Full STEAM ahead

Several Marshall Middle School students made the decision to take part in a Future City competition this year — the first time the project-based learning program was offered after school for MMS sixth- through eighth-grade students. The students are now looking forward to state competition on Jan. 20 in Rosemount. Future City competitions encourage students to imagine, research, design and build cities that exist at least 100 years in the future. Participants are asked to find solutions to making the world a better place. Past topics highlighted stormwater management, urban agriculture, public spaces and green energy.

“This is the first year that students in STEAM-Ed (science, technology, engineering, art, math) at Marshall Middle School have done the Future City competition,” mentor Candace Thomas said. “They have worked hard and learned so much about engineering, design, writing and teamwork. I’m just so proud of them.” The 2017-18 Future City theme is the “Age-Friendly City.” Teams were asked to identify an age-related challenge that exists in today’s urban environments and engineer two innovative solutions that allow their Future City’s senior citizens to be as active and independent as they want to be.

“The organization provides you with some training and a webinar,” Thomas said. “One of the things we learned about was the World Health Organization, which published a report about the essential elements to be an Age-Friendly City. Our students had to read through all of this information — we also had a group that we called ‘Age-Friendly Experts’ who read other things, too — and they decided that respect and social inclusion were the really important things.” From there, the students were challenged to come up with solutions.

“They decided that housing and transportation were two ways to help,”Thomas said. “They picked this and then the Star Tribune came out with the whole series about elder abuse, so it was really interesting. It makes it so amazing because it’s like real life.” Participants complete five phases — a virtual city design using SimCity, a 1,500-word essay, a scale model, a project plan and a presentation to judges at regional competition. Students typically learn a variety of skills — identifying problems, creating solutions, applying math and science concepts to real-world problems and so much more.

“Part of the competition involved having to learn SimCity,” Thomas said. “They had to create a virtual city, which helps them understand infrastructure and planning. The computer game helps them understand that you can’t ignore any features of a city. Students forgot to take care of sewage and they forgot schools, so they had to correct that in the final part of the project.”

Literacy Volunteers of Southwest Minnesota was instrumental in starting the community-based STEAM literacy opportunities for MMS students four years ago. Art and science were the primary focus in the first year, followed by phenology — the study of seasons — during the second year. With engineering being the major focus this year, Future City seems to be a logical choice. “Literacy Volunteers started STEAM-Ed,” Thomas said. “In the past, we were working primarily with EL (English Language) students or students that recently came out of EL. But this year, we opened it up to anyone (in grades 6-8 at MMS).”

Thomas, the former executive director of Literacy Volunteers, said she loves working with the students. “They are so bright and also come from cultures where the elders are respected,” she said. “They just work so hard.” Thomas said dedication and teamwork were also skills that the students learned. “Students have had to make a huge commitment of time and thinking,” she said. “And their teamwork is amazing. They have to learn to work in a team — to share ideas, build on them, test them, maybe start over when they don’t work out. You also have time and budget constraints. So you have to learn how to plan projects together. It’s really cool.”

Thomas noted that the No. 1 thing the students get out of the effort is the importance of teamwork. “They’d also admit that they’re still working on that,” Thomas said.

Thomas said as many as 28 MMS students have been involved in this year’s project. But due to basketball and other activities, the group is down to “16 really active members,” she said. “We started out meeting two afternoons a week, but we had to schedule a lot of extra meetings,” Thomas said.

The Future City program can be adapted in a variety of ways — for a classroom, after-school club or homeschool group for example. Team sizes also vary. “Science teachers could make it part of their curriculum if they wanted to,”Thomas said. “It’s also an option for homeschooled students.”

Mentors can also come from various walks of life. Along with Thomas, MuMu Aye, Hamid Ullah and Thomas’ husband, Will, also serve as mentors for the students. “You have to have a teacher on board,” Candace Thomas said. “I’m assuming they mean a licensed teacher, which I am. Then you also need a mentor who is an engineer, planner, architect or some type of tech person. Hamid is an architect. He has his architect degree and he’s getting his master’s degree in business (at Southwest Minnesota State University).”

Thomas said Ullah has designed hospitals and shopping centers in Pakistan. Other community members, including Al Kruse and Jim Zarzana, pitch in to help the students as volunteers. “Al helped with the model,” Thomas said. “Jim is the author of science fiction books, so he met with students one afternoon to talk about how you write something 100 years in the future. He said they needed to start with something that is here now because you don’t want to go so far off the path that it’s not believable. They really took that to heart. It’s nice because there have been so many people we have called upon — many of them from SMSU — who have lent their expertise.”

The Future City competition engages more than 40,000 middle school students each year throughout the United States and abroad. For many participants, the program increased their motivation and excitement about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)/STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math). “They added the ‘A’ — the arts component — about a year ago,” Thomas said. “STEAM is a movement started by Rhode Island School of Design.”

STEAM advocates believe that “art + design” needed to be added to the equation because the subjects are expected to transform the economy in the 21st century just as much as science and technology did in the last century. Future City is one of the nation’s leading engineering education programs and has received national recognition for its role in encouraging middle schoolers to develop their interest in STEM/STEAM. Future City won the 2017 US2020 STEM Mentoring award (most innovative hands-on project), 2016 Henry C. Turner prize (innovation in construction) and 2015 ULIEAQ grand prize (innovative education award).

Regional/state winners will move on to the finals in Washington, D.C., during the month of February. “I believe each region is allowed to send one,” Thomas said. “Some states like Pennsylvania and Texas have so much participation that it divides the state into regions. Some have multiple states that make up one region. Minnesota has a fair number of participants — I heard from the coordinator that Minnesota’s participation is the highest it’s ever been.”Thomas said the MMS participants are adamant about making it to the finals.

“It’s really neat,” she said. “Our team keeps saying they’re going to Washington, D.C.” Regardless of the outcome, Thomas said she believes the experience of being part of the Future City group is priceless. She added that she wishes there would be even more local participation in the future. “I would love to see more teams from schools in southwest Minnesota,” she said. “It’s really meaningful and neat to be part of something bigger.”