Future City Competition Inspires Trailblazers of Tomorrow

Ellis girls wear many hats. They’re serious students. They’re committed athletes. They’re determined club presidents, creative artists, passionate allies—the list goes on. And while each Ellis student wears her own unique combination of hats, those in the Future City elective add a few more unconventional ones to the list: makeshift city planner; sustainability strategist; water filtration expert; software engineer; design researcher. For these students, hard hats aren’t included—but perhaps they should be. 
Open to grades 7 and 8 at Ellis, Future City is a national educational program that challenges students to think like engineers and design a city of the future. The program culminates in regional and national competitions, with teams going head-to-head to showcase their city and a sustainable solution to an assigned engineering issue. With over 45,000 middle schoolers from across the globe participating in the competitions, it’s a hands-on way for students to learn about engineering, the design thinking process, and project management. At Ellis, it’s also a way for girls to try something new, deepen their interest in STEM, and flex their critical-thinking and problem-solving muscles. 

“Future City is a big commitment and comes with a lot of increased responsibility,” said Karen Compton, Middle School Science Teacher and Future City Advisor. “Often, the girls who join are already interested in science and have seen their peers compete and do well in the past. It’s a lot of trial and error and troubleshooting—the girls have to learn from their mistakes and work together to weigh different solutions.”

In preparation for the competition, students work together on five deliverables during class time and weekend work sessions: a virtual city design using SimCity software, a 1,500-word essay, a project plan, a presentation, and a to-scale model built from recycled materials. Guided by Ms. Compton and two engineering mentors, Frank Sidari and John Wojtyna, students have to take into account things like where they’ll put residential and commercial districts, tax rates, zoning and planning restrictions, and infrastructure, in addition to determining a solution to their assigned problem. 

This year, the team’s challenge was to create a city with a resilient system to maintain a reliable supply of clean water. Ellis’ city, Tutum-Certa (Latin for safe and reliable), in northeastern India, proposed fighting the threat of microplastics in water through Decentralized Modular water treatment plants that use electrocoagulation and vortex settlers to remove impurities from the water. At the regional competition, the team won first place and two special awards for “Best Essay” and “Best Management of Water Resources.” They then ventured to Washington D.C. for the national competition where they were recognized with the “Most Innovative Design of Infrastructure Systems" award.

“It’s a learning experience for the girls because there’s no right answer in Future City. It can be uncomfortable to take on more open-ended problems, so we emphasize the importance of the research and the design process as we prepare for the competition” said Ms. Compton. “It’s a truly collaborative effort and involves a lot of peer-to-peer mentoring.”

Because Future City invites students of all skill levels and interests to participate, teamwork is essential to the project’s success. Together as a group, the girls decide how they want to address the assigned problem, who will take on what deliverable, and how they will manage their time and resources to ensure deadlines are made. This intentional collaborative effort allows girls to discover new strengths, practice indispensable skills, and form friendships.

New to Ellis and to the Future City team this year, grade 7 student Maryam Sadullaeva joined because she was intrigued by designing and building the city. “I knew I wanted to work on the model from the start. Throughout the process, we listened to each other, we shared what might work and what might not, and we tested our ideas. We were kind to each other,” Maryam said. “Future City made me realize group work can be fun and I can depend on other people. I made new friends and learned about myself.” 

Grade 7 student Esmé Warren was also new to the team. She shared, “It was a new challenge and really fun to work through a different kind of problem. It was a real group effort and we thought a lot about what’s best for the team. We defined the problem, brainstormed solutions, tested them to see if they worked, and then figured out the best way to communicate it in the project.” 

For Rebekah Rapp, a grade 8 student, her second year of participation bolstered her leadership skills. “Future City has really taught me how to prioritize my time and manage a project. This year, I wanted to make sure everyone’s ideas were heard. We really cared about the project and it paid off,” she shared. 

Participation in Future City is just one of many ways Ellis girls learn to grapple with and unravel complex problems. Never ones to shy away from a challenge, the elective offers a space for girls to become skilled at troubleshooting, adapting, and reframing their initial ideas. From the first meeting to the final presentation, Future City is an engaging and immersive way for students to apply the lessons they learn in the classroom to real-world issues.

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