Mama Madison: Problems, solutions

A problem-solving bowl-style competition for kids also encourages teamwork

This past weekend, my husband and I drove to a conference center on the shores of Green Lake to watch our two younger children, ages 13 and 10, participate in the Wisconsin Future Problem Solving (FPS) State Bowl. For those of you unfamiliar with FPS (as I most certainly was before my oldest child got involved years ago as a fourth grader), the program's mission is to stimulate the critical and creative thinking skills of young people by challenging them, either in teams or individually, to come up with innovative solutions to complex global problems.

Truth be told, the idea of my kids and their peers being "future problem solvers" has always made me giggle a bit, especially when it comes to international matters. How can a bunch of pre-teen and teenage kids like mine, who can't seem to remember to unpack the dishwasher or match socks correctly, be expected to generate meaningful solutions to heady and challenging issues like pitfalls of the culture of celebrity, the difficulties of managing megacities or, in the case of this past weekend, how to help offset the Garbage Patch in the north Pacific.

If contemporary sociologists, urban planners and scientists haven't been able to crack the code on alleviating these sorts of problems, I question if my kids will genuinely be able to provide much help.

But over the years, I've started to better understand the power of the Future Problem Solving program. And I've developed a healthy respect for how the organization's solution generating process provides solid grounding on how to intellectually attack an issue.

But, perhaps even more importantly, the program has also allowed my kids and their peers to exercise their creativity in some very meaningful ways.

For example, in preparation for State Bowl, the students involved create large banners to be displayed at the competition. It's a true exercise in visual communication, as the works of art need to be not only aesthetically pleasing, but also informative on the issue being tackled. And every year my volunteer contribution to my kids' FPS teams is to take them shopping for the supplies they'll need to whip up impromptu costumes and props for the skits they will write and perform on the final day of the Bowl.

The list of approved supplies - I assume compiled by someone with stock in Target - never fails to make me smile. The kids need things like multiple empty cereal boxes, fly swatters, plungers, and clothespins. And duct tape. Lots and lots of duct tape. I am always amazed come performance time what creative things the kids have been able fashion out of aluminum pie tins and paper cups.

But when I really try to tease out the biggest benefit the program offers for my kids, it's been the opportunity for them to leave school a bit early on a Thursday and jump on a bus headed up to Green Lake to spend three days, not only with classmates, but also with like-minded kids from all across the state. They meet students from Luxemburg, the Village of Casco, and Blanchardville - all places my family isn't likely to travel to anytime soon.

They also get the chance to get to know some of their truly exceptional teachers in new and different ways, by hanging out with them outside of a classroom setting. And, perhaps best of all, my kids get to escape from the watchful eye of their parents for a few days - I have been banned from ever being a chaperone by my middle schooler. He (probably correctly) believes my presence would most certainly cramp his style.

So while my kids may not have found the ideal solution to combat Pacific Ocean pollution this past weekend, they have uncovered something almost as important. They have now discovered that some of the very best school memories, moments that will never be forgotten, can be made while sharing a room and pre-bed giggles with some of your closest friends on an extracurricular adventure in rural, south-central Wisconsin.

That, and that there are lots of cool problems, both present and future, that can be solved with plenty of duct tape.

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