ULIEA Winner Q&A: DiscoverE & The Future City Competition

UL and the North American Association for Environmental Education developed the UL Innovative Education Awards (ULIEA) in 2015 to honor programs in the United States and Canada that are leading the way in project-based learning, community citizenship and using the environment as a platform to STEM learning (E-STEM). In 2015, awards went to five organizations that created sustainable community solutions and provided innovative K-12 programming to solve real-world environmental issues.

Our 2015 grand prize winner, DiscoverE, won for their Future City Competition, which asks middle schoolers throughout the U.S. to imagine, research, and design environmentally sustainable cities of the future. We're excited to share their story through their own words.

DiscoverE, Future City Competition, 2015 Grand Prize Winner

ULIEA: Tell us about your organization

DiscoverE is a non-profit organization leading a volunteer movement that inspires and informs students to discover engineering. We provide resources to help K-12 educators introduce engineering concepts to their students and host numerous programs including Engineers Week, Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, Global Day of the Engineer, and the Future City Competition.

ULIEA: Tell us about your award-winning program

DiscoverE's largest program, the Future City Competition, is a project-based learning experience that challenges middle school students to imagine, design, and create cities that could exist at least 100 years in the future. Teams of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders collaborate with an educator and STEM mentor to incorporate innovative solutions to an annual citywide sustainability challenge within their city design. Teams present their futuristic visions to panels of STEM professionals at competitions in 40 regions in the US and three international countries. Regional winners earn an expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. to compete at the Finals. After the competition, student participants are not only prepared to be citizens of today’s complex and technical world, they are poised to become the drivers of tomorrow.


ULIEA: Why did you include an environmental piece with the STEM initiative?

The environment is definitely something we want our participants thinking about (now and in the future!), so Future City emphasizes the importance of environmental thinking during the city design process. Each year, Future City poses a new citywide sustainability challenge for teams to address in their city design. Over the competition's 25+ year history, teams have designed futuristic solutions to some of today's most pressing environmental challenges: clean energy, healthcare, housing, transportation, urban agriculture, storm water, clean water, and solid waste. By integrating environmental awareness into city planning, Future City expands the definition of environment from typical watersheds, parks, and nature to include the city layout, transportation, and renewable energy.

ULIEA: How has your program been received by the community?

The program's deliverables - designing with computers, building scale models, researching, writing, and public speaking - make Future City accessible to a variety of students and relevant for educators with various areas of subject matter expertise.

Future City has been successfully completed in public school classrooms, afterschool Girl Scout troops, homeschool cohorts, gifted and talented programs, and weekend youth groups. As John B., a Future City educator in North Carolina says, "Future City encompasses so many different disciplines. Students research, write, build, think, and work as a team. We have lots of clubs at my school, but I think Future City is the most inclusive of all the things we try to teach our kids."

Future City continues to grow and expand to new regions and countries. Find the list of current regions here: http://futurecity.org/regions

ULIEA: What is your program's biggest success? What do you hope to achieve?

We engage more than 40,000 middle school students and 1,350 educators each year and our Finals Competition includes competitors from the US, China, Egypt, and Canada. We have the chance to open young people's eyes and minds to the opportunities that engineering offers, and we know we’ve succeeded when student participants apply what they've learned to their real-life situations. One team from Iowa, for example, designed a futuristic recycling system for their project. After the competition, they reached out to the developers of a new hotel in their town and pitched their ideas about sustainable design. The developers were impressed and are planning to implement some of their ideas!

Future City gave 81% of last year's participants their first experience with engineering. We will continue breaking down stereotypes surrounding engineering and reinforce the creativity and problem-solving aspects the field offers. We hope to keep increasing the number of kids who participate in Future City because they not only learn a ton about STEM, they learn a lot about themselves and their confidence grows, positively impacting their life.

ULIEA: How will the ULIEA grant money help your program?

We allocated a large portion of the ULIEA grant money to fund a new pilot program in five regions, aimed recruitmenting and supporting educators who work with either a high minority population or an economically challenged community. One of our main goals is reaching students often overlooked by traditional STEM opportunities, and the ULIEA award is helping us test out different methods to engage these students and educators. We're learning a lot and hoping that other regions will implement the best practices for recruiting and retaining these educators and student participants.

ULIEA: What does it mean to be a ULIEA Winner?

Winning the ULIEA award was an amazing validation of our program and the hard work we and our amazing regional coordinators put into planning and accomplishing successful programs throughout the country and the world. We are so thrilled to be part of the ULIEA family and connect with UL and NAAEE and the other award recipients who are doing similarly important work.