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Middle schoolers create ‘future cities’ for older generations



SAN JOSE — Less than 20 years from now, the futuristic city of Kenko Toshi will boast state-of-the-art housing, plentiful agriculture, advanced transportation, even “external mobility units” meant to help elders function at their full potential strength.

The units will look more like surfers’ wetsuits, and “if the wearer only has 40 percent of their potential strength, then the external mobility unit gets them the other 60 percent that they need,” explained Suzette Stegmann, 12.

The city, set in 2035 on Honshu Island, Japan’s main island, will revere its elders, offering them a plethora of services that will keep them feeling young — and healthy — for decades longer than now.

Suzette and 10 teammates from the Gratton School in the Stanislaus County community of Denair joined dozens of other young, bright students at Monroe Middle School in San Jose early Saturday to showcase their work in Future City’s Northern California regional competition.

The contest included 40 teams of middle school students from across the Bay Area and beyond who showcased their “future cities” on large tabletop models.

Future City, a nonprofit educational program, challenges students to imagine, design and build the cities of their dreams. This year’s theme, “The Age-Friendly City,” asked students to create cities that would be accommodating of older generations.

Future City allows students from any socio-economic group to realize that they can have a career in science, technology and engineering, said Laura Lorenzo, director of Future City’s Northern California region. Students aren’t charged to compete.

“Robotics teams can cost families thousands of dollars,” she said. “Our goal is to make sure any kid knows that they can have a career like that.”

Each team presented their cities to a set of judges tasked with selecting the best model. The winning team will receive an all-expense paid trip to participate in the Future City finals in Washington, D.C. Feb. 17-20.

The models offered an escape into a different world. There were simple units put together with cardboard, glue, Play-Doh and popsicle sticks and intricately designed structures that were more like enchanting pieces of art — replete with LED lights, repurposed necklaces and coffee pods.

Daniel Gao and Erickson Ng, eighth graders at A.P. Giannini Middle School in San Francisco, included a high-tech train system capable of counting passengers in real time and a revamped San Francisco Chinatown.

“This Chinatown is especially built for elders to be able to feel safe and be able to live their life happily,” Gao said.

It took the two boys about a month to construct their model, which was made largely of painted cardboard.

Carrie Tibbs, 59, a Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (or STEAM) teacher for Rolling Hills Middle School in Los Gatos, beamed as she guided eight teams of students through the day.

“Kids don’t make stuff anymore,” Tibbs said. “You don’t open a garage door and work with your mom and dad in the garage building things. Getting to a place where you can feel confident about cutting and molding and designing — that’s important.”

For 12-year-old Caroline Thomsen, one of the creators of Kenko Toshi, one of the most rewarding things about competing was seeing the fruits of their labor — and their teamwork.

“We created a beautiful city,” she said.



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