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Garner sixth graders create Future City entry

CEDAR RAPIDS– “Waste Not, Want Not” was the old adage providing inspiration, but teams of middle school students went far beyond the common platitude to demonstrate their plans for solid waste management in the future.
It was part of the 2016 Future City Competition, an annual, nationwide program created by DiscoverE that encourages sixth, seventh and eighth grade students to study and employ STEM skills– science, technology, engineering and math– to solve a real-world problem.
At Garner Elementary School in North Liberty, it began this fall as the Extended Learning Program (ELP) students, under the instruction of ELP teacher Christine Mason, discussed issues of sustainability, environmental health and public safety– ideas that led four sixth graders to enter this year’s Future City competition.
The 2016 theme was “Waste Not, Want Not,” and the challenge was to find ways to use solid waste as a resource, instead of disposing of garbage in landfills, burning it in traditional incinerators or shipping it off on barges. At Garner and all over the country, teams of students, led by teachers and mentors, brainstormed possible solutions, then designed and built model cities to demonstrate how their waste management systems of the future might be employed in a real city.
The Future City regional competition, for this area, was held at Cedar Rapids Prairie Point Middle School on Saturday, Feb. 6. Local schools sent 17 teams, including a group of sixth graders from Garner.
Using SimCity software, Tyler Gesell, Coltrae Kerschen, Ian Gates and Max Beckman created a city they named Argus Sui Sustentans, with a waste management solution based on an Energy Plasma Integration Converter, or E.P.i.C. The general idea was to shred trash into easily-burned bits, burn it at 20,000 degrees, capture the resulting gas in a chamber to produce energy, and send the waste into a catalytic converter that separates it into three by-products: nitrogen to fertilize plant life; distilled water for drinking purposes; and carbon dioxide, which is turned into oxygen via a second conversion chamber.
While the program’s overall task is to design a solution to meet the world’s future needs in sustainable, responsible ways, a Future City project has the potential to change not just the world of tomorrow, but the students of today.
Because groups must present their research, ideas and model cities to adult judges, students must get comfortable with public speaking and impromptu demonstration.
“Our main challenge was knowing what to say. We have no idea what the judges’ questions will be, so we have to be prepared to answer anything,” said Coltrae.
Projects must follow strict parameters for size, scale and other design criteria.
“If you do something wrong, they are going to deduct points,” said Tyler.
Using math and engineering are central, but those skills are just part of a successful project.
“You need to be able to explain what your city is and how each part works,” Tyler added.
“You also need to be a good writer to write your city’s description,” said Ian.
Each year, about 40,000 middle school students participate in the Future City program. This was the first time Mason has helped a Garner team enter the competition.
“We have specific units and big concepts we work on with our ELP students, and one of them happened to be architecture and futures,” said Mason. “They are very engineer-minded kids, so I knew they would excel at working and building visually and spatially,” said Mason. “The competition was something we could integrate into that unit, let them apply the skills they learned into a real-world scale, and also see what kids all over Iowa are doing as well.”
A recent push in education is to help kids develop 21st Century skills– the ability to work comfortably with a diverse set of peers, use creativity to solve problems, think critically, and write, speak and communicate using a multitude of modalities and technologies. Mason said the Future City program is a great platform for practicing 21st Century Skills.
“It is harder than you think to get kids to agree, be on the same page and allocate tasks,” she said. “This group was excellent at identifying their skills and transferring responsibilities among each other.”
The boys recognized that in themselves as well.
“I learned how fun it is to work with your team. Team building is key,” said Ian.
Max concurred.
“You have to be cooperative; otherwise nothing will go the way you need it to,” he said.
Kevin Trom, engineer with Shive-Hattery Engineering and Architecture, served as a mentor to Garner’s team. Having also mentored Future City project teams at Penn Elementary, Trom agreed 21st Century Skills are critical in today’s workplace.
“Working with a team has as much importance as the other processes,” said Trom. “Even in the most simple project, there is always a team behind the scenes. If it’s not a team of engineers, you may be working with city administrators, with the streets department, with the public and the neighborhoods. Everyone has input into the project, and you have to design solutions to problems that satisfy everyone’s concerns.”
That kind of teamwork is not always easy for middle school kids, but this group worked exceptionally well together, Trom noted. “Those guys got along well, respected each other…and they’re really smart,” he said.
In addition to communication, collaboration and careful attention to the rigorous requirements of a competitive project, a number of academic skills were involved as well. The Future City website indicates our society generates 4.5 pounds of trash per person per day in the United States, and it challenged students to consider the health, safety and environmental services cities might use to address that much garbage.
“They had to find a waste management solution, so there was a lot of strong scientific research involved,” Mason said. “They chose plasma gasification, so they not only had to research something that is not very common, but they also had to change it into something futuristic by looking at the technology we have now and anticipating what technology we might have in the future.”
Though adept at applying math and geometric concepts, one of the group’s biggest challenges was keeping their model in proper scale, she said.
“It sounds easy, but it’s very hard to make multiple buildings and always keep it at the exact scale,” she said. That’s where Trom’s expertise was extremely helpful.
“We wouldn’t have scale without him,” Mason said. “He’s amazing in terms of city planning. All the plans we had on a grid format, which ultimately turned into the visual model, came through his support and him showing us how we needed to think about it.”
The students quickly realized that besides understanding concepts, they must look at a number of ways to approach problems in order to be successful.
“I liked learning all the things you can do with not much on hand,” said Coltrae. “You can get very innovative just using everyday materials.”
Tyler agreed.
“You have to be creative and try new things. You want your city to stand out,” he said. “If it doesn’t, your city won’t get recognized.”
No worries in that regard: Garner’s team was awarded “Best Engineered City” at the competition.
“It is a huge honor for a first-year team to be recognized for a specialty award,” Mason said. In addition to Trom’s mentorship, she credited the school’s classroom teachers, principal and peers, who were all very supportive; the boys’ families, who encouraged them to research at home; ELP parents and boosters, who donated materials to the project; and the boys themselves, who worked incredibly hard, she said.
“I could not be more proud of them. It’s a difficult process and they did fantastic,” she said. “We have kids who are seeing this and are already excited to try Future City next year. I think it’s great to create that kind of culture. I hope these four will come back and mentor those kids next year.”