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How the ICE CityZen Award prepared me for a career in civil engineering

22 August 2023

Civil engineering student Joseph Dixon shares how the digital city building game provided perfect insight into the industry.

How the ICE CityZen Award prepared me for a career in civil engineering
Joe Dixon on site at HS2 Old Oak Common. Image credit: Joseph Dixon

It took me a long time to decide what career path I wanted to go down.

Eventually, just before heading into my A-level courses, I found civil engineering.

The ICE CityZen Award reaffirmed that I was making the right decision.

Why civil engineering?

I loved maths and physics as a child.

I was fascinated by the power to solve problems, starting with very simple techniques and gradually building on these to be able to answer any question the world can throw at you.

Throughout my time in school, my passion for problem solving developed into a desire to understand the world around me.

Geography, French and history lessons taught me about how people interact with each other and the world.

Meanwhile I took up every opportunity to go on trips and undertake activities such as Duke of Edinburgh, Cadets, Ten Tors and skiing to start exploring the world.

At the end of my GCSEs, I realised that civil engineering was a career within which I could combine my love of problem solving and my fascination with how we live our lives.

How did you find out about the ICE CityZen Award?

It was my A-level physics teacher who presented the ICE CityZen competition to our year group.

He presented it as a way to find out more about the civil engineering profession and lured us in with the possibility of winning a huge cash prize if we beat every other school group.

As with every other opportunity that came my way, I immediately expressed my interest and enlisted friends who also enjoyed challenges and developing their skills.

I posed it as a chance to develop problem solving skills and at the very least improve their maths if we didn’t win the big prize.

What does CityZen involve?

Heading into the challenge, we had no idea what we were in for, what we would get up to, who we would get help from or just how many people were also competing for the big cash prize.

We had ideas ranging from an online roller-coaster builder or a professional version of Sims 4, to an intricate and mathematically demanding design challenge.

It turned out to be a decision-making-based, city building game!

We were introduced to the project over a video call with two STEM Ambassadors from the ICE.

They provided an outline of the competition structure: a number of rounds to challenge our decision making, followed by a break prior to submitting a group video presentation of our own engineering design project.

bog island design solution
Our bog island design solution for the CityZen competition. Image credit: Joseph Dixon

The rounds of gameplay would give us an opportunity to learn from the impacts of particular decisions.

This would help inform the choices we would then make when designing our own project.

The presentation would then outline a design concept which would improve our local community in an environmentally and economically sustainable way.

What was playing CityZen like?

We quickly got to grips with the basics of the game.

We’d be rewarded based on the outcome of certain decisions we made, and we’d be negatively affected if we chose to spend as little money as possible, or broke promises we made.

It was interesting to see how the impact of a decision in one round of the game could have unexpected consequences in later rounds, and to see the knock-on impact from managing these issues.

Exploring different outcomes

As we progressed through the rounds and gained a deeper understanding of the game mechanics, part of the fun for us became trying to achieve certain outcomes.

For example, if in one round you were penalised for spending too little in one area, in a later round you could try spending as little money as possible to provide a design solution and see just how extreme the repercussions could become.

Notably, we found that these learning experiences weren’t solely of interest to the few of us already thinking about civil engineering.

It appealed to everyone for different reasons.

All of us had the opportunity to take what we wanted away from the game!

What did you learn from CityZen?

Others were fascinated by spending as little money as possible and watching their whole city burn, while still gaining an appreciation of the greater consequences that can result from a small decision.

But I loved the real examples of decisions that civil engineers get to make every day.

I was particularly surprised by how closely intertwined the gameplay was with my geography lessons in how big a role human experience plays in a ‘good’ design decision.

Expanding on what I learned

old oak common site hs2
The HS2 Old Oak Common site, where I get to apply learnings from CityZen. Image credit: Joseph Dixon

I’m now a second-year civil engineering student at the University of Southampton on a QUEST Scholarship with Taylor Woodrow.

I have since learnt more about the significance of understanding your stakeholders in a project.

Also, there’s a whole range of ‘perfect’ design solutions depending on whose interests you prioritise and the value you assign to social, environmental, and economic costs.

Furthermore, I recently discovered that the CityZen game was modelled after the city I’ve been studying in – Southampton!

So, I've experienced the result of the real decisions made by engineers many years ago when they were playing CityZen – the real-world edition!

Get involved

Find out how your school could take part in the ICE CityZen competition starting this Autumn term and take home the prizes.

Take part

Interested in becoming a STEM ambassador to mentor teams? It’s free to register through the STEM Learning organisation, which also provides guidance for engaging with young people.

Sign up to be an ICE STEM Ambassador

Once you are a STEM ambassador, or if you're an existing one, you can register to become a mentor for ICE CityZen.

Sign up as an ICE CityZen mentor

  • Joseph Dixon, civil engineering student at University of Southampton