Education

Middle school students compete to build and feed the city of the future

St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School seventh-graders Rafael de la Torre, left, Sophia Corrales, center, and Brooke Filliben, right, help carry their "Future Cities" project entry into the judging room on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015 at the Florida International University Engineering Center in Miami. The South Miami school's team came in second in the South Florida Region arm of the national engineering competition for middle schoolers. Projects were designed for the theme "Feeding Future Cities." The challenge: to design a city that can sustain life for at least one growing season with a budget of $100. The first-place winners from each qualifying regional competition can compete in the Future City Competition National Finals in Washington, D.C., Feb. 15-18, 2015 in preparation of Engineers Week.
St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School seventh-graders Rafael de la Torre, left, Sophia Corrales, center, and Brooke Filliben, right, help carry their "Future Cities" project entry into the judging room on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015 at the Florida International University Engineering Center in Miami. The South Miami school's team came in second in the South Florida Region arm of the national engineering competition for middle schoolers. Projects were designed for the theme "Feeding Future Cities." The challenge: to design a city that can sustain life for at least one growing season with a budget of $100. The first-place winners from each qualifying regional competition can compete in the Future City Competition National Finals in Washington, D.C., Feb. 15-18, 2015 in preparation of Engineers Week. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Using recycled Dasani bottles, a Slinky, a mirror and old computer parts, Catalina Caceres and her Catholic school classmates created “Carpe Verde,” a planned city that featured a multi-system farm that grew kale and raised chickens, both without hormones and pesticides.

“We’re trying to portray a city that lives a very healthy, organic lifestyle because it’s a problem now,” said 12-year-old Caceres of St. Thomas the Apostle in South Miami. “People don’t really know where their food is coming from. It’s way more efficient to grow right in the middle of the city.”

Caceres was among more than 50 aspiring middle school students who have spent the past four months battling to win the Future City Competition’s Florida (South) regional. The odd challenge: build a futuristic city that could feed itself on one protein and one vegetable.

On Saturday, tension ran high as only 14 schools remained on the last day of the competition. On this day at Florida International University, the winner — St. Agnes Academy — got to advance to the next round in Washington, D.C. to compete with other schools from around the nation.

“We really did not expect to see this so professionally done because they were nervous up to now,” said Anna Somarriba, one of the mothers of the winning team. Her daughter, Nicole Gaviria, helped present the team’s victorious Chilean city, Calfo Burdeo.

“We tried our best and gave it our all,” said 14-year-old Gaviria. “We are very proud of each other.”

This year’s challenge required students in middle school — sixth, seventh and eighth grades — to design a city that can sustain life (for one growing season).

The competition started in August when students returned to school. For four months, students labored long hours after school and on weekends. They were tasked with building a virtual model of their urban design using computer software (SimCity) and penning a 1,000-word essay explaining how their future city could feed its people.

To win on Saturday at FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing, student teams needed to display strong public speaking skills and be able to freely discuss their final engineering accomplishment, a tabletop scale-model of their city. A panel of volunteer judges reviewed the 14 entries.

“It’s very impressive,” said Benita Whalen, a private agricultural engineering consultant and judge. “The engineering profession has not been vocal about positive contributions to society. These kinds of presentations can get others to participate.”

By early afternoon, the competing teams had been whittled down to three: Saint Agnes Academy in Key Biscayne, St. John Neumann Catholic School in Miami and St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School in South Miami. With an educator and engineering mentor guiding them, each team was given one last shot to prove their design best to a packed room of judges, teachers and spectators.

Everyone was still as the first group of students hoisted their 60-inch model city onto the table in the front of room. Three boys from St. John’s stood in suits with slicked back hair nervously waiting for their 5-minute clock to start. “This is Semtec,” one of the boys began. “The cattle and the kale work hand-in-hand.”

The six other students from the remaining schools followed suit. Tabletop displays were squeezed through the aisle and set up within seconds. Then the presentations were over. Cheering erupted from the audience.

Even though one team was awarded first place, the majority of students left with a better understanding of the unsung efforts of engineers. Some even had new-found appreciation for city planners and civil engineers.

“I’ve learned about the importance of an engineer,” said Caceres. “We don’t know how all this works. For example, our electricity, it has to come from somewhere, but most of us don’t really know where it comes from and who sets it up.”

Caceres and her teammates won second place.

The project-based program, which exists in 44 regions around the nation, is funded by a national group of volunteer engineers called DiscoverE. Their goal: spread student awareness of engineering.

“As a society we need to make an adjustment in that way that we live,” said Marlon Medina, engineering mentor for St. Peter and Paul Catholic School. “And this is a great way to initiate that with young minds.”

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