Wauwatosa Middle School Students Create Waste-Free Cities of the Future

Jan 6, 2016

Teams of middle school students around the country have taken on the challenge of “waste not, want not.” It’s the theme of this year’s Future City Competition.

The annual challenge is designed to inspire students to latch onto engineering and math. 115 teams representing 20 Wisconsin schools hope to have a chance to compete at the national finals in February.

Longfellow Middle School in Wauwatosa gets into Future City in a big way. It boasts 21 teams.

Today, judges will make the tough decision – choosing which teams will represent Longfellow at regionals later this month.

When I visit, 8th grade teams are clustered around models at various stages of development. 

Levi, Caron & Genna's project.
Credit Mitch Teich

Genna, Carson and Levi created Ignis, which means fire in Latin. "Our solution is plasma gasification which has to do with fire to eliminate trash," Carson says.

“Plasma gasification happens when a low-pressure gas is induced with enough heat and energy to become a plasma. This process is called ionization," Lexi explains. "The plasma is so hot that it would instantly vaporize and dematerialize any material or solid substance that it comes into contact with."

Carson says their city is anchored atop the ocean off the coast of Venezuela in a lightening-rich region. “We’ll have two tall rods and the lightening hits the rod and then shoots down the rod and then disintegrates the trash,” she says.

Each team’s sustainable city is expected to be laid out to scale and to be fashioned out of as much recycled material as possible.

The pressure was on - this was the last official work day before holiday break.

While his teammates have been giving me the tour, Levi’s quietly been at work. "I am just repairing the battery to the police station,“ he says.

Levi is new to the team and says it took some adjusting. “It was a bit hard to adjust to new buildings and learning process with these other people, but I think I think it’s been really good so far,” he says.

Students come up with solutions, teacher Ryan Schilter handles the machinery. Left to right are Ian, Henry, and Josh.
Credit S Bence

Eighth grade STEM teacher Ryan Schilter stands by to help his nine teams as needed, and to saw the occasional piece of wood; dangerous s equipment is off limits for students.

He weaves the Future City topic throughout the entire semester. Schilter seems to love it as much as his students.

“They’ve had to write a research paper about their solutions that they think will help with solid waste and how we can handle that. We actually research Garbage Island which is a real thing out in the ocean; with all the waste we see everywhere, it’s just turning into an island. They do a lot of planning for their city," he says. "Scaling is a huge issue because a lot of kids like to think that 1 inch equaling 200 feet is the best option, but when they get down to the nitty gritty they soon realize that it’s not the best option for them. The building stage is just a lot of fun."

George (left) and his teammates Ben and Caden.
Credit S Bence

Eighth grader George’s team also took a built atop water approach in creating its city.

“We created an island out of marine clay off the coast of our city. We can use that for landfill and those can last about 25 years. And what you have to do to get the garbage into the landfill is to incinerate it, which is counterproductive in some senses, but we can use biomass energy, which spins turbines that power our city,” George says.

This is his third Future City competition. He’s become very interested in civil engineering. “Our mentor is a civil engineer and so she helps us fit the scale into the model which is a huge part because it’s what your materials are made out of,” George says.

Down the hall, sixth grade teams are buzzing.

6th grade teammates Lance, Micah and Jack.
Credit S Bence

Jack, Micah and Lance think they might have a bit of an edge in the competition. They came to Longfellow as best friends.

Each had their own waste solution idea, but settled on Jack’s. “My idea was to basically to try to recycle all the trash in a separation facility. So we would not have to destroy all the trash and burn it and ruin the ecosystem,” he explains.

A series of zip lines solve their transportation needs, and Micah provided the centerpiece of the colorful, hand-painted city. “I made it in Cub Scouts when we were launching model rockets. I shot that. It’s our business rocket.com,” he says.

Claire, Owen and Sylvi put some serious thought into their team name – The Green Thumbs.

The Green Thumbs.
Credit S Bence

“Our city is Muir Nest named after a famous environmentalist, John Muir, so we decided The Green Thumbs are all about the environment,” Sylvi says.

Their waste solution includes garbage shoots to handle municipal waste. “We have shoots, there’s a recycling shoot, a composting shoot and a regular trash shoot. Every day the recycling and composting shoot are open to the public, but in order to reduce waste, the trash shoot is only open the first day of the month, so people learn to create less trash,” Claire says.

People are fined if they create too much waste. To avoid heavy fines, the Green Thumbs incorporate public education. Their solar powered city incorporates mountains as its backdrop, a great tourist enticer, as well as underground storage.

“Our place is set in Scotland, so we thought it was a great way to incorporate the mountains and we also tried to show the underground layer to express is a little more,” Owen says.

They envision community gardens as well as an anaerobic digester; along with an impressive school and hospital. “And we also have a hospital on top of the mountain, because all of the revenues from the fines from the shoots are going to safety on the mountain. Since we have a ski resort up there and hiking trails up there, it can be dangerous for people, so we are always trying to make it safer up there,” Claire says.

I snap their photo and then the Green Thumbs politely dismiss me. They had work to do.

We’ll follow up on Longfellow to learn how its teams do at the regionals January 16 at Milwaukee School of Engineering.