Nina Otero students build futuristic city model to address real-world problems

January 14, 2019

Diego Rael peered down at the almost-finished model of Kaze Mizu.

He and his teammates at Nina Otero Community School had used chopsticks to create propellers of a windmill in this futuristic city. They built a megatower out of a cardboard box wrapped in transparent sheets extracted from a keyboard. The tower, they said, would convert both wind and water into electricity to power the oceanside city.

In the nearby ocean, they installed a tracker to help detect natural disasters, such as tsunamis and earthquakes.

The group of five sixth- through eighth-grade boys building the Kaze Misu model were among 18 middle school students from Nina Otero Community School — and more than 300 from across New Mexico — who participated in the Future City Competition on Saturday in Albuquerque.

The innovative science project encourages middle-schoolers around the globe to envision futuristic communities to address real-world problems and showcase models of their visions that propose solutions.

Cost for materials for the 3-D city models can be no more than $100, and students are encouraged to use recycled items.

“We want to save our planet for future generations,” said Nina Otero sixth-grader Alexander Duran, who helped create Kaze Mizu, a Tokyo-based city plan whose name means “wind water” in Japanese.

This year’s theme for Future City was“Powering Our Future,” challenging kids to design a power grid resilient to any natural disaster.

The two other projects created by Nino Otero students were Big Dam City, in which electricity generated by a central dam powers the area, and Mahalo, a Hawaii-based island that uses clear titanium domes — strong enough to withstand lava and tsunamis — to protect its residents.

The Big Dam City crew integrated a mountain bunker for underground water storage, while Mahalo creators used a clear tube around the exterior of their island to filter and recycle water from the ocean.

At Ohkay Owingeh Community School, 16 sixth-graders worked to create Futuristic City, said their teacher, Pamela Chavez. The hypothetical Texas city, she said, uses recycled CDs to represent solar panels and Plexiglas buildings that monitor ground vibrations to detect incoming natural disasters. If all goes according to plan, she said last week, the students would have a moving wind turbine completed by Saturday’s competition.

Organizers said about 40,000 students worldwide are taking part in this year’s event. In New Mexico, 35 teams from 16 schools were enrolled. First-place teams from each region will be awarded airfare and accommodations to compete as finalists in February in Washington, D.C.

In the New Mexico competition, organizers announced late Saturday that a group from Annunciation Catholic School in Albuquerque that built a model of a city called Citta Forte was the finalist.

But for Jeri Lyn Salazar, Nino Otero’s gifted education coordinator, Future City wasn’t about winning; it was about encouraging kids to critique current climate issues and brainstorm solutions.

“They’re really concerned about the environment,” she said. “They want to leave the world a better place for future generations.”

Yet, going green wasn’t the only priority. Students also emphasized the importance of cleanliness, inclusion and accessibility.

Ytzel Romo, 13, said her Big Dam City team wanted to ensure there were trolleys for disabled members of the town and a homeless shelter that wasn’t isolated from other institutions. Kaze Mizu’s Rael, 12, said the Japanese city offers a reptilian animal sanctuary and a quality medical center.

Chavez said Future City was a way to test her students’ imaginations while also getting the kids outside of their routine.

“These students come to a community school and live in the pueblo,” she said. “It’s a whole new experience for them to see other cultures and how other people work. … It opens up a whole new world for them beyond what they’re used to here.”

This was also true for other Native American students competing this year, said Amy Sun, the regional coordinator for Future City, adding there were a record number of Native American students competing in New Mexico. At least four schools were enrolled, and two of them — Ohkay Owingeh and Mescalero Apache School — took part in the competition.

Chavez said the project revealed a wide array of potential jobs her students might want to pursue. For example, she said, many of those who enjoy video games have expressed interest in becoming gaming engineers.

Salazar agreed, saying Future City is a way for kids to think about an unknown future and “prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist.”

From concept to tangible results, Salazar said her students spent about 45 hours, beginning in September, preparing for Saturday’s competition. The process, she said, involved researching, writing a 1,500-word essay, creating a virtual model using Sim City software and constructing the city models.

From start to finish, she said, the kids were able to learn about teamwork, time management and, of course, science. By the end, they were able to “back up their futuristic ideas” with sound research, Salazar added.

Many students working on the project said they don’t feel safe in the world or optimistic about its future.

Naomi Rodriguez, a Nina Otero sixth-grader who worked on Mahalo, said, “Our world right now isn’t the best place.” The project, she said, allowed her to hope for something more.

“We got to use our imagination and create a world as we’d like to see it,” Diego added.