Liberty Classical students imagine tomorrow’s water solutions in preparation for national Future City Competition

Imagining, designing, building and then solving sustainability problems for futuristic cities has become a bit of a legacy for Liberty Classical Academy students over the past two decades.

Sixth-grader Wesley Weithoff’s sister, Paige, was a leader on last year’s Future City Competition team that went to nationals. He said it was pretty much a given that he would follow suit.

Same for fellow sixth-grader Cole Paulson, who saw how his older sister and current team member, Lauryn, was inspired by the unique hands-on learning experience offered through Future City.

“I thought it looked really fun, so when I got the opportunity to do it, I jumped at the chance,” Paulson said. 

For a third straight year, the private Christian school from New Castle is sending a team of sixth, seventh and eighth graders to the National Future City competition in Washington, D.C. later this month.

But the legacy goes far deeper than that. 

The school has been part of Future City since 2003. Trophies and plaques from past competitions line the shelves in one of the school’s conference rooms. Several are from Kansas where the team had to travel to find a regional competition when Colorado bowed out of the program around 2010.

Colorado returned to Future City three years ago, and teams from the small, 120-student school situated at Apple Tree Park have owned the competition ever since. In January, Liberty Classical bested the 16-team state competition field at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden for the right to represent Colorado at nationals.

Future solutions

Future City is not just for science and math kids. It’s a hands-on, projects-based program incorporating the academic and creative disciplines of science, technology, engineering, art and math (S.T.E.A.M.).

“In the competition, students have to learn about city infrastructure, how cities are managed, about tax systems … and then they have to study a specific topic,” explained Liberty Classical teacher Dorothy Bleakley, who has been mentoring the program for the past eight years.

According to the official Future City website, the lead-up to the competition starts with a question: How can we make the world a better place?

To answer that, middle school students are assigned the task of researching, designing and building a city of the future that showcases their solution to some type of citywide sustainability issue.

Previous topics have included stormwater management, urban agriculture, public spaces and green energy alternatives. This year’s theme is “Clean Water: Tap Into Tomorrow.”

Teams are tasked with identifying a threat to their city’s water supply, and then must design a system to maintain a reliable supply of clean drinking water.

Judging in the competition involves these primary components:

  • A virtual city design using the gaming platform SimCity;
  • A 1,500-word essay describing the city, the problem that needs to be solved and the method of solving it;
  • A scale model built from all recycled/repurposed materials; and,
  • A 7-minute presentation before a panel of engineering judges at regional competitions for the right to represent their region at the national finals.

The national competition, which is expected to include teams from Canada and China, as well, takes place this year starting Feb. 18 in Washington, D.C.

Mediterranean drought

For their project this year, the Liberty Classical team created the mythical future city of Mikeili, or “City of the Sea,” located on the largest island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea.

The city has a population of 674,298 people, with an average of 2.3 million tourists annually.

“The year is 2147, making the city 127 years old,” the eight-student team writes in their competition essay. “During the decade of 2020, Malta had a depleting water supply, receiving only 21.65 inches of rain annually, making their water supply scarce.

“This was a strain to the health and well-being of the citizens,” as rainwater was the only natural source of water, they explain.

The solution: to use a special filter to turn the humid sea air into potable water, and another filter to remove the salt from the seawater itself and purify it for consumption.

The essay goes on to explain the engineering and mechanics of the systems, and how they will be used to sustain the city far into the future.

To make it fun, their oral presentation includes a sea dragon from 127 years ago (today), who inquires about how the city has grown, how the new water supply system works and other sustainable practices. 


Learning applications

Each step in developing the project must follow a strict rubric, which requires close attention to detail, Bleakley said.

“There’s a lot to learn, both for the educator and the students,” she said. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose, and every year you learn something different and you just keep building on what you learn for the next year.”

Bleakley likes that Future City can involve students with different academic and creative skill sets. 

“I love this project so much because, yes, it is an engineering competition, but it really requires a whole community of kids,” she said. “I call upon kids who are gifted in the performing arts and art. I need students who are good writers. I need gamers who can play SimCity well, and I need students who can see the big picture and also the details.

“It really does take a community of talents in order to do well.”

Since September, the team has logged probably 100 hours to get ready for regionals and now nationals, where they’ll compete against more than 40 teams.

“It’s so encompassing for me as an educator,” Bleakley said. “Just coaching and leading this program, they get everything they need in the S.T.E.A.M. fields.”

This will be the second trip to nationals for seventh-grade student Aubrey Morton, who will be joined by her sister, Evvy.

“I just remember hearing about it at a school meeting the year before I was in sixth grade, and some of us decided we wanted to do it together,” Morton said of her leap into Future City.

“I like painting the backdrop,” she said, while her teacher was quick to point out her students’ writing skills.

Weithoff said he’s learned a lot through Future City, but admitted he really liked building the clay city buildings.

“It also makes me more conscious about conservation,” he said of the theme.

Cole and Lauryn Paulson are also joined by their father, Chad Paulson, an engineer with SGM in Glenwood Springs, who helps mentor the team on the engineering aspects of their project.

Each year, the team looks for something they can improve on the next year, Bleakley said.

“After the competitions, we go back and re-look at things and study some of the details,” she said. “We might practice circuitry, or urban planning, or learn more about scale to build on for the following year.”

There will also be some sight-seeing when the students are in Washington, D.C., including planned trips to the White House, the U.S. Capitol the Smithsonian Institution, and more.

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