Cities 100 years into the future will tap technology in new ways to maintain power during natural disasters. But some bright minds are already brainstorming about how that process will work.
And they’re still in middle school.
Students from Justice Page Middle School in south Minneapolis traveled to Washington in February to present their vision of a 22nd century power grid to judges of the Future City competition. The school represented Minnesota at the annual national competition for the second year, after beating 47 others to win the regional competition in January at Dakota County Technical College.
Theirs is more than just a research project, however. Teams from around the world spend weeks developing their proposals and building intricate scale models to illustrate how their vision would work.
“It’s … so cool to work with people who are this smart, and to think about all these things that you didn’t know about before,” said Ryan Rowell, 13, one of the Page team members. “I did not know about mechanical energy or microgrids before this.”
The Page students chose Maui, Hawaii, as the setting for their project, due to the variety of natural disasters that could occur there. They dubbed it “The Lost Phoenix.”
They equipped roofs in the city with solar panels which powered a spinning ring that kept rotating — and generating power — after the sun had set. In the event of power failure, microgrids powering each neighborhood would keep the lights on and send extra energy to areas without power.
Rather than speculate about technological advancements, the students opted for a more practical approach.
“Some students, they think of 100 years in the future and they start thinking really grand ideas — for instance, that everyone’s going to have a flying car that’s rocket-powered,” said Page Future City coach Travis Koupal.
“[Our team] looked at it and said, ‘Well, what are some things that could really actually be done 100 years from now using technology that exists today?’ ”
Rowell agreed. “The technology is out there, but you would need to just implement it,” he said.
The students used 3-D printers and circuit boards to bring their model to life, in addition to constructing a base of wooden blocks, plywood and turf. The model featured flashing lights, the spinning ring, and even a simulated magnetic levitation train that traveled back and forth based on the circuitry.
Team member Nate King brought prior knowledge about circuit boards and electrical engineering to the competition, Koupal said. King built a circuit board with moving parts powered on the same circuit.
“He really engineered this whole thing,” Koupal said, “and it was just built out of pieces that we had lying around.”
The students made the project as part of Page’s “Engineering the Future” class, an elective taught by Koupal. Guest speakers included a variety of engineers and a Minneapolis City Council member.
Rowell said they learned about how the urban landscape is already changing, from the proliferation of bike sharing and scooters to the installation of solar panels on homes and initiatives to boost renewable energy. “I do appreciate our city more by just seeing that a lot of the stuff that we want to implement they are trying to do in Minneapolis,” he said.
So, how did the Justice Page middle schoolers do?
They did not win the finals, but the experience was invaluable. Rowell said other teams made more polished presentations, which highlighted the importance of marketing good ideas.
After all, he said, that helped make the difference in the fight between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla over DC vs. AC power.
“That was a hard thing to learn,” Rowell said.
He said he wants to keep learning about engineering.
“I don’t think I’m going to be the person who’s the main engineer who comes up with the idea,” Rowell said. “I want to be the person who helps get it out there.”