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Mentoring middle school students in designing a future city

Mentoring middle school students in designing a future city

February 18, 2014

Authored by Pete Sturtevant, Future City mentor and CH2M HILL water engineer

Since 1992 teams of middle school students from across the nation have designed cities to demonstrate their ideas for grand infrastructure improvements that the future might bring. CH2M HILL has actively supported the Future City Competition here in Washington for several years, and became a national sponsor for the program in 2013.

CH2M HILL encourages employees to mentor individual student teams or participate as judges at the regional competitions. The winning team from each of the 37 regions then competes in the national competition held in Washington, D.C. each February. This year’s theme is Tomorrow’s Transit: Design a Way to Move People In and Around Your City. In addition to supporting the overall competition, CH2M HILL also sponsored its own “Most Holistic City” special award to teams whose city models demonstrate outstanding sustainability and integration principles.

My colleague, Craig Grandstrom, and I from our Seattle office served as engineer mentors for 7th and 8th grade students at Pacific Middle School (in Des Moines – a town 15 miles south of Seattle). Once a student team developed an engineering solution using SimCity software, they displayed their concepts on a 3 x 4 foot scale model city constructed from recycled materials. Each team also submitted an essay beforehand.

Steve Kambol arranged a tour of the Sound Transit facility, Seattle's light rail agency, for middle school students in Washington state.

Steve Kambol arranged a tour of the Sound Transit facility, Seattle’s light rail agency, for middle school students in Washington state.

To enhance this interesting experience, a colleague from our transportation group, Steve Kambol, helped arrange for a tour of the maintenance facility of the region’s light rail agency, Sound Transit. Steve also served as the regional coordinator for CH2M HILL volunteer support for the Future City Competition. The morning of January 4, 13 students and six parents arrived at the 30-acre train yard located two miles south of downtown Seattle. Maintenance Chief Josh Clark led the tour. The facility keeps 62 individual train sets in good operating condition. That number is set to double as the light rail system expands over the next decade. Inside the facility, large hydraulic jacks can lift a 90-ton train set, allowing the electric motor and wheel assembly to be disconnected and repaired. The second-story view of the repair bays was very impressive. But even more fascinating was viewing the underside of a train from a maintenance well underneath the tracks. Few people ever get to see a train from underneath! The students remarked how clean the train appeared, a positive result of the fact that it is powered by electric motors with no possibility of leaking oils or fuels. For the highlight of the tour, everyone was given a ride around the train yard in one of the trains. This was a unique opportunity to experience the inner workings of a modern light rail system.

Middle school students from around Seattle tour the Sound Transit facility, checking out the understide of a light rail train.

Middle school students from around Seattle tour the Sound Transit facility, checking out the understide of a light rail train.

In the weeks following the tour, a number of after-school sessions were held where the students fine-tuned the models and practiced their presentations. The big day of competition finally arrived on Saturday, January 25. A total of 26 teams competed in the Washington region, including a team as far away as Fairbank, Alaska. Seattle’s magnificent Museum of Flight served as the venue and the competition was held among aircraft spanning the Wright Brothers Era through the Modern Space Age. Model cities filled a large room and featured many exotic modes of transportation that may grace cities a century or more into the future. Many of the models had moving parts and the room was abuzz with excitement as the teams made their presentations to the groups of judges. The judges were volunteers from the local engineering community and included a number of CH2M HILL staff. After the preliminary round of morning judging, five finalist teams were chosen.

In the afternoon, each team gave a second presentation in front of a new panel of judges. Several of the presentations were outstanding. Our team had finished second in last year’s competition and there was great drama as the fifth through first place teams were individually announced. Finally, it was down to our Pacific M.S. team and one other team. I took in a long breath and held it as the name of the winning team was announced. It was our team, Rapture City! You can only imagine the cheering and happy chaos that erupted around us as we walked up to the stage to receive our medals and trophy. What happened next was even more amazing. It turns out that the regional winning team, plus the teacher and myself (as the team mentor), were flown to the National Competition site in Washington, D.C. So this past weekend we traveled to the other side of the country to compete in the Future City Competition Finals where the winner will be crowned on Tuesday, February 18 and will receive an all-expense paid trip to a week of NASA Space Camp this summer. Go Pacific M.S. and the Rapture City Team: Mia, Joel and Payton, plus their inspirational teacher, Sandy Gady.

Rapture City team placed first at the Washington Regional Future City competition.

Rapture City team placed first at the Washington Regional Future City competition.

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Pete Sturtevant is a Senior Hydrologist at CH2M HILL who works in the Seattle Office. He has 37 years of experience in all aspects of water resources. He enjoys taking on assignments abroad, when opportunity permits. He is also committed to mentoring the next generation of engineers.

The Future City Competition is a national, project-based learning experience where grade 6-8 students imagine, design and build cities of the future. Students work as a team with an educator and engineer mentor to plan cities using SimCity™ software; research and write solutions to an engineering problem; build tabletop scale models with recycled materials; and present their ideas before judges. The CH2M HILL Foundation provides financial support for this exciting program at a national and regional level to get young students excited about careers in engineering-related careers. The Foundation also sponsors the Most Holistic Award at all 37 regional competitions and the national finals.

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February 2014

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