Despite its name, many students at Futures Academy have a hard time imagining a future for themselves.
But when a team of three eighth-graders was challenged to develop a city 100 years from now, they created an award-winning model metropolis that was streamlined, sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Located on Carlton Street between Lemon and Grape streets in the city’s Fruit Belt section, the school could be a model for the district’s Science Week effort this week, illustrating what can happen when students are exposed to such fields in creative ways.
The school is overwhelmingly minority – 85 percent African-American and 7 percent Hispanic; 92 percent of its students qualify for free lunch; and the performance on standardized tests is much worse than the district as a whole.
Yet the young techies from Futures held their own against 15 other teams from 12 Western New York schools in the recent 2014 National Engineers Week Future City Competition. The only Buffalo public school in the engineering challenge, the Futures team earned one of the Top 5 spots as regional finalists. The group also won the award for the most innovative transportation system, and one of them received an individual award for promise in science and engineering. The team will be recognized at the April 23 meeting of the Board of Education.
So how does a group of hard-luck kids from the East Side outdo teams from areas such as Orchard Park, Williamsville or Hamburg?
“I think, first of all, our kids have perseverance,” said Futures Principal Tonja M. Williams. “We’ve done a lot of work in getting our children to really believe in themselves and to really believe they are as smart and intelligent as any child anyplace.”
This year’s competition was held in 37 regions, including at Mount St. Mary Academy in the Town of Tonawanda. Nationwide, about 35,000 students participated.
The goal is to introduce engineering concepts to young people in a fun and exciting way. Using a software program called SimCity, the challenge was to design a virtual city.
Futures students Karion Carter, Johnathen Nelson and Zwanie Wright worked with graduate students from the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning as part of a yearlong program sponsored by UB’s Center for Urban Studies. The UB students worked with the kids twice a week during school hours and sometimes after school.
“They were so into it. They were here in the evenings. They came in on Saturdays” to work with the graduate students, Williams said.
The Futures kids had to generate their own ideas for a virtual city, do the research, write the plans and a narrative of the city, produce a scale model of the virtual city and then present the final product for judging. And the design has to be technologically feasible, not pie in the sky.
The Futures students named their imagined urban community Tranzit City. Its main feature is Tubester – a transportation system the students developed that allows riders to pedal for exercise as well as to generate energy to power the tram cars. They won the competition’s innovation award for Tubester, which also contains solar panels to harness power and air filters to suck out pollution in each tram.
Tranzit City also has H2O cars that get 45 miles per gallon. The water they run on turns into hydrogen as it is released from the car’s exhaust system, then it turns back into water and is transported back to the industrial zone to be cleaned and reused.
There are windmills and an agricultural zone with greenhouses to grow food year-round, as well as kinetic sidewalks and roads that release energy when people walk or drive on them. The energy is turned into electrical power.
In the presentation before judges, every member of the team had a role. Zwanie, 14, was the transportation engineer whose job “was to create things that relate to accessibility and sustainability.” Thirteen-year-old Karion – who won an individual award for showing promise in science, technology engineering and math – was the town’s real estate agent, who showed judges around Tranzit City, including its mosques, synagogues and churches, which were included so the city would “have more cultural diversity.”
And Johnathen served as mayor of Tranzit City, which was set in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. “We put it there because there’s less crime and drama, and it’s pretty,” Johnathen said.
That statement is a telling indication of how the children view their Fruit Belt community, said Gavin G. Luter, a UB doctoral student in educational leadership and policy studies who mentored the team.
“They think it was individual people who stopped caring one day,” Luter said. “It’s not that one day people stopped caring about the Fruit Belt. It’s that the city made critical decisions that impacted the community demographically.”
The Kensington Expressway, for instance, was built through the neighborhood and fractured it, Luter said.
A Corning private school earned a trip to the national finals by taking first place in the regional competition, followed by St. Francis of Assisi in the City of Tonawanda and Mill Middle School in the Williamsville district.
But for the Futures Academy principal, her students outshined them all.
“What really made me proud,” Williams said, was that “I could hear children sitting behind me from another school saying, ‘I think they were the best.’ ”