Over 1,100 schools and 30,000 students participated this year. Using SimCity 3000 software, donated by Maxis, a div. of Electronic Arts, Walnut Creek, Calif., the students work with a teacher and a volunteer engineer mentor. They build a city from the ground up, dealing with pollution, unemployment, education, traffic jams, and other real-life problems, all within a balanced budget.

Students present and defend their city to a judging panel. Also, they must write an essay on an engineering challenge. The topic for 2004 is using plastics to help senior citizens live a better life in the future, sponsored by the American Plastics Council.

The Future City national finals are sponsored by the engineering software company Bentley Systems Inc. The company also provides the first prize — a trip to the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. For more information, go to www.futurecity.orgor www.eweek.org