Stormwater runoff is key at the Future City Competition

Bob Bauder
| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 8:56 p.m.

Flash flooding won't be a problem for the burgeoning city of Coral Cove that a group of South Hills homeschoolers is creating for a national engineering competition.

When it rains, water collects in conical gizmos called pups — short for pop-ups — and is pumped to a treatment facility that purifies it and sewage. Then the city stores the water in an inactive volcano.

“We store the water because we have a wet season and a dry season,” said Stephen Rashford, 12, of Scott. “In the dry season, that's where the city gets its water.”

Rashford is among middle school children from Western Pennsylvania who are creating make-believe cities with high-tech infrastructure for the Future City Competition.

The National Engineers Week Foundation, a consortium of professional engineer and technical societies and corporations, sponsors the yearly contest. This year's theme is stormwater runoff.

The children's cities aren't real but the problem they tackle is — particularly in the Pittsburgh region, where flooding has harmed homes, businesses and people.

The situation reached extreme levels two years ago when four people drowned during a flash flood on Washington Boulevard in Highland Park. A storm that dumped nearly 1.5 inches of rain in an hour overwhelmed sewers and created a 9-foot wall of water that trapped motorists.

City crews installed a gate at the boulevard that activates during storms to block traffic from the road and authorities continue studying how to remove stormwater from the corridor.

The 86 municipalities that the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority serves must upgrade sewer systems to reduce raw sewage spilling into waterways during heavy rain. Under a federal mandate, they must submit plans to the government this year and have systems operating by 2026.

ALCOSAN estimates its upgrades will cost $2 billion. Pittsburgh estimates its costs at $100 million to $200 million.

Students' suggestions for dealing with a tough problem are creative and thoughtful, if not always practical.

“Some of the things they come up with are interesting but I don't know if they're (possible) at this particular moment,” said Darby Neidig of Westwood, an engineer who mentors the South Hills Catholic homeschoolers' team.

Ideas incorporated into the Coral Cove plan included bees that could detect bombs and cactus-like palm trees that absorb rain water.

The team at St. Bede School in Point Breeze is running sewer pipes and other utilities through tunnels that are big enough for future expansion.

“You don't have to dig up an entire road to put in another line,” said Jack Maier, 14, of Squirrel Hill.

The Future City competition includes designing a virtual city using a computer game; writing a research essay and a separate narrative about the city; building a model that demonstrates how the team's city controls water runoff; and presenting the project to judges.

Students build models to scale out of recycled materials. Teams cannot spend more than $100 on materials, so the children use milk cartons, old medicine vials, and scrounge schools for the innards of broken computer equipment.

“We call it creative Dumpster diving,” said Betsy Killmeyer, a science teacher at St. Bede who is team sponsor.

Karen Compton, who teaches science and computer programming at The Ellis School in Shady Side, said the competition taught her team to think about things necessary for a city to function, including zoning, taxes, deficits, roads and public safety.

The students must employ critical thinking and writing.

“You're creating informed citizens. When they grow up and start making decisions about their neighborhoods, this is something that will stick with them,” she said.

Michael Nastac, 15, an Upper St. Clair High School freshman who participated in Future City last year, said the competition enabled him to think like an engineer.

“You design it, you build it and you present it,” said Nastac, who is helping the team from Fort Couch Middle School in Upper St. Clair with this year's event. “I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of hard work but it was a lot of fun.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or

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