By Brendan Wills, The Times Herald

    Posted: 01/18/14, 12:42 PM EST|

    future city

    Stewart Middle School teacher Glenn Page works with seventh-graders on a Future City Builders entry for and upcoming competition January 15, 2014. Photo by Gene Walsh/Times Herald Staff


    NORRISTOWN — The futuristic city is a staple of blockbuster sci-fi hits, complete with flying hovercrafts and pneumatic elevator tubes. Funding for these virtual Hollywood backdrops can cost millions and millions of dollars.

    Starting this September, students at East Norriton and Stewart Middle Schools in the Norristown Area School District embarked on a journey to create their very own futuristic cities.

    As part of the Future City Competition the two groups of students from each Middle School entered into a multi-stage, multi-discipline project where they research, plan and create cities.

    The competition is sponsored each year by the National Engineers Week Foundation. Teams of students are required to research engineering topics related to city construction, create a model city using Sim City 4, and present a scale model created with recycled materials to a panel of judges. This year the competition’s concentration is transportation for futuristic cities.

    For Victoria Strickland, teacher of the gifted students and moderator of the Future City project at East Norriton, the competition is an opportunity to teach students invaluable lessons across a multitude of subjects.

    According to Strickland students get a taste of finance, engineering, environmental studies, construction, graphic design, public speaking, writing, math, and geometry.

    “It’s amazing from start to finish. It’s such a colossal project,” Strickland said. “Students start out really discussing why you would want to live in a city. From there we discuss what you need to make a functioning city.

    “The students are forced to ask real world questions: What are the important services? What would Norristown be like without the police department? Why do our communities look the way they do? Why do houses here look like this and why do houses there look like that?” Strickland said.

    Following these discussions students did research on current engineering concepts that would make their cities a possibility. Strickland’s group of students researched solar energy and came up with the idea to have a solar powered monorail running through their Hawaiian city, nicknamed “Futureland.”

    Glenn Page, gifted teacher and moderator of the Future City project at Stewart, said his students took a similar approach to the solar-powered monorail.

    The students at Stewart decided they would research an underwater railroad for “Stewieopolis.” Page’s students researched what forms of energy could power their rail system. They looked at pneumatic tubes, quartz technology and read about actual proposed underwater rail systems, like the recently announced engineering concept that would link China to the United States.

    “We’re teaching students to look 150 years out and plan for the future,” Page said.

    The projects go through a grueling application process that adds up to give each school their final grade.

    The first step in the project is creating a written narrative of the city which is submitted early in the year. Then students must research engineering topics while creating their city in the city-building video game “Sim City 4.”

    Strickland and Page were both amazed at how great a tool the game is for students. “You can’t just build as many building as you can or the citizens will protest the unbalanced budget,” Strickland said. “All of the sudden the project tied in perfectly with the government shutdown. The students were experiencing real life financial problems and working to solve them.”

    Feedback from the virtual cities counts towards the projects’ grade in the competition, factoring in citizen approval rating and implementation of the transportation theme.

    After students have enough theoretical background in building cities they begin the building project. The projects made with recycled materials are limited to $100 budgets, forcing the students to use the financial skills they learned in the game.

    Page said this portion of the project forces students to grapple with environmental issues. “Population is growing, sources are dwindling. It’s not guaranteed that these resources will be around in the future,” Page said. “What cost does this ‘quick, fast, more, now’ mindset have? Our students are the ones that will have to answer that question in the future. This project prepares them for that now.”

    Three students are selected from each team to give a seven minute presentation to the panel of judges explaining their project and demonstrating the scientific research that went into it.

    Both teachers’ classrooms were a mess of paint, glitter, scraps of paper, hot glue tubes, recycled bottles boxes and pieces of wood as students “started kicking it into high gear” for the final deadline.

    Saturday Jan. 25, students will pile into buses and bring their projects to the Regional Competition at SAP America in Newtown Square. Morning winners in the preliminary round will go on to the night competition for a chance to win first price. There are over 40 additional prizes for various categories including

    The first place winner moves on to the national competition in Washington, D.C. during National Engineers Week in February. The national winner gets a trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

    The Philadelphia Regional Future City Competition is a 501(c)3 educational outreach program and is one of 40 regions in the Future City Competition.