Offering a look into the future

For contest, students' ideas included a domed city on Mars and a revamped New Orleans

January 27, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

By 2150, Frederick's southern edge would be bound by two 30-story "vertical farms," transforming the quaint town into the "bread basket of the region," 12-year-old Bianca Hoch told a panel of engineers judging her team's vision of the ideal future city yesterday at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

The vertical farms, one of which has been proposed in real-life for Las Vegas, would allow year-round crop production and reduce agricultural runoff, a major contributor to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. In addition, Frederick's relatively homogenous buildings and their flat roofs would form the base of a solar power grid, running homes, businesses and hybrid cars, said teammate Kathy Acosta, 13.

"We'd be a near zero-emission carbon city," Jennifer Parker, 12, said.

The team from Visitation Academy in Frederick laid out its plan on a tabletop scale model of Frederick, constructed out of liter-size soda bottles and cereal boxes, as part of the Maryland region's Future City Competition -- a nationwide effort by engineering groups to attract middle-schoolers to the field as well as show them how difficult it is to sustain a city.

Five teams from across the state spent months creating the models and researching cutting-edge concepts in the fields of civil and mechanical engineering and urban planning. It didn't take long, however, for many of them to sound like government officials and complain about their meager budgets.

"We couldn't put solar panels on everything like we wanted to because they cost a lot of money," said Cameron Jenkins, 12, of Kenmoor Middle School in Landover.

In addition to staying within budget, each team had to include a moving part on their model. The Visitation Academy's vertical farms rotated, two other teams built model windmills for wind energy production, and another built a spinning communications satellite at "RopoA Mapca," a domed city on Mars.

A laser-powered nose-hair trimmer is one invention that the "research and development sector" of RopoA Mapca will have created generations from now, said team member Connor Hobson, which brought chuckles from the judges.

RopoA Mapca's dome would be powered by an "atomic friction plant," and its trash would be "deconstructed into static electricity" for further energy consumption, Connor said.

Connor and teammates Blake Lerner and Cody Smith, all seventh-graders at Windsor Knolls Middle School in Frederick County, used a Star Wars light saber as a pointer during their presentation.

"If we're on Mars after all, it's definitely a new horizon," said a member of the team, which won the competition.

According to Connor, life on Mars without a dome will be possible in hundreds of thousands of years through "terraforming," a theory -- more in the realm of science fiction -- for building Mars' atmosphere to make it habitable for humans.

The team from Kenmoor Middle School focused on a more pressing need -- the repair of New Orleans.

The team proposed widening the Mississippi River so it could hold more water; improving the levees; installing magnetically levitating trains, which are already running in Japan; requiring Magnetite insulating windows and gypsum drywall to save energy and the environment; and constructing a skyscraper of solar panels.

One particularly heartfelt idea was to build a heliport at the Superdome, as a way to rescue those possibly stranded by floodwaters, said Cameron.

"At first, everyone wanted to do Las Vegas, but in the end we said, `Let's work on a city that needs our help,'" said Urusha Shrestha, 12.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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