HUNTERSVILLE – A five-month project to design the ideal transportation system paid off for Cara and Maggie Hoey, Gatlin Parrett and Andrea Bailot.

The four J.M. Alexander Middle School students won the state’s Regional Future City competition with their depiction of a futuristic transit program for Sicily, using a physical model and SimCity software.

J.M. Alexander teacher Mary Kendrick, the team’s coach, said the group spent 50-100 hours perfecting the model, essay and presentation that won it the regional championship.

“The kids really enjoy it. They want to do well with it,” Kendrick said. “You can tell they’re interested in it and they’re passionate about it. This is all extracurricular; it isn’t for a class credit. This is entirely something they want to do. The adults monitor, but they make the choices and they do the work.”

The group’s regional win qualified it for an all-expenses-paid trip to DiscoverE’s Future City National Competition on Feb. 15-18 in Washington, D.C. Thirty-seven teams will compete in Washington, D.C., for a $7,500 prize for the team’s school or after-school’s STEM program, as well as a trip to U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

The students built their model, which includes designs such as underground energy management, vertical farming and class-specific residential areas. Transportation consists of aerial and underground travel.

Managing transportation is an ongoing challenge for towns’ staffs, but it’s something entirely new to eighth-graders, said North Mecklenburg High senior Luke Churchill.

Churchill won the state’s Future City title four years ago with his Davidson IB team. He came back to mentor the students with their project, offering ideas whenever problems arose.

“We know what national judges look for and what winning teams do, so we strive for that year after year,” Churchill said. “I’ve worked with this team for three years, and this one might be the best one we’ve done so far.”

Project subjects change every year, so no teams get an advantage in terms of refining models, which are judged on qualities including engineering creativity, design and uniqueness.

J.M. Alexander’s model is made of items including doorknobs and other household appliances. Models can’t be made using more than $100 of recycled materials.

Participants can pick the location for their project. Churchill said the students chose Sicily because of its proximity to water.

The project required research on how to communicate and power the city in addition to the methods of transportation.

Winning the national title is the goal, Kendrick said, but the students’ body of work and regional title has already made their project a success.

“They’ve seen the older kids doing this, and they want to stick with it,” she said. “There’s something for everybody with it. There’s writing involved, there’s artistic stuff involved, and part of it is computer-driven. It appeals to all kinds of students.”