Genoa Middle School students apply Future City work to find sustainable solutions for African community

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The eight students who represent Genoa Middle School’s Future City team are taking an authentic approach to this year’s theme of climate change.

They’ve focused their project on the Maa community, a nomadic tribe in Africa whose life has centered on following available resources. The community of 200 households now want to settle in one place but have limited access to food, water and housing. 

As part of the Future City competition, students are charged with designing sustainable cities of the future that showcase their solution to climate change. But for the Maa community, Genoa students want to help them build their city now.

“This is going to be their first time living in a city or town because they’ve been nomadic for a long time,” eighth-grader Maya Vazhkudai said. “Our idea is to collaborate with others to support the Maa Community’s needs for an intentional, sustainable, stationary city as a result of their lack of basic needs like water, education, food, energy and electricity.” 

Vazhkudai, along with the other members of Genoa’s Future City team — Paige Velegol, Colin Fowler, Andrew Tran, Kaleb Tran, Andrew Gould, Ben Pipo and Cameron Shadley — intend to build on the assets the Maa community already has while also tying it in with sustainability and climate change.

“We’re modernizing their infrastructure but not their culture,” Fowler said. 

More than a month into their work, the Future City team has deepened their understanding of the Maa community’s needs and available resources thanks to international, state and local partners. Guiding their efforts are advisor and science teacher Tina Bardwell; Linda Amici, a middle school instructional coach; and one of Bardwell’s former students, Caroline Urbanic.

Students met virtually with representatives from Globally Reconnect, which serves as a facilitator for mission-driven work across communities. The U.K.-based group supported their Kenyan team to survey members of the Maa community and shared the results, offering insight on the community’s priorities for their new home. 

They’ve connected with Ohio State University’s Engineers Without Borders students to learn more about accessing reliable water sources and building sustainable housing for the Maa tribe. They interviewed Kira Barr, a doctoral student at Ohio State who was published in a research journal when she was a student at Olentangy Orange High School about plant species native to Africa that can help replenishing the soil and adding vitamins and nutrients for a healthy diet. While in high school, Barr spent a summer in Malawi volunteering at an AIDS orphan rescue and drilling a well. 

The team’s research covers a wide span of topics: gender equality and women’s education, housing, innovation, energy, health care, agriculture, sanitation, migration, ecology, water, music, philosophy, tradition, economy and telecommunications. 

As part of the Future City competition, students have to build a scale model of their city and compose a 1,500-word essay that describes the unique attributes of their city and provides a solution to this year's challenge.

Genoa students are working on those requirements — in addition to trying to support the Maa community now. 

“We’re almost building two cities — the future city and the new city,” Velegol said.

The team contacted Source Global to learn about Hydropanels, a device that resembles a solar panel that pulls water out of the air and provides clean drinking water for people who lack access to it.

They’ve sought additional resources for humanitarian support, reaching out to individuals and groups such as, a global nonprofit organization working to bring water and sanitation to the world; a public health expert; and the Echo Foundation, a nonprofit human rights and education foundation co-founded by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. They are in the process of connecting with the Malala Project as well as another organization that specializes in using DNA to track the migration patterns of the megafauna in the area.

Through their project, students are researching topics they don’t typically cover in class, posing questions and adapting plans based on what they discover. As a result, they’ve adopted a team motto: Get used to being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“We all got into this because we wanted to get college credit, but as we got into the project, we realized we just want to help people,” Shadley said. 

Bardwell and Amici have been inspired by the team’s transformation.

“Their passion for the work, and compassion for others is amazing to watch,” they said.  

For students, the opportunity to help a community in need has made this project important to them.

“It’s motivating because more things are on the line,” Tran said.

It has also left an indelible mark. Velegol, whose research topics include women’s education, plans to continue studying the issue long after the Future City project is completed. 

“I want to work in this field for the rest of my life,” she said. “This quote helped, ‘When you educate a girl, you educate a nation.’”  

This has become more than a Future City project for the Genoa team.

“Even if we fail, we still succeed, even if we don’t win, we have done something much more important,” Shadley said.