Expert problem solvers

NEW MATAMORAS – While many area students will be unwinding and maybe even starting on a little homework Friday and Saturday, 19 students from the Frontier Local school district will be considering how to deal with the influx of plastics and other materials into the world’s oceans.

Coming up with solutions to this kind of real-world issue is what earned five teams of fifth-through-10th-graders a trip to Ohio’s Future Problem Solvers Bowl at Solon Middle School.

“I feel like it’s going to be problems that we’re going to be facing sometime in the future,” Frontier freshman Ashton Amos said.

Students are given a general topic to research in advance. For the competition, they are presented with a scene describing conditions of society in the future. The teams, which can have up to four members, identify potential challenges, select one underlying problem, write 16 solutions and evaluate them to choose the best one, which they then outline in an action plan – all in two hours.

The topic assigned for practice and qualifying work this year was megacities. Students researched the topic, then wrote out their plans. One Frontier group focused on protecting larger buildings from natural disasters, while another suggested utilizing robotic birds to monitor potential security issues.

“It really gets you to think outside of the box and be futuristic,” said sophomore Brandi Johnson, who has participated in the program since fifth grade.

The program and its six-step decision-making process emphasize the development of critical thinking, and freshman Hunter Smitley said that has benefits in the here and now.

“It really broadens your mind,” he said. “You’d never think that it would actually help you in real life … but you have a basis of what to go off of.”

While teams from two other districts competed this year, Frontier teams were the only ones to get invited to the state competition. Five ties the highest number of teams the district has sent to the competition since it began participating in the program in the 2005-06 school year, said Jane Miller, gifted intervention specialist for the district.

They will be among more than 50 teams from 10 different school districts, along with about two dozen individual competitors.

The junior team consists of fifth- and sixth-graders from Newport and New Matamoras elementaries, while the intermediate division is for seventh-through-ninth-graders. This will be the first time the district has had a team in the senior division, for 10th through 12th grade. The program was only offered in elementary schools until last year.

“Once they left elementary school, we didn’t have it, and the kids petitioned the superintendent,” Miller said.

The students also asked for more time to do research for the program. They had been meeting once a week during lunch, but requested time after school as well. Miller was happy to oblige.

“I’m just in awe,” she said.

In some schools, Future Problem Solvers is its own elective class, not an extracurricular activity. But that hasn’t stopped Frontier students from having success at the state level.

The first year they entered, a Frontier student took first place in the junior writing division at the state bowl. Three years ago, a two-student team placed third in the intermediate division for acting out the pitch for the solution they were proposing.

“It was pretty cool to know that we can go up there and place against schools that are two or three times our size,” said ninth-grader Zach Farnsworth, a member of that team.

The topic for the state competition is “Ocean Soup,” focusing on the infiltration of man-made materials into the ocean. Teams will read their future scenes, assess them and write their action plans Friday night, then present skits to propose their plans Saturday.

If they qualify for the international competition, they’ll get a brand new topic to begin researching.

Miller said the school has been accommodating for the competition, with coaches offering to rearrange practices so students can get in prep time and at least one game being rescheduled.