In January, thousands of sixth, seventh and eighth grade students will gather in 37 locations around the U.S. to present their ideas for building a futuristic city that meets energy needs and maintains a healthy planet—the theme for the 2011-2012 National Engineers Week Future City Competition. More than 33,000 students from 1,000 middle schools are expected to participate nationwide. Regional finalists will compete in the Future City National Finals in Washington, D.C., in February.
The first-place national team will win a trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., sponsored by software developer Bentley Systems Inc., while second- and third-place schools will receive technology program scholarships from other sponsoring organizations. Bentley Systems will also provide a 10-seat academic suite of engineering software for each school with the top three teams.
It’s a competition that Bentley Systems has sponsored for more than a decade, and one that CEO Greg Bentley personally champions. “My own involvement started from sitting in the audience at one of these events about 12 years ago,” he says. “I was fascinated by the subject matter as well as the process, and I was impressed with what these kids were able to accomplish at 12, 13 and 14 years old. But most of all, it was fun!”
The presentations start with in-depth research on the year’s chosen theme. With guidance from a teacher and a volunteer engineer mentor, the students write an essay describing their city and its features, and they create their cities on computers using SimCity software provided by Electronic Arts. (This year’s contestants are using SimCity 4 Deluxe.) The students also build 3D tabletop models to scale using recycled materials at a cost of no more than $100. Through brief narratives describing their cities, the students present and defend their designs at the competition before a panel of engineer judges, who test the depth of the teams’ knowledge. Much, if not all, of the work on the project is done outside of school hours.
The experience is both educational and highly memorable. “To be assigned at age 12 or 13 to help design and defend and explore and discover and research what a city of the future could be like is such an appealing endeavor to do in a team,” Bentley says. “These kids sparkle in their pursuit of this, and everyone involved in this program is really helping kids to discover that a career in the infrastructure professions has intrinsic appeal.”
First launched in 1992 as a way to encourage school-age children to focus on science, engineering, technology and math (known together as STEM education) and to consider engineering as a future career, the Future City Competition has been influential in the lives of countless individuals. Reports indicate that many of the alumni from the early competitions have gone on to pursue careers in math- and engineering-related fields. The program is also credited with boosting communication skills and overall academic achievement. The program is sponsored in part by the National Engineers Week Foundation, a consortium of professional and technical societies and major U.S. corporations, and receives major financial support from Shell as well as Bentley Systems.
As a provider of software solutions for the infrastructure lifecycle, Bentley Systems’ motivation for supporting Future City might seem obvious. But the company is looking well beyond future sales of its products. “Our corporate objective is sustaining infrastructure,” Bentley says. “Infrastructure, in turn, sustains our economy and has to sustain our environment. And everyone else can talk about that, but it’s only engineers and infrastructure professionals, including surveyors, one project at a time who make a difference. As technology helps bring together engineering and surveying and imaging and what I would generally call the capture of existing conditions, we need to help young people understand that this is non-routine work. It’s work that has tangible excitement, and doing it can be fun. And if all that is true, what a shame if we don’t do our part to make it known!”
For starters, Bentley suggests sitting in the audience. “I try to have all our Bentley Systems executives get to one of the competitions over the course of a year or at least every few years to be as revitalized as I am by this,” he says, “and I recommend the same for anyone involved in the engineering and surveying professions.”