Engineering success: South Heart students advance to nationals

South Heart middle school students recently advanced to nationals in the Future City engineering and design competition.

South Heart Future City club
Nine of South Heart Public School's sixth through eighth grade students with their teacher Jerica Smith, third from left, and their model city "Callista."
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

SOUTH HEART, N.D. — In rural North Dakota's prairies, near the badlands of the Western Edge, cultivation continues to yield a very special crop — academic success.

Nine students from South Heart Public School's sixth through eighth grades are again, third time in as many years, advancing in the annual engineering based competition known as the Future City Contest.

The student-led team are an amalgamation of problem-solvers, critical thinkers, computer science wizards, mathematical prodigies, and creative spirits, and together they will represent North Dakota at nationals in the Future City contest this February.

The contest will take place on Feb. 5 and Feb. 12.

The team sought the advice of parents, engineers and teachers before writing a 1,500-word essay explaining the details of their futuristic city. They built the model with a budget of $100, the South Heart Secretary Dana Urban wrote in a blog post on the school’s website.


“This year’s topic was waste-free city. We wanted to make things and find systems that didn’t create waste instead of just trying to like, get rid of it,” student Zach O'Brien said during an interview with The Dickinson Press.

Sixth grade teacher Jerica Smith said the competition includes many of the same challenges that are faced by engineers, architects and city planners. This included extensive research on environmentally-friendly structures for their essay and a 7-minute video presentation.

“So this is one of their deliverables,” Smith said, pointing to the model. “They have five of them. So the first thing they had to do was research because like they said, the theme changes every year… The model that they have to make to scale, one of the obstacles is including moving parts.”

"Most beautiful"
Callista is a Greek word for "most beautiful."
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson

The hypothetical city is called "Callista," which is Greek for “most beautiful." It emulates the British city of Brighton, situated on the banks of the English Channel, approximately 50 miles south of London.

“Brighton, England, is already known for its pebble beaches and vast, rolling plains. So greener is ‘most beautiful,’” Zach O'Brien said. “Our buildings are very tall. Some of them are up to 300 stories, but we have undergone stories to support that because when you get up to that height, it's obviously hard to support.”

The two fans at the bottom of the model are meant to simulate a complex source of energy.

“They’re underwater tidal turbines that use the tide from the English Channel, turning these turbines to create power. Behind the model, we have an antimatter reactor which uses waste to turn it into energy,” eighth grader Lee O’Brien said, adding that he has future ambitions to be a mechanical engineer.

The energy is derived from heat energy and then steam, Lee O'Brien explained.


“So basically, it’s this particle that has opposite charges. And as soon as it touches something that has normal charges it is instantly turned into heat energy… goes into water which will then create steam,” Lee O'Brien said. “That steam turns the turbines, and once it’s done through the turbines it goes through a heat exchanger between the steam back into the water.”

The students also designed "Callista" to be sustainable through a wealth of vegetation.

“All the families in each cul de sac have their own mixed garden to grow their own plants and a way to socialize,” student Shayden Moe said, adding that it’s a rather large city. “Our population is 575,000 people.”

A re-engineered Nerf Gun motor
The students made these fans, pictured in the lower level of bright blue, by taking apart a nerf gun motor and connecting it to electrical wires.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

The students traveled to Bismarck earlier this school year where they were victorious, but nationals are still being held virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The team has quite a reputation for winning, as they went to nationals last year and in 2020 as well.

Two years ago, the now eighth grade students Lee O'Brien, Megan Robb and Asia Dutke went to Washington D.C. for the competition just before the pandemic began. Smith said they’ve been excellent members of the team who will be greatly missed next year when they move on to high school.

Jason O’Day is a University of Iowa graduate, with Bachelor’s Degrees in Journalism and Political Science. Before moving to Dickinson in September of 2021, he was a general news reporter at the Creston News Advertiser in southwest Iowa. He was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. With a passion for the outdoors and his Catholic faith, he’s loving life on the Western Edge. His reporting focuses on Stark County government and surrounding rural communities.
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