Previous month:
November 2007
Next month:
January 2008

December 2007

On innovation

Wikinomics (which I have now finished reading, so this will be one of my last posts about it, I promise!) has an interesting example of mass collaboration that not only gives an outlet to scientists' - or retired scientists') - unused expertise but also provides a secondary market for company patents: InnoCentive's mission statement, available on its website, is to "change the world and influence the lives of people everywhere by applying our planet’s human creativity and intelligence to solving the most important challenges facing commercial, governmental, and humanitarian organizations today", nothing less. Companies such as Procter&Gamble post engineering and scientific problems they face on the website and award cash prizes to people who come up with the best solution. The idea is not that someone in a makeshift lab in his home basement will devise from scratch the solution that eludes behemoth companies and their armies of workers, but that researchers with years of experience in, say, a different industry facing similar problems, will connect the dots and modify a product that had worked well in their own setting, putting pre-existing knowledge to good use. 

Wikinomics also names the following "idea marketplaces" (which the authors, with their pronounced taste for making up words, dub ideagoras) build on the same principles: YourEncore (for retired scientists, "accelerating innovation through proven experience", in a trend that might well foreshadow the explosion of independent consulting by seventy-year-olds), NineSigma ("accelerating the innovation cycle"), InnovationXChange Network (the website has interesting, if vague, case studies snippets), Eureka Medical ("physician inventors help innovation-seeking companies"), and others.

NineSigma's website has links to two good BusinessWeek articles on innovation. The first one ("NineSigma: Nurturing Open Innovation") is a Q&A between a senior writer of the magazine and NineSigma's CEO; the interview touches upon many of the same themes as Wikinomics. (In particular, it emphasizes that solutions generally do not come from individuals but from companies in other industries - the key in making this work is to define the problem in a very focused way and in terms of basic science rather than applications.) The second one, "Billion Dollar Innovation," only mentions NineSigma in passing; it summarizes the findings of a study commissioned by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation to "profil[e] innovative U.S. service companies." The whole (excellent) report, authored by the Peer Insight consultancy, is available here. The twelve companies profiled belong to one of the following four key sectors (see p.5 of the report, which is p.16 of the pdf file):

  1. insurance and financial services: The Hartford ["financial services and insurance provider"], Bank of America, MyBizHomepage ["web-based financial management dashboard for small businesses"],
  2. professional services: Crowe Chizek and Company ["US certified public accounting/management consulting firm"], NineSigma, LRA Worldwide ["Customer Experience Management"],
  3. wholesale and retail trade: Ingram Micro ["distributor of IT products and services"], Sitoa Corporation ["e-tailing engine connects product suppliers to online retailers"], American Girl [dolls] ,
  4. logistics: Total Quality Logistics ["third-party logistics provider"], ServiceBench ["integrates post-sale service management activities for clients"], Brivo Systems ["remote access control and building security solutions"].

As pointed out in the BW article, information technology plays an important role in these companies' strategy, which emphasizes customer experience - customers now want to receive the same service as if they were shopping on Amazon.com. (Very true: whenever I shop online, I want email notification when my order has shipped and delivery within 3-5 business days. Sadly, I rarely get both.) The BW article points to several traits shared by these innovators: management of some aspect of complexity in their customers' business, enhancement of productivity, increased transparency and mitigation of uncertainty in the company's operations. The report itself is very well documented and gives many more details on the challenges faced by these businesses and the solutions they implemented than what is usually found on the Web for free download - I highly recommend it. With its excellent schools and its commitment to innovation, Finland will certainly become a force to reckon with in the service-driven global economy.

Happy New Year everybody! Best wishes for 2008.


Improving K-12 Proficiency in Math and Science

According to the December 8, 2007 issue of The Economist, a recent report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has shown that "[American] schools serve strong students only moderately well, and do downright poorly with the large numbers of weak students. A quarter of 15-year-olds do not even reach basic levels of scientific competence (against an OECD average of a fifth)." In the 2006 assessment of math proficiency, Taiwan, Finland, Hong Kong, South Korea, Canada, Japan and Germany scored above average and France, Britain and Poland scored below average but above the United States; when it comes to science, Finland, Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Britain scored above average, and Poland and France scored below average but above the United States. (The Economist only reports on selected countries; recall also that since we are talking about average and not median, more than half the countries can be above average if a few others have abysmal results driving the average down.)

I was reminded of what one of my graduate students mentioned once, which is that middle school kids in South Korea follow a very intense math curriculum - apparently it does bear fruit, although, from what my student said, the pressure sounded heavy for 12-year-olds to bear. My own, admittedly limited, experience with graduate students from Asian countries who have taken my courses is that they tend to excel in math, while American graduate students in engineering are more likely to do basic mistakes, probably because they had teachers who made the same mistake and didn't realize that was wrong. (Of course, you sometimes run into the American engineering student who double-majored in math and excels at linear algebra - good teachers are there. But Americans who did not concentrate in math tend not to receive good teaching, especially in high school but also in college, where introductory math courses required from all engineering majors don't exactly encourage instructors to raise the bar.) The OECD report offers nothing surprising in terms of recommendations: "Give [students] teachers with excellent qualifications in science, spend plenty of time on the subject and engage their enthusiasm with after-school clubs, events and competition" - here comes my plug for the Future City Competition, with regional finals on January 26! Interestingly, the case of Poland suggests that early selection on ability (where students with poor grades are pushed toward vocational and technical programs at a young age) "hurts weak [students] without benefiting the rest." In the words of the OECD's director of education, "you can really make a change by bringing weaker performers into more demanding streams."

The United States, ridiculed for years for their K-12 educational system and in particular their results in math and science, are slowly trying to adjust. An excellent article by Maria Glod in the December 26, 2007 issue of the Washington Post ("Elementary Math Grows Exponentially Tougher") describes efforts to improve the quality of math teaching as early as first grade, with problems such as "Lucy Ladybug wakes up and puts five spots on her back. Then she gets confused. She wants 10 spots. What's missing?" (Ah, the good ol' days of first-grade math.) While "solving equations with letter variables [by the third grade]" might sound a little extreme, "disappointing U.S. scores on international math tests have added to the urgency of a movement that is rippling into kindergarten." What makes the article stand out is its emphasis on teachers' training and specific programs to achieve that goal: "Too many elementary school teachers, [education experts] say, lack the know-how to teach math effectively" because they were "drawn to teaching by a love of children and literacy, [and] are more at home with words than numbers." Recent initiatives include the assignment of a math coach to help teachers prepare their lessons, and the National Math and Science Initiative, founded by ExxonMobil at the level of $125 million offers a wide array of programs to help improve American proficiency in math and science, divided into training and incentive programs on one hand and UTeach (to "encourage math and science majors to enter the teaching profession") on the other. The Initiative's website also has sobering statistics: "About 30% of high school mathematics students and 60% of those enrolled in physical science have teachers who either did not major in the subject in college or are not certified to teach it" and "Among low-income students, 70% of their middle school mathematics teachers majored in some other subject in college."

According to the Washington Post, "U.S. teachers scored at the bottom of the pack on an algebra test in a recent study of middle school math teachers from six countries." To help math high school teachers teach better, local universities such as George Mason University and the University of Virginia have developed a master's degree program in math and educational leadership ; another promising program is the Vermont Mathematics Initiative (VMI). The article in the Post points out that, if teachers only know the bare minimum, they "often rely on memorization [to solve exercises] and aren't well-equipped to help struggling students." While it is not feasible to send all teachers to special programs that will give them extra training, initiatives such as VMI give better training to a few teachers who can then help others at their school - and surprisingly, it is not necessary for those "master teachers" to have majored in math or science to begin with. The math specialist interviewed by the Post freely admits that she was "a bad math student as a child, all the way through high school and even into college," and yet thanks to the Virginia program she recently "helped a fifth-grade teacher who was preparing to teach a lesson on fractions but didn't understand the material". After teaching for 25 years, "all of a sudden algebra makes sense to [her]." Now maybe it will also make sense to her students.


Collaborative Science

As a follow-up to my recent post on Scientific Publishing, here is what Wikinomics has to say on the topic, starting p.157. (Again, that book has flaws, but it is well-researched and The Economist found it good enough to make its Best of 2007 rankings, alongside Black Swan and, more surprisingly, Super Crunchers, so what can I say...) Let's start with an unfortunately accurate description of the current situation: "Each paper is peer reviewed by two or more experts, and can go through numerous revisions before it is accepted for publishing. Frustrated authors can find their cutting-edge discoveries less cutting edge after a lumbering review process has delayed final publication by up to a year, and in some cases longer." As a matter of fact, review times of nine to twelve months is not unusual, and I know of one paper that had to wait over four years before being published, counting time spent with the authors for revisions. At least now people can post their working papers on their website while reviewers pore over their formulas. This obviously raises the question of "whether the antiquated journal system is adequate to satisfy [scientists'] needs."

Here comes the fun stuff, about exploding collaboration in scientific research: "One study conducted by the Santa Fe Institute found that the average high-energy physicist now has around 173 collaborators. The same study found that the average number of authors per scientific paper has doubled and tripled in a number of fields. [When you read the notes at the back of the book, you learn that the number has increased "from an average of slightly over 1 to averages of 2.22 in computer science, [...], 3.75 for biomedicine, and 8.96 authors for high-energy physics."] A growing number of papers have between two hundred and five hundred authors, and the highest-ranking paper in the study had an astonishing 1,681 authors." 1,681! I'd be curious to know what exactly those 1,681 people did. (A put paper in the printer, B turned the machine on, C brought coffee for everybody, D opened the software, E frowned when looking at the data, F borrowed a book from the library...) How do you find reviewers when 1,681 people in the field are off limits? Let's not even talk about the fact that you need a book just to print all these names. (The working paper these stats are taken from is "Who is the best connected scientist? A study of scientific co-authorship networks" by M.E.J. Newman (2000).) Wikinomics mentions online e-print services such as arXiv as a better alternative that will hopefully "engage a much greater proportion of the scientific community in the peer-review process", and while the authors sound a bit idealistic, letting the scientific community know faster of one's results cannot be a bad thing. (Unless you made a mistake in the paper, in which case of course you will be left hoping nobody has bothered reading your work. Speed to market is a two-edged sword...)

My favorite example of collaborative science doesn't involve proofreading, though. Instead, it is about what The Economist called "citizen science" in its Technology Quarterly issue of December 8th, 2007. For instance, volunteers in the Galaxy Zoo project download high-resolution images on their home computer and analyze them in search of galaxies. Apparently, "amateurs with just a little training can distinguish between different types of galaxy far more efficiently than computers can"; "100,000 volunteers classified over 1m galaxies in a few months." To validate the results and minimize mistakes, "each image was viewed by over 30 volunteers." (As a less technology-intensive project, but every bit as worthwhile, the PeopleFinder project helped survivors of Hurricane Katrina reconnect with loved ones (Wikinomics, p.186) and aggregate notices from bulletin boards in a massive data-coding operation.) This was not only made possible by the Internet, but is an unintended side effect of the increase in households with broadband connections. While volunteers must certainly sign waivers before they can have access to the data, it will be interesting to see what happens when an academic basks in the spotlight for a galaxy found by someone else. How do you properly credit all the volunteers, if 30 of them spotted the thing before you did? In the same vein, a designer of high-end shoes (Wikinomics, p.129) let customers submit designs, and has promised to make the best ones. He isn't offering any royalties, though - he'll simply put the name of the customer on the winning shoe design. The story doesn't say how many customers gave it a try - if volunteers' brain power consistently benefits one individual and his project without anything in return but the feeling of having helped someone, collaboration might be too lopsided to last long. After all, researchers take the time to review other people's papers for free because they know someone will review their work too.


Mass Collaboration for a Better Education

I found an interesting example of mass collaboration in Wikinomics, a well-researched book whose strength is the power of its real-life anecdotes - and becomes rather dull as soon as the authors stray from said vignettes into analysis, as on page 90 when they comment on Thomas Friedman's legitimate concerns, expressed in The World is Flat, on "how individuals and companies will profit from their creations" [in an open-source environment], by "Like many critics, Friedman is not seeing the forest for the trees. He sees free software, but not the multibillion-dollar ecosystem that surrounds open source. He sees free encyclopedias, but not the rich cultural and educational opportunities that envelope a living, breathing, dynamic repository of knowledge updated by a vast self-organizing community." Oh my. Lyricism in business is always a bad sign. Only when the authors give examples does their argument begin to make sense.

Anyway, the example I have in mind is the California Open Source Textbook Project (or COSTP, page 69). According to the website, the goal is to decrease California's textbook costs, which currently represent over $400M a year, by using open licensing tools and Creative Commons licenses (or, as they call it, "some rights reserved" copyrights). The plan for COSTP is to "leverag[e] free, already-existing and widely available K-12 educational content in the public domain [and] the substantial curriculum-based intellectual capital of California's best K-12 teachers." The project, which was launched only recently, is still in its infancy stages, but you can follow the progress of the pilot on tenth-grade world history on its Wikibooks page ("the open-content textbooks collection"). The Advanced Placement World History, another wikibook on the same topic, is farther along and is available here.

A few months ago, MIT spearheaded an initiative similar to OpenCourseWare for high school students ("Highlights for High School"), but it only gathers bits and pieces from MIT's introductory curriculum and lacks coherence. Furthermore, it is also not clear that college professors are the best suited to provide guidance on the AP exams - it is easy to lose track of what material students haven't seen yet, and of the time high school teachers spend to explain a concept their college counterpart later glosses over. (An aside: if OCW really aimed at being helpful, it would allow users to download the set of lecture notes, on the courses where they are posted, in a single pdf file rather than twenty little files - one for each lecture - but now at least it allows users to download one zip file with all the smaller files in it. That's progress.)

I don't know the cost of high school textbooks, but one thing that has always amazed me is the eye-popping cost of college textbooks in the United States - maybe we'll have open-source ones too in a few years. (Regarding the affordability of college education, I encourage anyone interested to read NPR's "Paving a path for poor students' college dreams" and "Community college only path to higher ed for many". Cheap textbooks should certainly play a role in helping students attend college. "Paving a path..." also raises valid questions on the ascent of merit-based aid at the expense of need-based aid in the race for better rankings, but that will be for another post.) Either way, anything that helps disseminate high-quality teaching materials in an accessible, affordable manner counts as a good thing - to students or anyone who wants to learn without paying hundreds of dollars for books.


Is Scientific Publishing Doomed?

Tucked in the spending bill passed by Congress is a "provision that would give the public free access to the results of federally funded biomedical research" (Washington Post, December 21, 2007) "The idea is that taxpayers, who have already paid for the research, should not have to subscribe to expensive journals to read about the results." The influence of "patient advocacy groups seeking easier access to the latest medical findings and supported by libraries whose budgets have had trouble keeping up with rising journal subscription costs" is quite obvious. Because a voluntary system proved unsuccessful (only 5% of researchers participated), scientists who receive funding from the NIH (National Institutes of Health) will have to submit their papers to a database once they are accepted for publication, and will see their findings available online for free within twelve months. While the bill focuses on NIH, it would make sense for other governmental funding agencies such as NSF (National Science Foundation) to align themselves with this precedent - taxpayer-funded research is taxpayer-funded research, even in topics less fashionable than biology or medicine.

In this day and age, when many researchers post their preprints on their website, and given that submissions to the vast majority of journals are free, published authors receive no royalties and reviewers do not get paid for their work, it is hard to see the value in the print publication of scientific results (why should journals get paid for advances they didn't fund and that can be disseminated without them?) - except for one factor, the prestige of the journal these results are accepted in, the only proxy currently available for their quality (and a flawed one at that, since reviewers must be well-versed in the topic to be able to judge the novelty of the results; in narrow, cutting-edge fields, they might well be competitors with a built-in interest in delaying acceptance of the paper - especially in experimental disciplines such as chemistry and biology where the trick is more often than not to figure out which experiment to perform). The perceived prestige of publications plays a significant role in tenure and promotion decisions in academia, and said journals are ranked every few years in terms of some "impact factor" more obscure than the U.S.News college rankings. But is the need to determine the quality of scientific publications worth the cottage industry of journals that charge libraries several hundreds of dollars a year for access to papers they did not commission and publish in print with long lead times after acceptance (typically over twelve months, because of backlogs)? Isn't there a more efficient way to disseminate novel findings?

I will say that the advantage of publishing papers both in print and online eludes me. Most scientists identify the papers they are interested in by searching online databases, and the print edition seems not only redundant but a waste of paper that drives costs for libraries (at the same time, though, if everything goes digital and people can consult databases from their office, libraries will become repositories of dusty outdated thirty-year-old textbooks, a fate their staff might want to avoid). It seems that online journals would help speed publication (no need to schedule the paper in a specific issue, no need to postpone publication if a future issue is already full) and keep costs down. I would be curious to see whether the disappearance of the bottleneck (paper, i.e., available pages, in the print issue) would lead to more papers being accepted if hard decisions no longer need to be made, in which case the move to digital archives would threaten the all-so-precious rankings, although some would certainly welcome a move to an Amazon.com-like system of rating papers online - the rankings at least in my field do lead to some puzzling results, and ranking papers themselves rather than publications might yield deeper insights into quality.

Does (belated) publication in a free online database mean the end of scientific publishing altogether? People will always need experts to tell them whether a result is noteworthy. Publication in a top journal implies precisely that; a free database should also provide that piece of information to help laypeople sift quickly through hundreds of papers and focus on the important ones, or at least let users provide a rating to distinguish the truly groundbreaking from the best forgotten. (The idea isn't mine; my then PhD advisor, Prof. Dimitris Bertsimas from MIT, came up with it a while back.) But once readers know where the paper was accepted and can access its contents with ease, a scientific publication has less incentive to keep operating, and while the end of for-profit publishing might not be a bad thing, its end before another quality-assessment is put in place certainly would be. Advocacy groups are kidding themselves if they think having earlier access to scientific papers on NIH-funded research will help them finding a cure for their loved ones faster, but I wouldn't want to be the biology professor, interrupted in his research by unwanted phone calls, who has to explain that to frantic relatives of terminal-stage patients.


Book Choice

I was among Lehigh faculty and staff members asked for book recommendations for Christmas (it is well-known that I love books), and I picked "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer," by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. As I told the person putting the recommendations together, the book "provides a fascinating portrait of ‘the father of the atomic bomb’ before, during and after his days at Los Alamos, without delving into physics. It is a sobering account of how the government cast aside scientists' misgivings for political purposes, and of how a man’s life was destroyed by McCarthyism. The book raises issues about ethics and science that remain valid today." The last few chapters, which detail the thorough and successful attempts by a few administrators and politicians to crush the man's spirit (they resented his prestige and his opposition to the hydrogen bomb in the middle of the Cold War) by revoking his security clearance in a kangaroo court full of illegal tactics are absolutely sickening. While time ultimately vindicated Oppenheimer and exposed the nobodies for what they were, there is no happy ending to this story. Particularly disturbing still is that the men involved in these blatantly extralegal proceedings were neither monsters nor clowns (McCarthy had nothing to do with the matter) and, in spite of overwhelming evidence of bias, honestly believed they were performing their duty. From pages 548-550 of the paperback edition: "One scientist had been excommunicated. But all scientists were now on notice that there could be serious consequences for those who challenged state policies. (...) Increasingly alarmed by the development of what President Eisenhower would someday call the 'military-industrial complex,' Oppenheimer had tried to use his celebrity status to question the scientific community's increasing dependency on the military. In 1954, he lost."   


Facebook's Revenue Management Strategy

Facebook has been trying hard to capitalize on its popularity with the college set and "do a Google" by basing his profit strategy on advertising revenues. Unfortunately, its members seem to show more interest in catching up with their friends or pseudo-friends than paying attention to banner ads, and Facebook's recent efforts to track and publicize what members are buying on other websites created a backlash (it didn't help that Facebook initially refused to let them opt out, on the grounds that people don't understand what's good for them, or, in the words of a company vice-president quoted in the New York Times, "if [features such as the mini news-feed] are not well understood at the outset, one thing we need to do is give people an opportunity to interact with them [and] after a while they fall in love with them".)

But with college students' happily announcing their "friendship" with hundreds of classmates to look popular and well-connected, it is becoming increasingly obvious that most of the relationships are "a lot of noise." As explained in an article published in the October 18, 2007 edition of The Economist (entitled "Social graph-iti"), "social networks lose value once they go beyond a certain size." Furthermore, evidence suggests that "the future of social networking will not be one big social graph but instead myriad small communities on the internet to replicate the millions that exist offline." The fact that Facebook's members "communicat[e in large crowds] without expressing specific interests", in contrast with Google's users who "have expressed specific intentions by typing search queries", certainly doesn't bode well for Facebook.

What amazes me with all this is why Facebook doesn't attempt to capitalize on its users' eagerness to have a lot of friends. I don't understand why its management hasn't come up with a Facebook-specific revenue-making strategy, for instance, some kind of hierarchy between "best friend", "good friend" and "friend" where everyone would receive, say, 5 "best friend" tokens and 10 "good friend" tokens for free (and an unlimited number of "friend" tokens), and would need to pay a small sum for extra "best friend" and "good friend" ones, say, $5 each, valid for six months - it makes sense to have the tokens expire since college-aged students don't necessarily remain friends for very long).  How many students would be willing to say to a best-friend request "sorry, but I've already used my five tokens and you're number six", and how many would buy an extra token to keep the peace? It would make for some interesting conversations in college dorms.


Parents in science and engineering

It was announced last week that a local high school senior won the $100,000 grand prize in the national Siemens competition in math, science and technology for her research on bone growth of zebrafish. The girl performed her research project at Lehigh, and happens to be the daughter of a faculty member in the department of materials science and engineering and of a physician. Now, it is obvious that zebrafish has nothing to do with materials science, so there really is no doubt that the student (who has also co-authored scientific publications with her father and taken college-level courses at Lehigh - you can read about her accomplishments up to eighth grade here) did the winning project by herself.

But my question is: to which extent did it help her start on that road to have parents in science and engineering careers? I couldn't find precise statistics on the topic, although it seems quite likely that it did help quite a bit by giving her role models, and maybe opportunities: would a tenure-track professor, with all the time and publication constraints associated with that stage of an academic career, have bothered to supervise a high school student if the kid in question had not been the daughter of another faculty member? or would the child of non-scientists have been sent to the high school honors program where she would have become quickly bored, because her parents would not even have been aware of the other options available, such as community college or four-year college courses (and that would have made the supervision issue moot)?

Beyond the nature versus nurture question, the issue becomes: what do you do to help the kids whose parents know nothing about science and engineering identify this as a potential career path? Writers or musicians don't necessarily have parents who are writers or musicians themselves, and nobody thinks twice about it. But when it comes to science, people prefer to think there's a gene for it somehow and if they don't have it, their kids don't have it and that's just the way things are. Every parent has an opinion about the books on his children's reading list; fewer comment on the quality of the teaching in math and physics. But if a parent can't even explain seventh-grade math to his kid, why would the kid bother to learn something his mom can't do? Doesn't the task seem doomed right there?

Not everyone cares about having children who understand science and engineering. But in this age of continuous education and lifelong learning, I find it curious that community colleges offer all kinds of courses in cooking (thirty-two offering at the Northampton Community College by my count), and none in physics or math when they are not taken for credit. It is a pity - "Everything you've always wanted to know to help your middle-school kid do his math homework" would have been a winner.


Engineers Week

I vaguely remember hearing about National Engineers Week before, but I had only the faintest memory of it until yesterday when I found out one of my colleagues, Prof. Keith Gardiner, who has been actively promoting engineering at Lehigh and beyond, sat on the advisory board of the Future City Competition. (The things you learn at Christmas parties.) According to the website, the foundation behind Engineers Week (created 56 years ago, believe it or not) "is dedicated to ensuring a diverse and well-educated future engineering workforce by increasing understanding of and interest in engineering and technology careers among young students and by promoting pre-college literacy in math and science. Engineers Week also raises public understanding and appreciation of engineers' contributions to society."

This year (2008) the National Engineers Week will be held from February 17 to 23 in Washington, D.C. The Future City Competition asks middle-school students (seventh and eighth grades) to "envision the city of the future." (Besides Future City, the foundation targets middle-school students through Design Squad, a PBS live-action program on 9- to 13-year-olds tackling a hands-on engineering project such as creating dragsters out of toys and racing them - the activities do have to appeal that age group - and Cyberchase, another PBS show, which connects math to engineering for elementary-school children.) Future City is an ambitious project where the students are judged on 6 components (you can find the details here):

  1. A computer design of "a city that dates from the year 2150 or later and has at least 50,000 residents," using SimCity 3000 software. (One copy of the software is provided for free for each registered school.) 80 points out of 400.
  2. A computer evaluation of the future city using the same software, self-scored by the students and certified by the engineering mentor (all the teams have one). 20 points out of 400.
  3. A model of an area of the future city, built to scale, which must contain 1 moving part. Electrical power must be self-contained (no plug and - apparently some students thought about bringing pet  hamsters or the like - no live animals.) 120 points out of 400.
  4. A 500- to 700-word research essay. The essay this year has the following outline: the students select a component (structures, utilities, transportation, communications) of their city infrastructure and explain why that component is critical to the health, safety or welfare of the city. They have to define the requirements of the monitoring system (identify potential threat, such as flood, decide which variables to monitor and determine what should be done when a problem is detected, and then devise a control system that satisfies the requirements above: what kind of sensors are used? how does the controller receive which action to take?) 70 points out of 400.
  5. A 300- to 500-word abstract describing the city's key features. 20 points out of 400.
  6. An oral presentation, lasting between 5 and 7 minutes. 90 points out of 400.

Doesn't it seem daunting to you? Well, it certainly seems to me. And the most incredible part is, so many kids rise to the challenge: in the 2006-2007 program, more than 30,000 middle school students participated. And don't think the children were given a "free pass" once they designed something vaguely resembling a place to live: proposals were rigorously scored using the following criteria:

  • City Layout: Do the residential areas have higher property values? Is there adequate coverage of police stations and fire stations? What are the letter grades (meaning quality score, I assume) for hospitals, schools, colleges, museums and libraries? Are there any factories located throughout the industrial zoned areas? Are there any high-technology industries? Are there agricultural areas? Are various forms of garbage disposal used along with recycling?
  • Energy: Is there power to all areas within the city? Is there water to all areas within the city? Is air and water pollution under control?
  • Transportation: Does the public transportation system provide full mobility for the people? Is there adequate mobility for the transport of goods and services? Is there a developed seaport and airport compatible with the size of the city?
  • Recreation: Are there enough parks, forests and playgrounds in the city based on the population of the city? Are there an adequate number of recreation areas including sports stadium, zoo, marina? Are there an adequate number of special attractions in the city (not including landmarks)?

Some adults might say the organizers are asking too much of 12-year-olds, but the feedback regarding last year's competition suggests students enjoyed themselves tremendously and the 2007 winners, whom you can read about here, designed breathtaking cities and wrote remarkable essays. When you expect a lot of students, they start expecting a lot of themselves - hopefully this will lead to some kids seriously considering engineering as a career path. Looking at the list of winners, I was particularly impressed by the fact that the best performers didn't come from (sub)urban areas with high concentrations of top-notch schools and universities, such as Boston, New York or San Francisco - instead, the kids were enrolled at St. Thomas More School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (first place), Nevada Christian Home School in Reno, Nevada (second place and best essay), Helen Keller Middle School in Royal Oak, Michigan (third place) and - a bit of semi-local pride! - Kutztown Area Middle School in Kutztown, Pennsylvania (best model).

One can only hope that, as the media coverage of the competition increases every year, more kids will be encouraged to give it a try, and not just the super-stars who ace all the tests in school. One regional coordinator said it best: "One of the joys of the Future City Competition is that it appeals to 'average' students; we saw that average students produce well-above-average results. Don't limit the program and exclude those seemingly average students who have the potential for greatness." Every kid deserves a taste of engineering.