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Model City Competition Sparks Interest in STEM


Beautiful hills, skyscrapers defying gravity, a highway system that would make any city jealous. A real-world utopia. Its name is "Ville Suave."

Have you heard of it before? Probably not, since this is actually a miniature model city, built by middle school students from Alabama. "Ville Suave" won the People's Choice Award for the best model in the 2016 Future City STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) competition.

For more than two decades, Future City, a program of the tech consortium DiscoverE, has challenged students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades to design a city and find a solution to a sustainability issue. The theme for this year's competition was waste management. The students used the Sim City software, researched the issue, and wrote essays with their findings and solutions.

Starting last fall, 40,000 middle school students from 1,300 schools across the United States created model cities. Only 37 made it to the finals, held Tuesday in Washington. Awards were given out in 25 categories, such as Best Management of Water Systems, Most Sustainable Buildings, Best Transportation System and Best Indoor Environment.

This competition is aimed at sparking the students' interest in STEM careers. The U.S. Department of Education says too few Americans decide to take STEM courses. The White House has also created efforts to generate more interest in the field.

But for the youths' teachers and mentors, it is much more than that.

“Once they learn this problem-solving process, they can use it throughout their life and it’s going to be beneficial for them, no matter where they are in their careers,” said Angela Traylor, science teacher for the People's Choice Award-winning school, the Academy for Science and Foreign Language in Huntsville, Alabama.

Contagious, positive energy

The final competition was intense. All 37 finalists went through two judging rounds overseen by engineering professionals. The judges didn’t pull any punches. They would ask questions to determine whether the students were ready and had thought through the problems their cities were designed to address. But despite the stress, pressure and the competition, students were always smiling.

“I thought it was going to be fun but not this fun. I really just have enjoyed this entire competition,” said Isabel Waring, a member of the winning team from Alabama.

The students’ energy — for all the teams involved — showed the effort and the countless hours were worth it.

Teachers said Future City is not only about how to use science to solve real-world problems. The middle schoolers also noted it is about teamwork, hard work and becoming a better person.

“I think the competitive aspect of it — and we’ve got due dates, we’ve got deliverables, I’m depending on you to get something done — it’s those things that bring them together,” said Dan Koval, a mentor from a Philadelphia middle school participating in the contest.

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