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Marion Center students manage budget, water runoff in virtual city design competition

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 8:48 p.m.
Members of Marion Center Area School District's Future City competition team display the model city they entered in the regional Pittsburgh event. From left are Seth White/grade 6, Jane Herring/grade 7, Curtis Dehaven/grade 6, Brianna Adkins/grade 8, Brooke Beckwith/grade 6, Zakk Painter/grade 6. Taken 2-6-12 Bruce Siskawicz | Tribune-Review
This model depicts a portion of the virtual urban design a team of Marion Center students created as part of a Future City competition in Pittsburgh. It includes a windmill (at top left) and a monorail (center). Taken 2-6-12 Bruce Siskawicz | Tribune-Review

Anyone who has ever played the popular SimCity video game knows how much fun it can be to plan, build and run your own city. A team of gifted students from Marion Center Area School District recently learned that an urban design challenge can also be educational.

Marion Center gifted instructor Adam Rising this year entered the district's first-ever team in the annual Future City regional competition in Pittsburgh. It was the 14th year for the Carnegie Science Center to play host to the event, held Jan. 19 in the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.

Six Marion Center students in grades 6-8 designed a “city of the future” for the competition, which asks participants from area middle schools to draw upon skills from multiple disciplines to tackle a problem confronting their imagined city. This year's objective was to design a method of dealing with stormwater runoff.

“They had to apply a lot of math and science concepts to real-world problems and utilize a lot of problem-solving skills and team-working habits,” Rising said of his students. “It really touches on a lot of facets of academics.”

English skills also were used in an essay-writing portion of the contest, and every resource the students used had to be cited on a bibliography page.

The six students who made up Marion Center's team were eighth-grader Brianna Adkins, seventh-grader Jane Herring and sixth-graders Brooke Beckwith, Curtis DeHaven, Zakk Painter and Seth White.

White said he found the competition both challenging and entertaining.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was a lot of work, but we managed to pull it off. It gave us a lot of experience, how to create a city and watch it grow.”

Pittsburgh's St. Bede School placed first at the Oakland event and joins 35 other regional winners in the national finals continuing through Wednesday in Crystal City, Va., as part of National Engineers Week.

Marion Center didn't place in this year's regional event. But, according to Rising, it did finish in the top 50 percent of the 25 schools that competed.

Rising learned about the competition through an online posting and thought it would provide an enriching experience for his Marion Center students.

“I saw the engineering, the science aspects and how the project touched on a lot of academic areas, and I thought, ‘What a great opportunity for the students to learn about stormwater runoff and how it affects our environment, and look at the different components that make up engineering,'” Rising said. “Obviously, these kids are young, but it's a great hands-on opportunity. The biggest challenge was keeping the students motivated, keeping them driven to meet the deadlines.”

The Marion Center team worked for close to three months on its project, designing a virtual city they called “MC City” using SimCity 4 Deluxe Edition software. They also researched and wrote an essay addressing this year's theme, “Rethink Runoff,” which had them devising clean solutions to manage stormwater pollution in their “city.”

In addition, the students constructed a physical model of a section of their city using recycled materials and they drafted a brief narrative promoting their city.

“We worked on a bunch of stuff,” White said. “We went from brainstorming and blueprinting to doing a virtual model to actually doing the real deal.”

The students, with help from their parents, collected such recycled materials as cartons and containers, paper products, glass and plastic bottles and old wire. They also gathered more high-tech items such as monitors, engines and a motherboard. Landscaping was accomplished with Spanish moss and toothpick trees.

“We had a lot of people donate stuff that was lying around the house that they weren't using,” White said. “We brainstormed what we could do with it, and once we found a way to use it, we built the model.”

The model had to incorporate moving parts, and “MC City” featured a monorail powered by a magnet and a windmill propelled by a monitor cooler.

For Marion Center eighth-grade team member Brianna Adkins, designing and constructing the model was the most fun she had with the project.

“It was fun to look at the different things we had to use and what they could be, where they could go on the model,” said Adkins.

The Marion Center team's “MC City” incorporated green roofs and porous pavement to help take care of stormwater.

But managing excess water wasn't the only focus for the students. To achieve a high score, they had to have more than 50,000 Sims —virtual persons — move into their simulated metropolis, which the Marion Center team accomplished at the last minute, Rising said. The students also Students also had to maintain their city's budget, balancing operating costs — a task that was not easy.

“The virtual future city we had a few problems with — the city kept crashing,” Adkins acknowledged. “When we would try to add in the requirements, we kept running out of money, and once the monthly costs got too high, the city would crash.”

On Jan. 19, the team traveled to Pittsburgh to present their city design to a panel of judges in the engineering field. The Pittsburgh regional event is presented in cooperation with the Engineers' Society of Western Pennsylvania, “So the students explored engineering and other career options related to their future,” Rising said.

As part of the competition, each team is permitted to seek help through a mentor in the engineering field. Rising said he had no luck finding one for his team when he “put some feelers out with businesses.”

Rising said he'd likely encourage any future Marion Center teams to find a mentor if possible.

He said he'd love to see Marion Center's gifted students take on the Future City project every year, but that will be out of his hands. Next school year, Rising will move into a position as an elementary health and physical education instructor, so the gifted program will be under new leadership.

“I'd do it every year,” he said of Future City. “I'm hoping to persuade the next teacher to take it on because it's such a great opportunity. I got a lot of positive feedback from the students and other staff members.”

“It was a lot of fun,” White remarked. “We all had a good time. Hopefully, we can do it again.”

Adkins will move up to her district's high school next fall and won't be part of any additional Future City teams from Marion Center. But she was glad to have been part of the “MC City” team this year and came away with some valuable knowledge from the project.

“I learned it's hard to make a city and make it work, and that's just on the virtual level,” she said. “I can't imagine how hard it would be to do it in a real city. I give props to the people who run a city.”

Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or

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