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Regional competition tests engineers of tomorrow

Regional competition tests engineers of tomorrow

Podcars, bike shares, solar-powered vehicles, underground parking run by robots and bridges that pur
Regional competition tests engineers of tomorrow
Capital District Future City Competition at Proctors in Schenectady on Saturday, January 11, 2014.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson

Podcars, bike shares, solar-powered vehicles, underground parking run by robots and bridges that purify water; this is the future of transportation, as imagined by Capital Region middle school students — and just maybe, our future engineers.

That’s the hope, at least, of Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam. A former engineer himself, the local state representative emceed the 2013-14 Future City Competition regional finals Saturday at Proctors. The months-long competition tasked students this year with figuring out how to move people in and around their own imaginary future cities.

“You want to have locally grown engineers,” he said. “You don’t want to have to import your engineers. We have a lot of smart kids right here. There are students who participated in this years ago and said because of this competition they want to become engineers, and some of them did.”

DiscoverE, a foundation and consortium of engineering professionals and companies, holds the annual competition for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students across the nation. Students learn the basics of city planning and management to design both a virtual future city and a physical model using recycled materials. Each year, they are asked to solve a major citywide issue and present their city to a panel of judges.

Regional competitions were held Saturday around the nation. On Saturday, a team from O’Rourke Middle School in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District won the regional finals and will head to Washington for the national finals Feb. 15-18, during Engineers Week. The national winner will receive a $7,000 prize for its school and a trip to U.S. Space Camp in Alabama.

The team from O’Rourke Middle School designed their own “pod” mass transit system using metal beads and magnetic rail tracks hidden beneath their model city.

“Our pods travel along the roads using solar-powered energy, and when they get to a canal, the pods go through an air vent to travel over the water,” said Anna LeClair, a seventh-grader. “They can also go underground into a subway-like system and are pulled along tracks.”

LeClair and her teammates, Drew Christensen and Rachel Johnson, also designed underground car-stacking chambers borrowed from the Japanese. Parking garages and lots take up too much space, the students said. They described their chambers as robot-controlled, underground parking garages.

“You press a button, and then it stacks the car,” said LeClair. “Each car is assigned a number, so that when you come to get it, you say the number and a machine brings it up. The advantage is that since robots and machines are parking the cars, you can cram them closer together. We don’t have to pay for any lights or heating because nobody’s down there. And now we have tons and tons of green space above ground, which helps with runoff and provides recreational space.”

Their city also featured zip lines and skywalks, wind turbines and an “EcoPlex,” where injured and endangered animals can come to be rehabilitated.

Since Sept., 17 teams from around the Capital Region have been toiling away on their cities. Seventh-graders at Saratoga Central Catholic High School were inspired by the high-tech industry in their backyards when it came time to build their city.

“We have GlobalFoundries just down the road,” said Dean Martinez, as he explained his city’s airport. “The idea of nanotechnology is just so cool, so we decided to use this and shrink it down as small as you can get it, so that you get these nanofibers that you can put around the airport, almost like an invisible net. The nanofibers will create a forcefield that will slow and then stop our planes, because they can hit mach speed, and that way they can land on a much shorter runway. So it saves space and requires smaller airports.”

Their city was set on an island in the Caribbean, imagined months before the Northeast’s winter doldrums set in. The idea was to harness the power of the year-round sunshine to make most of the city’s transportation solar-powered. The students covered their cars and buses with solar panels, but also set up charging stations around the city that store energy from the sun all day for cars to use as fuel at night.

Martinez, along with fellow seventh-graders Abby Claeson and Krystal Cordo, also designed a flexible bridge in their city that does more than take vehicles over water. The bridge, represented by a slinky on their physical model, can lift up to allow any size of boat to pass beneath. But it also has a series of tubes used to purify the saltwater from the ocean to be used as drinking water around the city.

Garbage cans around the city got the tube treatment, too, bringing waste to an underground combustion area that melts trash into recycled plastics, alloys and metals.

Future City is one of the nation’s top engineering programs for students, and one of the most popular, too. Now in its 22nd year, the competition has received national acclaim for encouraging middle school students to pursue higher education and careers in the so-called STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and math.

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