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Students Compete to Develop Innovative Ways to Feed Future Cities
Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs have been extolled in the U.S. in recent years because American students consistently rank lower in math and science than their counterparts in other developed countries. DiscoverE, a non-profit dedicated to promoting the field of engineering, has received national attention for its efforts to encourage U.S. students to pursue engineering.
One of the ways DiscoverE encourages students to pursue engineering is through its annual Future City Competition, in which middle school students from around the U.S. compete to design cities of the future. The winners of the national competition were announced yesterday.
There were 37 regional final competitions which took place in January. First-place winners from each regional competition advanced to the Future City Competition National Finals in Washington, D.C., which took place from Feb. 14-18. Finalists presented their ideas before a panel of judges that included some of the country's top tech leaders, NASA executives and representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Every year, the non-profit encourages all students, even those who are not the math and science types, to participate. Forty thousand middle schoolers from 1,350 schools worked on their design projects from September until January. The annual challenge is one of the nation's leading engineering programs, and this year, the competition's theme is Feeding Future Cities.
"Experts predict that by the year 2030 nearly all of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in urban areas," said Future City. "At the same time, the Earth’s arable land may no longer be sufficient to produce enough food for the planet’s growing population." Given how unsustainable industrial-scale agriculture is, the Future City Competition challenged this year's students to find solutions to today's pressing agricultural problems.
This year's theme encouraged students "to explore today’s urban agriculture, from aeroponic systems for roof top farms to recycled gray water to the sustainability-driven farm-to-table movement, and develop a futuristic solution to growing crops within the confines of their city," DiscoverE said.
The students, who formed teams and received help from an educator and an engineer mentor, designed a virtual city using SimCity software. They researched existing urban farms and wrote an essay describing their solution to feeding their city. Students then built "a tabletop scale model of their city using recycled materials on a budget of $100 or less and wrote a brief narrative promoting their city," according to DiscoverE.
St. John Lutheran School in Rochester, Michigan, placed first for the second year in a row. Second place went to West Ridge Middle School from Austin, Texas. Academy for Science and Foreign Language from Huntsville, Alabama took third place. HEART of Science Cooperative from Rockwall, Texas took fourth, and Queen of Angels Regional Catholic School in Philadelphia took fifth.
The top five winners received scholarship money for their school's STEM program and the first-place team received a trip to the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. There were also winners in two dozen categories, including "Best Use of Renewable Energy," "Most Sustainable Buildings" and "Best Management of Water Resources."
This year, the host at the Future City finals was aerospace engineer and TV personality Deysi Melgar, a young woman who hails from Mexico. She was a contestant in a similar engineering competition when she was in high school and has gone on to be a leader in a field that remains dominated by men.
Future City has been very successful in reaching out to girls and underserved students. Forty-six percent of participants this year were girls and 33 percent of participating schools had 50 percent or more of their students enrolled in the reduced or free lunch program.
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?