Several thousand seventh- and eighth-graders across the country recently designed "future cities" as part of a competition sponsored by professional engineering societies. Starting last September, I assisted students at R.H. Terrell Junior High School in the District with their entry about what the District could be like in 2210.
A persistent question was how the District would deal with terrorism. Students came up with ideas for bombproof, anthrax-proof and sniper-proof buildings, robot soldiers and ID systems to thwart terrorists. The competition made no mention of civil defense, however, so I told the students to assume that the problem would be solved by 2210.
But the terrorism questions continued. Students at Terrell, within walking distance of the Capitol and the White House, couldn't ignore this aspect of city design. So we discussed what could be done to make the city less of a target. What if foreign visitors came not only as tourists but also to learn about using technology to improve their own cities? In 200 years could residents of the District dissuade potential terrorists by helping to solve world problems? There was still skepticism, but when students role-played as entrepreneurs, engineers and civic leaders of the future city, they seemed to find the premise more plausible.
The regional Future City Competition held at Howard University last month was intense. Terrell students won the regional two years ago, but this year, unfortunately, their city wasn't chosen for the national competition (to be held in the District later this month).
Nevertheless, the experience with Terrell students showed the importance of education as a strategic investment in homeland security. In a few years, young people will become the human resources for whatever endeavors we undertake to counter terrorism.
Many are now failing to gain skills in critical thinking, math and science, which will be needed to harness the potential of new technologies. Also, traumatic local events have strongly affected these students' sense of place and society. We need new ways to help these young people envision future possibilities and to counterbalance the post-Sept. 11, 2001, fatalism.
The writer is an associate professor of engineering at George Washington University.