How can we make the world a better place?

Teams of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students will be answering that question January 13 at the regional Future City Competition, hosted by Washington State University.

Future City is a national competition that employs a holistic learning method which gives competitors a large problem, challenging them to solve it in a step-by-step process. This helps participants tackle complex questions, incorporating social, environmental and technical issues. This year’s Future City challenge is to integrate two inventive ideas into a city that enables senior citizens to be active and independent.

“Future City competitors connect real social and environmental issues to the skills of engineering. It makes work behind engineering truly meaningful,” says Cara Morton, clinical instructor in WSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the Future City coordinator. “No matter what you’re interested in, there is going to be an aspect of the city to dive into and get excited about.”

A model of a city designed by Future City students.
Students create and present a tangible model of their city to panel of judges at the Regional Competition.

Future City teams work with a mentor to design a city using SimCity software, write an essay about the unique attributes of their creation, and build a model of their city. Along the way, students discover engineering, develop meaningful relationships with their team, and learn new ways of thinking.

Morton first got involved in Future City back in 2005 as a team mentor, which gave her an opportunity to provide guidance to students and give back to her community.

“Too often, engineers get caught up in the calculations to remember why they became one in the first place,” Morton says, “It reminds you of the bigger picture—improving the world around you.”

When Morton came to WSU in 2015, she created a local Future City competition sub-region, representing students from Eastern Washington and Western Idaho. Three years later, she serves as Future City regional coordinator, and enjoys seeing the impact that the program has had on students, educators and mentors.

“Future City is an opportunity for any student,” says Morton.

Meeting the national standards for math, science, and technology education, the open-ended nature of the program can be adapted to any student’s goals and abilities. Teachers and parents report that Future City is a transformational experience with exceptional student growth and learning for all students.

One participant’s experience in particular stands out for Morton. A 7th grader she worked with was struggling, failing almost all of her classes. By working with a team and viewing education through a new approach, however, the student discovered a love for science.

As her confidence in science increased, the student’s grades in other classes improved significantly. By the end of the program, her teachers reported substantial increases in all of her grades.

“She began to believe in her own abilities,” Morton said, “which translated back into her academics.”

Future City students standing behind their projects, while judges evaluate and ask questions.
Future City students present their projects to a panel of judges.

The competition empowers students to solve real-world issues through the eyes of an engineer. Participants have the opportunity to go through the engineering design process as they create solutions, repeatedly test them and present their findings.

Teams that win the WSU’s Future City regional competition have the opportunity to compete at the national finals, taking place in Washington D.C. in February. Winning, however, is not the goal of the competition. Future City is intended to be an educational experience. While students are in front of judges, regional presentations are a supportive, congratulatory environment.

“More than anything, we are proud of the students for their work,” Morton said, “It is first and foremost about what they learn, not what they win.”