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Posted: January 10, 2008
Using nanotechnology to monitor city structures and systems in the Future City
(Nanowerk News) Seventh- and eighth-graders in the annual National Engineers Week Future City Competition™ normally create cities with utopia in mind. This year, they’re also confronting the world’s worst urban disasters and there’s no mistaking them for utopia.
From a small Kansas town destroyed last year by a tornado, to the war ravaged Gaza Strip, to Linfen, China, one of the most polluted cities on earth, Future City students across the country are dealing with real problems, determined to prevent them and build a better tomorrow.
Future City, in its 16th year, asks middle school students to create a city, first on computer and then in a large tabletop model. Students present and defend their designs before volunteer engineer judges from the community at regional competitions in January.
More than 30,000 students from 1,111 schools – a record number of registered schools – in 40 regions are participating this year. Working in teams with a teacher and volunteer engineer mentor, they create their cities using the SimCity 3000™ videogame donated by Electronic Arts, Inc. of Redwood City, California. They also write a city abstract and an essay on using engineering to solve an important social need – this year's theme asks students to describe how nanotechnology will monitor their city’s structures and systems to keep its infrastructure healthy.
A sampling of projects from across the country indicates that this year’s Future City students are facing some of the most difficult challenges on the globe and engineering solutions.
Students at Westridge Middle School in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, are using the hometown of their fellow Kansans in Greensburg for the basis of their Future City. Last May, a Category 5 tornado destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg and killed 11 residents. “It was blown straight off the map,” explains team member Charlie King Hagan, 13, adding confidently, “so we’re taking what was left and building into the future.”
At Kutztown Area Middle School in Pennsylvania, students are wrestling with the difficulties of rebuilding Gaza, a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Relying on months of research, the Future City team is looking far beyond the hostilities by creating a way to desalinate seawater for the impoverished region using cutting edge nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology involves the creation of materials, devices and systems through manipulating matter less than 100 nanometers in length. A nanometer is one-millionth of a millimeter, so engineers and scientists in nanotechnology work with items smaller than molecules, essentially atoms.
The Future City 2008 essay theme also plays a major role for the team from Nativity of Our Lord School in Orchard Park, New York, near Buffalo. Those students have adopted Linfen, China, with a population in excess of four million and more than 200 major contaminants in its air and water, as the model for their city.
“We’re really optimistic,” says Stephanie Houser, an 8th-grade member of the team. “Nanotechnology is so small it can filter arsenic from water and it can absorb air pollution, too.”
Sponsored in part by the National Engineers Week Foundation, a coalition of more than 75 engineering, professional, and technical societies and some 50 corporations and government agencies, Future City is the largest and most successful education program of its kind. Regional winning teams receive an all-expense-paid trip to the Future City National Finals, hosted by Bentley Systems, Incorporated, in Washington, D.C., February 18-20, 2008 during Engineers Week, February 17-23. National grand prize is a trip to U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. Numerous other prizes are awarded at the regional competitions.
“The Minneapolis freeway bridge collapse in August is an example of how we could better monitor our infrastructures using nanotechnology sensors and control systems,” explains CDR Mark Bellis, a civil engineer who serves as commanding officer of the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion-27, also known as the Seabees, and volunteers as mentor to the Orchard Park team. “Future City teaches these young people how the built infrastructure affects their lives.”
John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil Company, which provides funding to nine regional competitions in addition to the National Finals, says Future City’s forward thinking benefits the entire profession. “Shell encourages achievement in technology and engineering," he notes, "so Future City fits perfectly with our strategy to support promising students as they pursue innovative projects with an underlying emphasis on math and science, extremely important skills for many occupations at Shell. And as the number of graduates in engineering and geosciences diminishes, it's ever more important to encourage students to build these skills at an early age."
Audrey Grossen, a 7th-grader at St. Philip Neri School in Midwest City, Oklahoma, is already developing a grasp of the importance of nanotechnology. “It’s going to be a big part of our lives,” she says. “It’s on the scale of atoms and molecules so it’s pretty much down to the bone.” Her teammate, Hannah Govette, says that their city’s design uses “dendritic polymers, hexagonal carbon tubes and other nanotechnologies” to filter drinking water. Hannah is 13.
Getting to the point where she can discuss such concepts was a lot of work, she admits, but worth it. “I’m busier and I get to bed later,” she says of the after-school hours and weekends spent on Future City, “but I’m completely dedicated 100 percent.” She adds, “It’s great that there’s a project like this that challenges us to the limit and helps us find a career. I’m considering engineering, especially since Future City, and now with learning about nanotechnology, I’d like to pursue that.”
Future City national director Carol Rieg notes that direct, hands-on experience proves to be among the most successful routes to acquainting young people with engineering. “They see engineering as a direct influence on their lives, and how math and science are relevant to their world. Meanwhile the engineer mentors serve as role models that embody the humanity of the profession. We reach these children just when they start to consider where they want to go in their lives.”
For Commander Bellis, who spent a year in Iraq helping to rebuild the infrastructure of Anbar Province, mentors benefit, too, especially from the joy of working with kids.
That connection to the humanity of engineering is not missed on Alex Laudadio, 12, from Kutztown Area Middle School. He says that researching Gaza City’s problems hasn’t daunted his hope for a better tomorrow. “You take all that violence and settle it and get this beautiful outcome.” For him, the seriousness of his efforts brings gratification. “Sure you can get to level 50 of the video game and that does give you satisfaction,” he says, “but, at the end of Future City you’re proud of what you’ve done.” Alex adds, “That’s true happiness.”