A Washington State University researcher wants middle school students to design the cities of the future.
“Cities up in the clouds, and cities on the moon,” said Cara Morton, a professor at WSU’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture.
But, she notes, it’s not purely an exercise in fantasy. “Well, wait a minute, if the city is up in the clouds, how are we going to get there?”
Morton and WSU’s school of engineering and architecture are hosting a regional competition as part of the national Future City competition. Although no Spokane-area students are involved, she hopes that changes.
Morton said WSU provides mentorship for teams wishing to compete. Often those mentors are professors, although they can also be industry professionals.
The competition challenges middle school students to “imagine, research, design, and build cities of the future that showcase their solution to a citywide sustainability issue,” according to the organization’s website.
This year’s theme, Morton said, is public space.
“It really helps them learn about how cities are connected,” Morton said of the competition. “Kids don’t really think about when they flush the toilet someone has designed that and has designed where that water goes.”
The students design a city that addresses a particular set of problems within the year’s theme. They then create a three-dimensional model. Those models are roughly 4 feet wide by 2 feet deep.
In addition to teaching children about the intricacies of infrastructure, Morton said the competition fulfills another important task.
It encourages girls to get involved with engineering. She said at last year’s competition, which was the first hosted by WSU, more than 50 percent of the participants were girls. Morton compared this to the middle school robotics competition. She said roughly 10 percent of the students who participate in that competition are girls.
“Future City, it’s more attractive to the girls,” Morton said. “I think because it focuses on solving societal problems and helping people.”
Morton said one girl came into the program wanting to be a fashion designer, designed a mall and “realized being a city planner was a cool job.”
Abbey Macduff, 12, is a student in the Tri-Cities who competed in last year’s competition through WSU. She echoed Morton.
“It includes everyone, and it makes everyone feel welcome,” she said. “It brings out the more artistic side of girls who would like to do it.”
For teams that win at the subregional level, Morton said there are more than $1,500 in prizes. The first-place team goes to Seattle where it competes in the regional competition. Winners at that level move into the national competition.
The Jan. 14 subregional competition at WSU will go from 8 a.m. until noon. Lunch is provided, Morton said.
The Pullman portion of the competition is primarily funded by Schweitzer Engineering Labs, Morton said.
“It brings in a lot of kids because it’s fun,” said Kira Baum, 14. “It’s made to be fun and that’s what kids want.”