Science Fair Redux - Reflections of a Future City Judge

If you're an engineer, I know that you remember your seventh and eighth grade science fair projects.  I still break out in a cold sweat when I think about them -- the research, the deliverables, the presentations, and the judging inquisition.

All these memories came flooding back to me as I reviewed the project summaries for 38 state finalists on an airplane bound for Washington DC. I was doing my homework in preparation for judging the Best Water Resources Special Award category for the Future City competition held on President's Day as part of National Engineers Week. Bentley is a principal sponsor of this event. This participation is a reflection of the company's commitment to the sustainability of our engineering profession as expressed in the numerous Be Academic Programs initiatives.

I was joined in this adventure by my close colleague Tom Walski, Senior Advisory Product Manager for the Haestad Product line. Our challenge was to visit 38 table top displays in shotgun fashion, at 5 minute intervals. At each table we were treated to a presentation focused on our particular area of specialization, water resources.

Some of my observations:

  1. The internet is pervasive - it is clearly the case that the internet was the principal source of ideas and inspiration. Less clear to me was the extent that citations were backed by conventional sources such as texts or scientific journals.
  2. Ideas are becoming commodities - The internet seems to baseline innovation. By this I mean that new ideas are new only to the extent that Google has not linked to them yet. Consequently, Tom and I kept encountering the same ideas: fuel cells, solar energy, nanobots, Living Machines(tm), vertical farming units, ocean wave energy conversion. Consequently, the judging became a bit of a blur.
  3. Kids are serous team competitors - the level of effort and commitment of the teams just shined. The kids were well-prepared and with one or two clear exceptions seemed to share the burden of responsibility.
  4. Our kids are optimistic - These teams all exuded confidence in future technology. It was reassuring that these kids entered this competition believing in technology and its ability to sustain society going forward.
  5. It's not what you bring to the project, it's what you take away -  For example, Tom Walski quizzed every table on the fundamental concept of pressure its units and meaning. With this question, you would often see the eyes shift nervously to the unofficial team leader. 

This was a highly rewarding experience. Our pick was a home-schooled team from Arizona, who conceptualized a high-tech, water efficient Grecian locale in the Gulf of Corinth named Abundaqua. Tom and I, being old-school, were impressed with their spreadsheets and water-balance. That they collectively understood the concept of pressurized flow sealed the deal. This was a very impressive level of effort and commitment. Their parents should be proud.

Here is the winning entry from Veritas Home School team from Arizona.

Tom and I took a mad-dash through the future as envisioned by top-tier middle-school scholars across the country. This was a trip that took us from the deserts of the Sahara, to the bottom of the ocean, and, even, to the moon. Seriously, our kids seem to imagine living in these places some day! They dream of making it possible.

I think that this was the enduring impression. In these days of stimulus plans and bank failures, our next generation remains optimistic and excitedly anticipates engineering the future.

Somehow, I take solid comfort in that.