It's the year 2022 and there is a land shortage throughout North America. Large patches of land have been deemed unusable, contaminated by garbage and toxic waste. These wastelands are called "brown fields."
Regulations for developers are unclear. Cleaning up and building on brown fields is more expensive than its worth, but the countries on the continent need industry and growth.
This is the scenario youth from around Alaska gathered to confront April 14 to 16 at the State Future Problem Solvers Competition in Soldotna.
Teams of three to four students, from grades four through 11, work through problems using a proscribed six-step process. They research current trends under a given topic, identify challenges, select an underlying program, brainstorm solutions, evaluate their ideas and develop an action plan.
According to Cyndi Romberg, a teacher and FPS coach at Redoubt Elementary, the process helps students develop their problem-solving skills.
"It organizes their thinking to focus on what the main problem is and gets them working together as a team to be creative in coming up with other solutions," she said.
Those skills benefit students throughout their education, she said.
"I have students come back from college and say that the best thing they ever did was Future Problem Solvers," Romberg said. "They learn to solve a problem and clearly write about it."
The program also opens students' minds to issues facing their community.
"It's shown me there's a lot more problems in the world than just hunger," said Redoubt sixth-grader Paul Blacklock. "There's a whole bunch of stuff the world needs to work on."
"This scenario really could happen in the future," added Sierra Ball, another Redoubt sixth-grader. "We're already working on it and coming up with possible solutions."
Romberg said the process is difficult for some younger students because of the need to focus on one activity for long periods of time, but her students seem to be succeeding.
For the second year in a row, one of Romberg's teams from Redoubt won first place in the junior division and will be headed to the international competition.
"It's a great opportunity for the kids," Romberg said. "It's probably one of those early things that defines who you are."
And she should know. In addition to coaching Future Problem Solvers at the junior division, Romberg also has a son at Soldotna High School who is involved with the program.
Krystin Habighorst watches Kurt Romberg drag John Gomulak -- a thorougly beaten "brown field" -- from the stage, while Rueben glaves narrates.
Photo by Jenni Dillon
"It get you out of the ordinary, out of ordinary thinking," said Soldotna High School freshman Kurt Rombert. "It really gets going on creativity."
Kurt Romberg was one of four members of the team that won first place in the intermediate division for the skit competition, where students use a limited number of supplies to make props and develop a humorous skit to present their action plan.
"It has nothing to do with the judging (for internationals), but it's the funniest part," said Kurt Romberg.
Future Problem Solvers is a yearlong program in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the state meet is only a small part, said Quest program director Maureen Stoner, who helped organize the competition.
Students work through two practice problems every year and a qualifying problem to earn their way to the state competition. The program is part of the regular and gifted classroom curriculum in elementary schools, a mixture of classroom and extracurricular activities in middle school and a primarily extracurricular activity in high school.
In competition, FPS teams are divided by age, with a junior category for fourth- through sixth-graders, an intermediate category for seventh- through ninth-graders and a senior category for sophomores and juniors.
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