GWEN IFILL: Next, the story of some young engineers with ideas for the cities of tomorrow. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has our Science Unit report.
TOM BEARDEN: Three students from Gates Intermediate School in Scituate, Mass., minutes away from their final presentation in a national engineering contest.
They spent six months designing a whole city. And though only in middle school, they already knew more about urban planning than most adults.
A month earlier, they won the New England regional contest, and now they were in Washington, D.C., with a shot at the national prize.
HOST: The 17th Annual Future City National Competition, and you are the finalists.
STUDENT: Just count to “one Mississippi” at any pause.
TOM BEARDEN: A day earlier, the Gates team gathered outside a meeting room door before their first presentation for the finals in Future City, a contest designed to inspire future engineers.
The challenge was to apply technical and scientific knowledge to design a city of the future, imagine how it would work and what it would be like to live there.
They had designed “Arbella,” an underwater city located on an active fault in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. They imagined underwater domes powered by geothermal and hydroelectric sources.
STUDENT: … on an expedition for dinosaur fossils. When he came to the island…
TOM BEARDEN: Each of the 38 teams made repeated short presentations…
STUDENT: Haiti, a nation of 9 million people…
TOM BEARDEN: … and then answered questions from teams of judges.
GINA BRAZAO, student: So the water pressure comes from an open valve and pushes the pods through. And they come to the different areas, and then — then another tube loops around, and the pods just come back and pick up another person.
Students learn about city planning
TOM BEARDEN: The judges used a long list of criteria -- creativity, efficiency, livability -- to decide on a winner.
JUDGE: Did you think about considerations for what it would be like kind of for people to live underwater psychologically?
STUDENT: Yes. Actually, as we pointed out earlier, our fiber optics are used to represent the bioluminescent fish that we use to represent stars at night.
TOM BEARDEN: They told the judges that the toughest and most expensive part of their model was that squeaky rotation mechanism. Adam Culbert was the team's teacher.
ADAM CULBERT, teacher, Gates Intermediate School: Judges come around and ask you rocket-fire questions about different aspects of your city. You can sort of hear the different tables and people around you, and some of the phrases and some of the technology they're talking about, and it's very, very impressive.
TOM BEARDEN: More than 30,000 students from 1,100 middle schools participated in this year's regional contests. They all designed and tested their urban planning ideas using a computer game called "SimCity 4."
ADAM CULBERT: You have to basically create your city from the terrain, to your location, to your neighboring regions, so the kids get involved in, you know, how do taxes work? How does zoning work?
You know, if we put our industries right next to the homes, will people want to live there? And the game will tell you yes or no. You know, people will move out. People will be upset, angry, or, you know, it will flourish. If you get your medical research center in the center of your home, people want to come and be a part of that.
STUDENT: Here's a brief overview of our utility distribution. Red coils represent heating.
TOM BEARDEN: Teams were also required to write an essay and then build a model using less than $100 worth of materials. On top of all that, this year's team had to incorporate water conservation methods into their designs.
STUDENT: To dispose of waste in our city, we have genetically engineered a species of sea creatures.
Reaching out to middle schools
TOM BEARDEN: Leslie Collins is executive director of the National Engineers Week Foundation, which sponsors the competition.
LESLIE COLLINS, executive director, National Engineers Week Foundation: We started the program because we felt there was a need to reach out to kids in the middle school area, because they are starting to turn off to math and science there.
We didn't see other engineering programs. We saw science programs. We saw math programs. But we didn't see anything that really was engineering.
And engineering is different than science and math. Those are the tools that engineers use, but they're not the same thing.
TOM BEARDEN: On the second and last day, all the teams convened for the selection of the final five.
HOST: And our fifth finalist for this year, the final slot goes to Gates Intermediate School, New England.
TOM BEARDEN: The finalist teams were taken to an anteroom to wait their turn on the big stage. The Gates team used the time for last minute strategizing and rehearsal.
In the meantime, the other teams made their final pitch to the judges. Competition was stiff. Three eighth-graders from Bexley Middle School in Bexley, Ohio, designed a fantasy city in Iceland that runs on geothermal energy and hydropower.
STUDENT: Spindolas consist of a cylindrical access column which house utility systems, as well as provide elevator access to all housing units. The units curve in a stair step design.
Announcing the winners
TOM BEARDEN: And then it was the Gates team's turn.
STUDENT: Before we talk to you about our infrastructure, let me introduce you to our superstructure, the domes. Using recent genetic breakthroughs in spider silk technology, we can duplicate the strength of spider silk to create a material 10 times as strong as titanium to construct our domes.
LESLIE COLLINS: This is a great program. We had a school in an inner city one year where the judges asked, "Why do you have so many homeless shelters in your city? It seems like there are way, way more than we've seen in other places." And the students said, "Because we pass so many homeless people when we go to school every day."
TOM BEARDEN: Finally, the countdown to the winning team. After six months of work and three pressure-packed days of competing, the New England team was awarded the fourth-place medal in the national contest.
And the winner of the 2009 Future City competition: Bexley, Ohio, for Novo-Mondum, their city in Iceland.
PARENT: I'm so proud of you.
TOM BEARDEN: The top prize was a weeklong trip to U.S. space camp, where the kids will fly jet fighter simulators and take part in mock space shuttle missions.
JACK DUFF, student: I learned -- as Joanna said, we all learned about engineering. I learned basically that engineers make this whole world work.
TOM BEARDEN: Some of these students are so committed to the Future City competition, they said they'd start preparing for next year's event as soon as they got back home.