Perhaps few would argue there is nothing more joyful than watching children participate in group activities. The energy, playfulness, and exuberance are usually only pleasant memories for adults. We feel their joy, and might also feel a different sense of joy born from giving a richer and more meaningful dimension to their experience. Perhaps we are given the gift of feeling young again.
But, what can we say about activities when kids are tasked to solve very sobering, real problems such as saving our world? To take on this challenge, we must expose our children to the grit of our existence that undeniably carries extensive suffering. How do we solve problems of race, class, gender, pollution, global warming, and impending food shortages in a sustainable, healthy way?
The Future City Competition takes this challenge head on by brilliantly allowing middle school kids to tackle the most daunting of global problems, but framing this competition in the spirit of optimism and playfulness that only our youth are masters of. Equally important, the organizers see the power and potential of these 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, pushing their intellectual capital well beyond what we imagine possible for that age group.
At this year’s finals, Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Company, laid out the challenge quite succinctly. By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9.6 billion people, currently translating into a population increase the size of Washington, DC every four days. While currently just over 50% of the population of the world lives in cities, the largest demographic shift ever is underway where this number will increase to over 75%. Adding to Mr. Odum’s discussion, we currently face global food shortages and Ecology and Society recently published that we might be reaching peak food production. According to DoSomething.org, close to 1/2 of the world’s population live on less than $2.50 a day, while according to WorldHunger.org, 11.3%, or one in every nine people in the world, are malnourished. And many argue that the IPCC latest report on climate change suggests the problem has reached the point of being an emergency.
Over a six month period, 40,000 students nationwide set out on a journey to create a model city to handle all these challenges. Started as a way to boost engineering education and encourage kids to consider engineering and STEM
(science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, the Future City competition uses Sim City software, written essays, the construction of a 3D model from recyclable materials, a 7-minute team presentation with an additional six minutes of grilling from highly skilled judges. In sharing their vision for the future, teams must demonstrate an awareness that cities are living organisms based on both social and eco-environmental sciences. Each city project must shift all the needs of a real city – equitable housing, commerce, energy, public and environmental health, waste management, transportation, education, civic/leisure space – to sustainable solutions. In addition, the 2015 competition, with the theme of “Feeding Future Cities,” also asked students to address the problem of providing at least two food sources (a vegetable and a protein) that could be grown within the city in sufficient quantity to feed the entire population for one growing season.
There was a brilliance to these projects that, frankly, startled many of the judges we worked with. The quality of research and workmanship for many projects would be expected at the college level, and presentations were more enlivening than what virtually all adults deliver. As the competition drew to a close, this haunting question formulated: If our kids are so joyfully capable of “adult” work, why do we hold them back as kids? If our children have valuable insights to offer to this world, why do we stifle these ideas from penetrating into actionable solutions? Why don’t we collaborate and listen to our children?
Our future people will only be as powerful, inspirational, and capable as we develop them to be now. We are grateful to the organizers of the Future City Competition for having the foresight to foster brilliant, adorable, creative human beings that regenerate a moral and healthy world. We were deeply honored to be judges, gratefully learning an ocean of information from middle schoolers.