation about their city, Synergy, located in Buffalo, included a clever pitch to Mayor Byron W. Brown. In their city, Route 33 was restored into a parkway reconnecting the segregated sections of Buffalo, and abandoned houses were turned into greenhouses.
The Alternative School for Math and Science redesigned Elmira, with Water Street being used as a popular meeting place with residential and entertainment areas.
St. Peter’s Novirana was located in Fiji with three different sources of energy: solar panels, wind turbines, and WEC or Wave Energy Converters.
Mill Middle’s Paradisville focused on revamping a "failed" attempt at their city in Flint, Mich. The team made a point of addressing the contaminated water situation and resolved that problem with a better waste management system.
Finally, Transit Middle and Fecit-Turtures resolved the issue of excess pollution from cars with a green maglev system.
After judges finished deliberating, Rizzo took the stage to announce the winners. Tension was high as teams gripped hands. In fifth place was Transit Middle. In fourth place, St. Peter’s. In third place, the Alternative School for Math and Science. In second place, Public School 37, and in first place, Mill Middle’s seventh-grade team.
They rushed the stage, both children and parents crying, to accept their awards. Parents fought to get pictures of their beaming children, ready to take on Nationals in Washington, D.C.
Future City is much more than an extracurricular. It’s a wake-up call to every future scientist, business leader, and child to use their imagination to solve the world’s problems.
Amanda McNulty is a senior at Mount St. Mary Academy.