BEAVERTON — Before the “Big One” strikes, Oregonians might consider turning to a group of seventh-graders for tips on how to endure subduction zone mayhem.

Four Valley Catholic students recently placed first in the Future City regional competition in Seattle. Their city’s power grid design to withstand an earthquake earned them a spot at the finals in Washington, D.C., this month.

“It was super exciting,” said Jenn Deal, one of three Valley Catholic teachers involved with the project. “The amount of work required in this is extensive. The group spent Christmas break working on their model, refining everything, and that paid off.”

Future City is a national project-based learning program in which middle schoolers research, design and build cities they’ve imagined for the future. Each year, teams tackle different sustainability issues in their metropolitan models. Past topics include green energy and urban agriculture. This year students were asked to design a resilient power grid to endure and quickly recover from a national disaster.

Deal called Future City a “cross-curricular project that draws on many skills.”

Teams write a 1,500-word essay, create their model city to scale from recycled materials, formulate a project plan and give a presentation to judges.

Valley Catholic English teachers helped students edit and revise the essay, and math calculations were checked and double checked as students built their city to scale.

“There were some instances of ‘Oh no, this recycled Coke bottle is way too large,’” Deal recalled with a laugh.

The middle schoolers suggested microgrids for their earthquake-vulnerable CurioCity (a “beautiful and lively” place “formerly called Portland,” write the students). Microgrids are “self-contained energy systems that switch to an independent power source when the main power grid fails to deliver energy,” students explain in their essay, which includes more than 15 sources.

Jennifer Gfroerer, principal of Valley Catholic Middle School, said the school is developing a signature STEM assignment for each grade, and Future City is the signature project for seventh-graders. This is the second year the school has participated in the program.

The principal believes the school’s focus on STEM prepares students well for high school. “It’s really important that they understand how to work with others, vet sources, base research on reliable information, speak and write clearly, and create a project based on the information gained,” she said. “Coupled with traditional learning, it also reaches multiple kinds of learners and exposes students to things they never thought they were interested in or strong at.”

The school recently was certified by AdvanceED — an accreditation company used by Valley Catholic — for its commitment to science, technology, engineering and math.

Many schools emphasize STEM programming, but Gfroerer said she wanted an outside organization to review their approach. Valley Catholic is the first school in the Pacific Northwest to earn the STEM certification from AdvancedED.

The middle school also was the only Oregon school participating in Future City program, so teams of seventh-graders competed against each other at the school before four teams went directly to the regional match in Washington state. Gfroerer hopes other Oregon schools will learn about the program and embrace it.

A scoring glitch meant the team of Maansi Singh, Vivian Nguyen, Jacob Strayer and Jordan Baumgartner left the competition thinking they’d earned second place. Only later were they told their CurioCity was first — and headed to D.C. for the Feb. 19 finals.

“We are really excited,” said Nguyen, who’s considering a future in biochemistry or optometry.

Deal said all four Valley Catholic teams scored strongly at regionals, which featured 32 teams. “Everyone walked away proud, and we were super proud of them,” said Deal.

Gfroerer said the Catholic faith that’s integrated within the Valley Catholic curriculum and community plays a crucial role as students undertake STEM projects and later pursue STEM fields. Faith keeps technological progress grounded in ethics, a reverence for the human person and a commitment to others, she said.

With finals days away, Nguyen said she’s eager to head to the East Coast. The seventh-grader said the project has been a blast and taught her a lot, including how to better navigate group work.

“I know when I get a job I will have to work in groups a lot — taking in other people’s ideas and then making the best decision,” said Nguyen. But she said her favorite part of Future City has been “how much fun we’ve had together.”

Strayer agreed. “I loved designing stuff,” he said, “but I especially love working with everyone.”

Learn more

futurecity.org