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Building better students - and cities - with SimCity technology

Eighth grade students Cortez Bond (left) Evelyn Harvey Rashawn Lindsey work prepare for Bond Elementary School's first participatiFUTURE CITY competitiusing

Eighth grade students Cortez Bond, (left), Evelyn Harvey and Rashawn Lindsey work to prepare for Bond Elementary School's first participation in the FUTURE CITY competition, using computer simulations and research to build a working city to deal with the Englewood community's problems with diabetes and high blood pressure on Thursday, January 6, 2011. l Keith Hale~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 28, 2011 1:25PM

Rashawn Lindsey, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Bond Elementary School in Englewood, got a taste of running a city with an inadequate budget for police and fire services. The police officers and firefighters went on strike, forcing him to reconfigure the city’s spending.

Lindsey’s classmate, 14-year-old Evelyn Harvey, decided to build an industrial park after a train running through her city choked the local hospital and residential neighborhoods with air pollution.

These students are among a dozen at Bond Elementary competing for the first time in this year’s Chicago regional “Future City” competition, part of National Engineers Week.

The students work before and after school in teams, along with a teacher and a volunteer engineer, to design a virtual city, build a three-dimensional model of it and see whether the economics make sense by using SimCity, a city-building simulation game.

A new wrinkle in the competition this year requires students to use technology to develop a product that solves a medical problem and write a research paper about the city, the medical problem and their innovations. The Bond School students chose to address diabetes and high blood pressure in Englewood.

“I have seen people stay in the house, watch TV and play [video] games,” said Reann Ollie, 14, who is researching the community’s health.

Chatham native Karon Stewart, a Bond Elementary math teacher and longtime SimCity fan, sees the competition as a terrific learning opportunity and a fun way to get the students interested in engineering.

“The students are learning how cities work, and who knows, we could be sitting in this classroom with the next mayor of Chicago,” said Stewart, who first used SimCity 12 years ago to teach the concepts of area and perimeter.

Some of the lessons have been harsh: One student’s city burned down because he didn’t budget for a fire department, while another watched commuters run into a traffic bottleneck because there weren’t enough highways to handle their cars.

“They have to learn how to budget their revenue to provide the proper services,” Stewart said of the competition, open to students ages 12-14.

Alexis Billingslea, a civil engineer with the Illinois Department of Transportation, enjoys her role as mentor, helping the students understand the finer points of modeling to scale, employing environmentally friendly technology and creating highways and a mass-transit system.

The team’s presentation at the first level of competition — the regionals on Jan. 29 at the University of Illinois at Chicago — culminates when the students explain “how great their city is and the reasons people love to move to their city,” said Billingslea, who started working with students as part of her participation in the National Society of Black Engineers.

“The students are so excited about the competition,” she said. “It’s like a science fair, elevated.

“My goal in life is to have every child say that he or she wants to be an engineer,” said Billingslea, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side. “It’s a challenging career — a job solving society’s problems. And it’s one of the few professions that can pay really well for someone with an undergraduate degree rather than requiring a master’s or a doctorate.”

Because so many students think of an engineer as a train conductor or even a janitor, Billingslea explains it in terms of a refrigerator: An industrial engineer designs the handles and shelves; environmental and chemical engineers figure out how to keep the inside cold, and a refrigeration engineer ensures that the ventilation and refrigeration systems work.

The Bond Elementary students are part of a long tradition of Future City participants, since Chicago was one of the original five sites for the competition when it started 19 years ago and is home to teams that won the national championship in 1998 and 2001.

“Learning by creating is one of the key elements of the Future City competition, and the computer game allows girls and boys to work equally as part of a team,” said Carol Rieg, corporate foundation officer for Bentley Systems, Inc., a principal sponsor and software developer based in Exton, Pa.

In Rieg’s 16 years as national director of the Future City competition, she has witnessed some out-of-the-box ideas by students who go on to earn Ph.D.’s in engineering, including one student who thought up a helmet to inject knowledge into the wearer while he slept and another who suggested cryogenically freezing prisoners and shooting them out into space as a way to deal with prison costs. Under Rieg’s leadership, ending in 2009, the program grew to 40 regions and four cities overseas, with more than 500,000 students participating.

Winners of the national contest in February in Washington, D.C., win a trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

Last year’s finalists met with President Obama at the White House, where they talked with astronauts on the International Space Station and the Shuttle Endeavour via a live satellite link.

Greg Bentley, CEO of Bentley Systems, said the middle-school kids do a better job than older kids in imagining their cities, which they view with wonder.

“They are genuinely interested in the topic. They are not self-conscious and they want to do their best jobs,” Bentley said. “That’s important because if the kids don’t take the hard math and science now, they won’t have the chance in high school. This is the age to impact a child’s future interests and career.”

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