Last week, Jack Flom, an eighth-grader at Rosemount Middle School, was busy designing a city of the future.
As he put the finishing touches on the city's model, he explained every detail of how it will work, from its circular layout to its transportation system and reliance on nuclear power.
"I think this part's the hardest," he said of creating the model. "But it's also the funnest."
Flom is one of four students on a team that was scheduled to compete Saturday in Minnesota's Future City Competition Regional Finals at the University of Minnesota. They named their fictional city Altona and placed it in northern California.
This year, more teams than ever — 53 from Minnesota and North Dakota — took part in Future City, a program in which middle school students are challenged to design a fictional city set in the future. The regional finals were set for Saturday at the University of Minnesota.
Only one of those teams will continue to the finals in Washington, D.C.
A second team from Rosemount Middle School also was scheduled to compete Saturday, along with 10 other teams from the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district.
The Future City program began 21 years ago and has been in Minnesota for 14 years, said Colleen Feller, the regional coordinator.
"It started as a way to get engineers on TV," Feller said. "The goal is to expose students to the field of engineering."
And it's best if you can pique students' interest in engineering early, so it can gel in high school, said Will Grunewald, a retired electrical engineer from 3M who has been involved with the program for a decade.
He used to be a judge, but now he's one of the Rosemount team's mentors. All Future City teams have access to an engineer mentor.
"Right now there's an extreme shortage of engineers in this country," Grunewald said. "You talk about the number of engineers that are going to retire in the next 10 to 20 years — it's phenomenal. There's going to be a huge vacuum."
Seeing the 'big picture'
Each year, Future City has a theme. Last year, it was managing stormwater runoff, and the year before that, energy.
This year, the focus was transportation, which each Rosemount team approached in a slightly different way.
In their city, the Altona team used Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), a form of mass transit in which people take computer-controlled electric cars to destinations along a set track.
"It's really difficult to design an efficient city," said Michael Stefanko, an eighth-grader. "You want to keep it as green as possible, but there's a trade-off in terms of money."
A second team invented Awecity, a city incorporating Small Electric Cars (SEC), similar to go-carts, to move people around. A second part of their plan involves a monorail that levitates on magnets and can even carry riders' tiny cars to new locations.
Both teams are led by Alyssa Simmers, a math teacher and first-time coach. While some teams participate as part of a class, others, like Simmers' teams, meet after school, usually twice a week.
One challenge was getting students to see the big picture, since the project has so many parts, she said.
In addition to designing a tabletop model of their city — worth the most points — teams must research and write two essays, create a virtual city using SimCity software, and formulate an oral presentation for the judges.
Teamwork is key
Both teams have done the majority of the work on their own, Simmers said, with advising from mentors along the way.
Grunewald said he often reminded students that their city, which must include industrial, residential and commercial sections, should be "futuristic but realistic."
Students also learned background information from a visit by Rosemount's mayor, Bill Droste, who discussed city planning, and from University of Minnesota students, who explained their solar car project.
The students "have done a lot of self-motivating," Simmers said. "It's their project, so you kind of let them go for it."
Another important lesson was how to work as a team, she said.
The Awecity team had "some troubles with that," said Sean Witte, a sixth-grader on the team. "We were kind of arguing, we didn't really work together that well." But things have improved over time, he said.
Steve VanderWiel, the teams' other mentor, is an IBM engineer. He said he's enjoyed watching both teams brainstorm ideas, which they do "better than some of the adults I know."
Whether the students all become engineers isn't important, VanderWiel said. "The best thing is getting them to try out as many things as possible, and this is just one of those experiences."