Iowa middle-school students have their challenge for this year’s Future City competition — come up with a plan to revitalize a strip mall, that ever-present symbol of cities all over. Iowa Regional Coordinator Ron Griffith says this is the sixth year Iowa’s participated in the competition for junior-high kids interested in engineering.
The first year, 17 schools took part but that rose to around 30 participating middle schools in recent years, producing around 300 students a year to take part in the competition. Griffith sees that as a pretty good number showing interest in engineering. This year participants will write an essay on how a worn-out and mostly deserted chuck of commercial property could be transformed into a pleasant and worthwhile feature of the community.
They’re told it’s a five-acre parcel that includes certain features including an abandoned gas station and a strip mall, and what they’ll do amounts to a feasibility study for the redevelopment of that parcel. It’s not just cardboard models of towns anymore, but Griffith says the challenge is a topic that’s clearly current, and urgent. “It’s just weird,” Griffith, “how these questions kind of fit into things that are going on.” He compares the challenge to the work ahead rebuilding New Orleans after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, and points out Cedar Rapids, where he works as a traffic engineer, has its own polluted ‘brownfield” site where the city’s looking to redevelop an undesirable part of town. He says it’s a very interesting and appropriate assignment, considering the challenges here in Iowa and nationwide.
The Iowa Future City competition will be January 28 at Prairie Middle School in Cedar Rapids. Winners will go on to the national competition in Washington in February, during National Engineers Week and the grand prize is a trip to space camp.