MORRISTOWN, NJ - The year is 2044. The Malaysian port city of Tourmalia, rendered partly uninhabitable following a devastating oil tank explosion in the Straits of Malacca the year prior, has faced a growing population decline and a serious threat to its sustainability.  Fortunately, a forward-thinking team of aspiring engineers has an innovative multi-step plan to design a new, environmentally friendly water filtration system, restore the health of the water supply, and turn the city’s fate around.

Who are these creative problem-solvers of the future?  They are Elise, Elizabeth, Mary, and Michelle, all current eighth graders at Frelinghuysen Middle School (FMS).  On January 18, the “Tourmalia” team was awarded first place in the NJ Future City Competition, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).  They now advance to the national competition in Washington, D.C., later this month. 

Twenty-eight schools from around the state of NJ, including middle schools in Livingston, Princeton, and Bedminster, competed in this year’s Future City Competition, a project-based STEM learning experience that aims to build students’ 21st-century skills by engaging them in the engineering design process:  identifying problems; designing solutions; testing, retesting, and building; and sharing their results. Students are required to complete five deliverables: a virtual city design using SimCity, a 1500-word essay, a 3-D model built to scale from recycled materials, a project plan, and a 7-minute presentation skit.  The theme for this year’s competition was “Clean Water: Tap into Tomorrow,” and the challenge students had to respond to was to “choose a threat to your city’s water supply and design a resilient system to maintain a reliable supply of clean drinking water.”

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According to FMS Quest teacher Alexandria Lefkovits, the FMS Tourmalia team went “above and beyond in all aspects of this challenge,” working collaboratively over several months to research, design, and execute an exceptional project that demonstrates a creative, viable solution to a complex problem.  As per competition parameters, they also consulted a professional engineer. Ms. Lefkovits, who served as project advisor, noted the students’ passion and enthusiasm from day one, marvelling at how they were able to assimilate so many advanced concepts in multiple areas of engineering.  

The team impressed the judges with their Seven Step -Ation Plan (SSAP) for cleaning water:   accumulation, desalination, coagulation, evaporation, filtration, examination, and circulation.  

Tourmalia’s innovative features include a sand barrier that filters pollutants like oil so that cleaner water can be absorbed into the ground before it reaches the city’s water accumulation centers, as well as “living buildings” with plants that absorb and filter rainwater.  The city utilizes alternative sources of power, such as algae biofuel, solar and wind power, and geothermal and hydroelectric power. Beyond the sustainability imperative, the students’ clean water system had to be economical, practical, and seamlessly integrated into the design of the city.  They had to think carefully about how the citizens of Tourmalia would live, work, and get around without compromising clean water.  

In addition to important lessons in applying math and science concepts to real-world issues, diving deep into different types of engineering, and honing their research, writing, and public speaking skills, the Tourmalia team emphasized how valuable the Future City experience was for learning how to collaborate on the projects’ many facets, how to coordinate their schedules and manage their time effectively, and how to work toward consensus on decision making.  All four students saw great value in trying something new that required their focused, dedicated attention over months and the ability to persevere through challenges. Most of all, they enjoyed the exposure to all aspects of project design and were surprised by how fun it was to build an entire city.

Three of the four students have applied to the Morristown High School STEM Academy, a highly selective, four-year program that offers students specialized instruction, field experience, professional mentoring, and co-curricular activities in a number of pathways: Biomedicine, Engineering, Architecture, Environmental Sustainability, Computer Science, Mathematics and General STEM.  District Supervisor for STEM Brian Young called the Future City Competition “excellent preparation for the rigorous project-based learning experiences our students will encounter in their future studies and careers.”  

In preparation for the national Future City Competition in a few weeks, Elise, Elizabeth, Mary, and Michelle are tweaking their presentation and practicing answers to tough questions about Tourmalia in anticipation of the judges’ interrogation.  As Ms. Lefkovits stated, they “must know their city intimately.”  

Indeed, these engineers-in-training speak expertly about their research and project design, and they are looking forward to sharing their knowledge and their innovative ideas in Washington during the several days of the event.

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