Westview Hills Future Problem Solvers Taking on Big Issues and Preparing for Competitions
The Future Problem Solving Program International allows students from around the world to compete to solve potential global problems with a specific method in competition. About 150 teams compete in the state of Illinois, with Westview Hills Middle School students consistently being top performers.
The six-step problem-solving method teaches critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making, allowing students to compete as a team or as an individual. For the past six years, Westview Hills teacher Sam Williams has led the Future Problem Solvers (FPS), who meet on Fridays after school to research topics and practice the method, essay writing, and delivering a solution as they do in competition.
“I was drawn to FPS because it allows me to push some of my students who enjoy research a lot further,” said Williams. “If students want to go deeper, this is the opportunity. If they have the capacity to take more on, this will definitely satisfy that need. It’s a really great program, and it really helps them to understand how to think in different ways.”
The Westview Hills FPS program usually consists of between 15 and 25 students who learn the six-step method, do research on competition topics, and learn how to collaborate with others. About a month before a competition, a general topic is shared with teams, who are able to work on a practice problem and research the subject. An example is the topic of urbanization, with provided videos and articles, but students can dive deeper into their areas of interest.
The problem-solving process includes reading and annotating the scenario, identifying problems, finding underlying problems, writing solutions, and using specific criteria to rank the solutions. Once a potential solution is identified, students have a short amount of time to write an essay and prepare a presentation to share it with the judges that could be as simple as a verbal presentation, or something creative like a performance or a song. Eighth graders Charlie Pilat and Shlok Patel are both members of the team who attended the Internationals competition last year held at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
“Last year’s scenario was about how clothes were ending up in landfills and causing problems for the environment and the economy,” shared Charlie. “Our underlying problem was about how clothes weren’t durable enough, so our winning solution was about working with Nike to develop a new line of clothing called Durafit that would be more durable and cost-effective to avoid mass production.”
Westview Hills alumni come back to help as coaches and judges to support current students who can compete as individuals, as a team of four, or as part of a Magic team which is made up of participants who meet for the first time as the problem is being introduced. Shlok participated with a Magic team and shared that it was an exciting challenge.
“You just meet people and get to work immediately,” said Shlok. “You work with random participants from around the world through a process that you have practiced, and it's a cool way to meet people. A lot of the problems that we deal with are very possible problems for the future, so solutions have to be realistic."
By having a general topic and process in place, teams get the opportunity to think about what the future could be like. Skills that are helpful in participation include the ability to read and write quickly, take excellent notes, clear communication, public speaking, and being able to write a two-page essay with the whole process only being two hours.
After the problem is introduced through a one-page setting scene, students read and annotate it and develop 16 paragraphs worth of challenges, then distill that into one underlying problem with 16 possible solutions. A rubric is provided to apply to eight of those potential solutions with the best possible solution ultimately being chosen.
“This is the same system that is used at NASA, and it can be applied to a lot of real-world situations,” said Williams. “Students who participate really need to be able to think deeply about a situation, handle themselves under pressure, and be able to express themselves very accurately.”
The regional competition takes place in February with the State competition happening in April and Internationals in June each year. The Wildcat teams are confident that they will be represented at State and hope to get another chance at international competition before they move on from middle school.
“Internationals was a little overwhelming at first last year since you only interact with other teams a little bit right before the competition,” said Charlie. “FPS helps with critical and quick thinking since you only have two hours to do all this stuff and have to think on your feet.”
Westview Hills alumni who have participated often go on to continue at the high school level or participate in debate programs or other performance-based activities. One of the teams goes by the name Team Cockroach with the team motto of “We just can’t be squished.”
“I definitely feel like we can use these skills in our future through high school and beyond,” added Shlok. “It’s a fun way to dive deeper into topics and be able to compete with students from around the world.”