Future City Competition Draws on Rich History to Inspire Students and Enhance Public Awareness of Engineering

Future City Competition Draws on Rich History to Inspire Students and Enhance Public Awareness of Engineering

BY Chris McManes Posted: 1 Mar 2008

When the National Engineers Week Future City Competition hosted its 16th National Finals Feb. 18-20 in Washington, D.C., a record 37 regional championship-winning teams participated. They represented the cream of the crop among the more than 1,100 schools and 30,000 students who competed during the 2007-08 season.

This is a skyscraper away from Future City’s modest beginnings. When the first competition was held 15 years ago during Engineers Week (EWeek), about 175 schools and 600 students participated across five regions. Student participation today is a 50-fold increase since 1993.

IEEE-USA is pleased that what began as a legacy project when the IEEE served as lead society of EWeek 1993 has evolved into a program that reaches thousands of students and brings hundreds of engineers into schools across the country.

“We’re really proud,” said Pender McCarter, who was the IEEE’s public relations manager in 1992-93. “I know the volunteers and staff who worked on it from the beginning and we’re all thrilled with the way it’s grown and developed.”

IEEE’s Continued Support of the Future City Competition

IEEE volunteers and staff have continued to support the Future City Competition since it was IEEE’s legacy project for Engineers Week (EWeek) in 1993. When IEEE served as the lead society for EWeek again in 2004, IEEE-USA funded three teams’ trips to Washington for the National Finals. The society also paid for a longitudinal study to see where Future City alumni landed professionally, including a demographic analysis of 2004 participants. The study serves as a fund-raising tool so potential sponsors can see evidence of Future City’s success.

In addition, eight of the 40 volunteer regional coordinators are IEEE members: Sonya Hutchinson (Alabama region), Mike Andrews (Arizona), Dan O’Malley (Northern California), Osama Mohammed (Florida), Todd Hiemer (Oklahoma), Jean Eason (North Texas), Zafar Taqvi (Houston) and Karen Pavletich (Washington State). Andrews is also chair of the Future City advisory board.

“The enthusiasm that the volunteers have working with the students is really infectious,” said Pender McCarter, IEEE-USA’s former communications director. “You can see with people such as Mike and Jean how engaged they get in the competition."

For the eighth consecutive year, IEEE-USA will judge and present the “Best Communications System” special award during the finals. And this year and last, IEEE sponsored the essay competition.

“IEEE always has been a visionary of what Future City is all about in reaching students and providing them with opportunities to learn about engineering,” Future City Competition National Director Carol Rieg said. “IEEE-USA has the vision to invest in programs that work, and Future City is certainly one of them.”

McCarter, now an IEEE-USA public relations consultant, played a key role in devising the concept of an engineering-design competition for middle school students. Working with EWeek lead corporate partner Chevron and the EWeek national staff and steering committees, McCarter also guided the team of consultants that administered the program for IEEE-USA.

One of those consultants was Carol Rieg, who as Future City Competition national director since 1993 has led the competition to unimagined heights. Pilot programs have been started in Egypt, Sweden and Japan, and Future Cities 2020 is staged in New Delhi, India.

“I’m very proud, and I have to say it’s a very humbling experience to realize that your own personal actions can have such an impact worldwide — with focused clarity and just a drive to succeed,” Rieg said. “I can say that it’s certainly a journey in working on a start-up project, and that there has to be a lot of flexibility in completing the project and reviewing and analyzing what works and what doesn’t work. And then you have to have a very strong determination to say that ‘we are going to succeed, we are going to reach as many students as we possibly can to provide the opportunity to learn about an engineering career.’

“I believe that if we stay focused on our goal, great things will happen, and by staying on task for 15 years, you can see the rewards. It’s not so much for me personally, but that we truly are impacting the lives of thousands of people, not only in this country but around the world.”

The competition requires students to create their vision of a future city, first on SimCity computer software and then in large, three-dimensional scale models. The three-student teams, who partner with a teacher and volunteer engineer-mentor, must also write a city abstract and an essay on how engineering can help solve a critical social need. The final step is a public presentation of their city before a panel of judges.

While the 12- to 14-year-old students are required to do all of the actual work on their cities, the engineer-mentor plays a key role, providing advice, guidance, input and technical assistance. Between September and January, an engineer typically spends at least 40 hours mentoring his or her team.

Rieg credits the engineers for much of the program’s success.

“The physical presence of an engineering professional working with students, especially at the seventh- and eighth-grade level where they have a lot of unbridled energy and creative thoughts, is truly a learning experience for both,” she said. “The students have the opportunity to really find out what an engineer is all about, because that engineer-mentor has invested a lot of time with them.”

An Enormously Successful Program

While conceiving the “future city” platform, McCarter, Rieg and others didn’t quite realize the impact such a competition could have on inspiring youngsters to become engineers. They were looking at it more as a powerful vehicle for enhancing public awareness and appreciation of EWeek and engineering. They weren’t even sure if the competition would last beyond 1993.

Today, many Future City alumni are working as engineers, while many are studying engineering. For example, Denise Armbruster, a 1995 Future City participant, earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Iowa and works as a supervising engineer in Chicago specializing in the restoration of historic architectural concrete. She is a member of the Future City Alumni Hall of Fame.

Other alumni have capitalized on the presentation and communications skills the competition requires for success and gone into the dramatic arts. Many credit the program for boosting their overall educational achievement and outlook on life.

“I’m pleased with the results of surveys that show how the competition has influenced youngsters and made them think about engineering and going into the field,” McCarter said, “as well as how the competition has helped them with their verbal skills and their negotiation skills, and how working with adults at an early age gave them a head start. I think working closely with a teacher and an engineer may have given them the drive, reinforcement and inspiration to succeed in other activities.

“That’s a real compliment to the program.”

Katie Knorr talked about Future City’s positive influence on her as a 13-year-old from Drexel Hill (Pa.) Middle School in 2004.

“This is a great opportunity to learn about things we wouldn’t learn about otherwise, like industry and transportation,” Knorr said. “I notice and understand why roads go the way they go, why buildings are the way they are, and what government does. It all makes more sense, so I understand the world and our society.

“It makes me think that some day I’ll be able to make the world a better place.”

In terms of visibility for engineering, Future City accounted for more than half of the positive publicity generated by EWeek in 2007. USA Today ran a February article and photo, one of 256 print clips with a total circulation of more than 27 million. ABC News also aired a national segment on television last year. All told, 115 radio and TV segments were reported, and the total TV viewership was more than 8 million.

How it All Began

The first public discussion of the Future City concept came in a 13 March 1992 Engineers Week Staff Committee meeting, which McCarter chaired, at IEEE-USA’s current office in Washington. From a list of potential events that McCarter proposed, including a student competition, a subcommittee on special events was formed and met at IEEE-USA’s office on 5 May. Laura Ksycewski of the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) chaired the subcommittee.

A day later McCarter sent a fax to the EWeek Staff Committee with an overview of five media events the subcommittee considered.

The second option was for “a mini city,” in which “groups of D.C. students could each contribute a model city block that contains alternative energy devices to run lights, transportation, etc. Each block would then be incorporated into a larger model city that would be displayed at a special event, followed by a luncheon for participants.”

The words “future city” are believed to have appeared for the first time in a 27 May communication from McCarter to two members of the special events subcommittee.

“After considering the input given by participating societies, I suggest we move forward with the ‘future mini-city’ concept,” McCarter wrote. “We could invite a number of schools to submit their idea of how a future city block would look. We could then take each of these blocks and assemble them in the future city, to be unveiled at a luncheon for participating students.”

Rieg, a former Capitol Hill lobbyist and grassroots organizer, was hired as a consultant to work on IEEE-USA’s EWeek activities, including Future City, in early August. No one served as the competition’s national director that first year, but she was appointed to manage the effort.

In November of 1992 McCarter hired Chris Currie as a public relations consultant to support IEEE-USA’s lead society role. His duties included promoting Future City.

“As the contest finally climaxed during the regional finals and National Engineers Week, we had gotten the sense that we were on to something pretty big, that there was a lot of enthusiasm among the students, the teachers and the engineer volunteers, and we knew that we would be continuing it, pursuing it and trying to increase participation,” said Currie, now IEEE-USA’s product development and marketing manager. “I guess I’m a little bit surprised — but pleased — to see how much it’s grown.

“It’s not easy to kind of create a huge national program out of nothing and have it sustain itself and grow and become really entrenched in the consciousness of educators around the country.”

While Currie and Rieg were working hard professionally to help Future City take baby steps, Rieg was also tending to an important personal matter. In October, she and her husband, Kevin, journeyed to Bogotá, Columbia, to express their intentions to adopt an infant boy born on 6 September. They returned nearly three months later, formally adopted the boy and brought him back to the Washington area.

Today, “Kevin Jr.” is a 15-year-old sophomore at Poolesville (Md.) High School enrolled in the global ecology magnet science program.

Back to Future City

At an 11 August 1992 EWeek Staff Committee meeting, a “special mini-city event” was discussed. Here’s part of the summary:

“Laura Kyscewski and Pender McCarter reported that a subcommittee selected a student design competition as the media event for this year. Junior high students will be asked to design and build, at least in part, an energy-efficient mini-city of the future…

“Laura presented several options for a contest: designing by computer using SimCity software; building a model of a school’s neighborhood; or using an existing city model. The committee recommended computer design with students, then building models. Rules and materials are to be determined.

“There was a discussion as to the scope of the competition, with a recommendation that it be entirely focused in Washington. Nancy Carroll, Chevron Public Affairs, recommended that it be opened to at least four cities to make it national in scope. This would be essential for media purposes. The committee agreed. Nancy has already begun fundraising for elements of the competition. She also presented a timetable, which calls for finalizing the competition rules this month.

“In addition to the competition, Barb Pontello will lead an effort to conduct another student survey, this time on the topic of energy. It was felt that the survey has been a success in the past and would help support the competition.

“A subcommittee has been formed to work on details of the competition.”

The group met on 26 August and laid out the basic framework of the competition, including how the city-building computer game SimCity could be incorporated. SimCity 3000, created by Maxis and published by Electronic Arts (EA), is the latest version. Rieg, Leslie Collins, now director of the National Engineers Week Foundation, and AAES’ Ksycewski were among the participants.

“There were approximately six public relations consultants sitting around the table trying to see what could be done with this program called ‘SimCity,’” Rieg said. “And this was pre-Internet, when faxes were really the only rapid method of communication. This was pre-cell phone and pre-IBM disks less than 5.25-inch, a big floppy disk. That’s what the SimCity program came on for our IBM/PC computers. The Mac software came on the small floppy disk to tell the difference between the different programs.”

The First Regional Competitions and National Finals

Because the theme of EWeek 1993 was energy, teams were asked to design an energy-efficient future city with a backup energy supply powered by an alternate source, such as solar, wind or water. Unlike today, where teams can choose the future year of their cities, the squads were asked to envision life in 2010.

Regional competitions were conducted in January 1993 and championship teams emerged from the Washington, D.C., Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles regions. Then, like now, they received an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, where they assembled at the Department of Energy’s Forestall Building auditorium for the National Finals on Wednesday, 17 February.

Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary welcomed the teams with opening remarks and Chevron Chairman and CEO Kenneth Derr served as one of the celebrity judges. Finalists were evaluated on their computer design, city model, presentation and essay on alternate energy sources.

When “Tilden Town” was judged to be the most impressive city, the team from Tilden Middle School of Rockville, Md., earned the first Future City national championship.

Gerry Klinglismith was the winning team’s teacher-sponsor and Steve Nieberding served as the engineer-mentor. Students Emma Lincoln, Kevin Milans and Matthew Smith won personal computers from IBM, among other prizes. Tilden’s math and science program received a $1,000 grant.

Milans is a member of the Future City Hall of Fame and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University. He added a master’s in mathematics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He is currently a teaching assistant and doctoral candidate at UIUC, studying disciplines of mathematics and theoretical computer science.

“It was an amazing experience,” Milans recalled. “We spent months designing and building our model in the basement of my friend and teammate Matthew Smith’s home. We all had a great time, and I don’t think any of us were expecting to win anything. We were just kids having fun building a model after school, while learning a bit about our nation’s energy problems and alternate sources of energy.”

Milans, who was 12 at the time, still has fond memories of the first Future City National Finals.

“When we gathered for the national competition in Washington, I remember being very impressed with the work of the other teams,” he said. “We were all proud to be among them.

“At the conclusion of the finals, we all sat down in the auditorium to await the results. Then Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary walked on the stage to announce the winning team. It was a thrilling and completely surreal experience to hear her say our team had won.”

McCarter was pleased with the media coverage the event enjoyed. He recalled how the late George Tames, a New York Times photographer who chronicled 10 presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush, shot the event. CNN covered the finals, as did the Washington Post.

Team Meets the President

The triumphant 1993 team has the distinction of being the only Future City champion to go to the White House and meet the president. Arranged by Chevron’s public information officer, Nancy Carroll, with assistance from National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) staff, the students showed President Bill Clinton their winning model. They were accompanied by McCarter, Collins, then-NSPE President Joe Paul Jones, and 1993 IEEE President Martha Sloan.

ABC News reported on the trip to the White House, adding to what was already a highly successful first year for the Future City Competition.

“We were thrilled with it, from the national competition at the Department of Energy, to the involvement of the energy secretary, to the coverage of the event,” McCarter said. “I think the event served its original purpose — to provide more national and local publicity — very well. Given the short turnaround and few schools involved, we did very well the first year. Obviously the event has become a lot broader as the coalition has added to the program over the years and expanded it greatly. I think the publicity we obtained was among the best.

“The visit to the White House, with President Clinton receiving the students, was the capstone event.”

Program Takes Off Under Rieg

Rieg, who continued her consulting work for IEEE-USA through March of 1993, became Future City national director after the EWeek Foundation decided to keep the competition going.

“When we learned that Engineers Week wanted to take it on, we were pleased it would continue,” McCarter said. “And if that had not been the case, IEEE-USA would have considered doing something with it.”

Rieg said her “entrepreneurial vision and focus” helped convince her to remain with the program.

“As an independent consultant and self-employed business person, I find that taking a project to market, such as the Future City Competition, is a tremendous achievement, truly from a business sense,” Rieg said. “And the way this program has grown has been a collaboration of teamwork and innovation by the volunteer regional coordinators, who for the most part — about 95 percent — work in the engineering field. So it was a combination of a business success, along with a grassroots network of volunteers, empowering them to take this program to the highest level they could within their own business, civic and municipal communities. And then most importantly, the education community.

“It’s great to have a program that has been around for 16 years and being able to say, ‘this is what works, we know this works because we’ve been doing it for 16 years and we’ve had notable results.’”

Rieg didn’t know her seven-month consulting job for IEEE-USA would turn into a career.

“I thank Pender for providing me the opportunity and hiring me to be the IEEE-USA EWeek liaison in 1992,” she said. “I had the organizing skills in working with volunteers, and the ability to focus on a message or a mission as a lobbyist to move forward. And I found those skills to be easily transferable to the Future City Competition outreach project.”

Rieg and her associates have transformed Future City into the leading engineering-promoting contest for middle school students in America. Financial supporters such as the National Engineers Week Foundation, Bentley Systems, Inc., Shell Oil Company, Electronic Arts and Ford Motor Company have also contributed greatly to the program’s success. When the 2007-08 competition was whittled down to five teams on the final day of the National Finals, 500 to 600 people filled one of the ballrooms at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill.

“I’m particularly proud that Carol has expanded the event from the beginning to make it what it is today,” McCarter said. “I’m glad I was a part of it and I’m pleased to see the way it’s grown after all these years.”

Web sites for more information:

www.futurecity.org

www.eweek.org

www.ieeeusa.org

-------------------

Chris McManes is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager. He has been a staunch supporter of Engineers Week and the Future City Competition since coming to IEEE-USA in 2000. 

Comments Comment Policy

No comments yet. Please sign in to add comment.