Hover boards, self-driving vehicles, robots that clean our homes. Many of us have been waiting for this mostly Hollywood-inspired future to become a reality. And while some of these premonitions (Thank you, Roomba) have come true, Pittsburgh-area middle school students are taking matters into their own hands.

Future City® is a “project-based learning experience where students in 6th, 7th and 8th grade imagine, design and build cities of the future.” Pittsburgh’s regional competition, run by the Engineers’ Society of Western PA and Carnegie Science Center, just wrapped up its 16th year—with 30 schools competing in the challenge.

Over the last several months, all of the teams worked hard to complete the challenge: researching and planning their cities; writing essays; solving engineering problems; building scaled models using only recycled materials; and finally, presenting their ideas to judges at the regional final on January 17th at Carnegie Music Hall.

“Kids at this age really want to contribute to solving the problems of their communities and the world at large,” says Linda Ortenzo, director of STEM programs at Carnegie Science Center. “And Future City helps them learn how to start thinking about doing that.”

Future City, in fact, requires nearly all of the STEM elements that experts like Linda advocate: creativity, innovation, critical thinking, teamwork, visual arts, construction, architecture and communication skills. “It’s everything we want students to have a passion for and be able to demonstrate to themselves and to each other,” she says.

This year, teams took home a variety awards, including best use of transportation, most efficient use of energy and best use of ceramics.

The top prize went to The Ellis School for their Australian city, Jalikarra. Jalikarra uses no fossil fuels but is instead powered by solar, wind and geothermal energy. The city’s crops have been perennialized to save labor and ensure continuous harvests. And another exciting innovation, called “Ferris Farming Fields” (named for their carnival counterpart), carries plants below ground to get water and return them back into the air for sunlight.

The Ellis School will move onto the Future City National Finals in Washington, D.C. in February, where they will compete against 36 other regional winners for a highly coveted grand prize: a trip to U.S. Space Camp.

Linda and the rest of the competition committee members have seen enthusiasm grow for Future City with each year. “This year,” she notes, “ there was more diversity than ever. Public, private, charter and parochial schools represented all types of communities – from the underserved to the well-resourced.”

And although a number of these schools took home prizes, all of the students participating leave with something special: “They find their voice in this competition,” says Linda. “And you see the impact in many different ways. For some, it’s a gateway to a career (as an engineer). For others, it’s an introduction to a whole new way of thinking.”

Future City is open to all schools. For more information on the program or how to get your school started, visit futurecity.org/pennsylvania-pittsburgh or contact Lisa Kosick.