BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — It’s the year 2190. There are 75,000 people residing in the city of Vairnisky, where they live in turret-like apartments a hundred stories tall and feast on healthful, sustainable foods such as beans and crickets.
That’s the future dreamed up by a team of sixth- and seventh-grade students from Van Antwerp and Iroquois middle schools in Niskayuna (hence their imagined city’s name, which is a combination of their schools’ names and the town’s).
“Our city is based around this spinning pyramid,” sixth-grader Rohan Mennon said, pointing out the geometric, rotating shape at the heart of the group’s scale model.
“Crickets live in it,” he explained. “Beans grow on the outside.”
Beans also grow on the tops of buildings throughout the model, in rooftop gardens where the imaginary residents can go to stretch and get some fresh air. It may sound fantastic, but the students have done their research. It’s all part of the Future City competition, a cerebral contest where middle schoolers dream up the urban centers of the future.
They research and write papers, then design an entire urban space using a computer program called Sim City. Finally, they construct the most interesting corner of their design to scale out of recycled and found materials, which competition rules state have to cost less than $100, including the value of donated items.
“This is just the corner,” sixth-grader Jacob Yanoff said after giving a virtual tour of their already elaborate city. It included a university and school system, plenty of gardens, a shopping center and tall, cylindrical residences, divided neatly by a grid of roads for self-driving cars. It still needed a backdrop and a few more touches.
“It was hard. Houses catch on fire and people get sick,” sixth-grader Cyrus Irani said of the design process. “We learned you need a lot of good services you can rely on.”
On Jan. 10, about a dozen teams will give formal presentations at Proctors to determine which Capital Region group will compete for the national title in Washington, D.C.
That upcoming presentation brought the group, along with parents and siblings, to the media center at Van Antwerp Middle School in late December.
They were there to practice; the young architects’ guests peppered them with questions about the city of Vairnisky, just like the judges soon will at Proctors. But they were there to celebrate, too, by feasting on the kinds of food the citizens of Vairnisky would love. Unique foods are central to the Niskayuna middle schoolers’ plan for their city, because this year’s Future City theme is sustainable nutrition.
“Crickets are high in protein and easy to grow,” Irani said.
Even today, people around the world farm crickets inside special drawers in their homes, he added.
The structure the students dreamed up is a sort of large-scale version of that concept, designed to house the entire cricket life cycle, then harvest the critters by freezing them humanely.
Insects are a pretty uncommon food choice in the United States, but the students think the residents of Vairnisky would get used to it. They know firsthand the flavor of crickets is bland and easily disguisable, since their party foods included seasoned, dried crickets, as well as less-recognizable options like “chocolate chirp” cookies and energy bars made with cricket flour.
“You don’t taste the crickets in the cricket flour, but it’s healthier than [wheat] flour,” Jacob Yanoff said. Not that he was afraid to taste the crickets — he and Cyrus Irani were the first two to pop the crispy, six-legged critters onto their tongues.
The students gave their food source extensive consideration. They attended a conference at RPI earlier in the year, hosted by Future City, that taught students about aquaponics, a way of growing seafood and water plants together in a self-sustaining ecosystem.
The students were intrigued, but originality is an important part of the contest, so they decided to seek out a similar system with entirely different organisms. A bean-and-cricket buffet is what they ultimately devised.
“Crickets feed on plant waste,” Mennon explained.
The shape of the pyramid allows for lots of surface area, while the spinning motion ensures sunlight reaches each facet equally.
Brian Yanoff, whose son Jacob is on the Niskayuna Future City team, served as the group’s engineer mentor. As a lab manager at GE Global Research, he was well-equipped to help guide the budding architects through the problem solving process.
“We talked about, ‘How many grams of protein does a person need for a healthy diet?’ ” Brian Yanoff said. Contest rules require one plant and one protein, so they had to work backward from there.
The concept is finished, and the scale model just needs a few tweaks. So the students are moving on to the final part of their preparation: memorizing everything they can about their fictional city.
“We get judged on how well the people present and how well we know the facts on our city,” sixth-grader Bhanu Chelli said.
But no matter how polished their presentation or how convincing their architectural model, the students remembered to have fun, middle-school style, which meant they laughed and teased each other while they ate Crick-ettes, dried insects seasoned with potato chip flavors such as sour cream and onion or salt and vinegar.
“There’s a cricket leg in my mouth,” seventh-grader Ian Vernooy said, drawing giggles from his teammates. Then they gathered themselves for another rehearsal.