Solving the world's problems: Forestview team takes home world title

The Forestview Middle School future problem-solvers team this year received international acclaim for its problem solving skills. At the 2017 International Conference at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the team took home first place in the...

The Forestview Middle School future problem solving team poses with the first-place trophy the team won in the presentation of action plan competition at the international conference. Pictured from left to right are Gus Ulm, Keaton Lingenfelter, Sam Simpson, coach Sheila Johnston, Racine Schommer, Vanessa Anderson and Scarlett Anderson. Submitted photo

The Forestview Middle School future problem-solvers team this year received international acclaim for its problem solving skills.

At the 2017 International Conference at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the team took home first place in the presentation of action plan competition. The team competed against teams from across the United States, as well as China, India, Israel, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and others.

The fifth-grade world champion team consisted of four core members: Scarlett Anderson, Vanessa Anderson, Sam Simpson and Gus Ulm. Two alternates, Keaton Lingenfelter and Racine Schommer, also helped take home the prize.

The winners in each competition are announced by calling the top 10 teams to the stage, coach Sheila Johnston said, though only the top five teams get awards. The awards are announced in reverse order starting with fifth place. The tension grew as the announcers revealed which teams finished in which places, she said.

"A couple of them, every now and then, would just cover their faces with their hands," Johnston said.


Once the announcers revealed the team had won, Simpson started jumping up and down with excitement, Johnston said.

"That trophy is practically as tall as they are," Johnston said.

Every team at the international conference was so good, Simpson said via email, that it was hard to know how the team would finish.

"We left the stage knowing we had done our best, but not knowing whether or not it was enough to place, let alone win," Simpson wrote. "Hearing the announcer say 'Forestview Middle School' and knowing that all our hard work had paid off is a memory I will never forget."

Scarlett Anderson said via email she was surprised to learn they had beaten the other talented teams at the international conference.

"When we were announced as the winning team, I was surprised, but really excited and proud," Scarlett Anderson wrote. "We worked really hard and practiced a lot of hours to prepare."

The team's presentation of action plan was based on the underlying problem of invasive species being released into new environments, Johnston said. These non-native species are competing with an ancient species reintroduced to the environment, she said. They have to demonstrate their action plan in a creative way, she said, which meant including costumes made out of basic materials.

The presentation took elements from "A Christmas Carol" and "Ghostbusters," Johnston said. One student played the role of "ghost of biosecurity future," she said, while another student playing a scientist calls in reinforcements called the "biobusters."


This team is one of the most special teams Johnston has ever coached, she said, because of the team's collaborative spirit.

"They're not just doing this as individuals," Johnston said. "They're doing it as a team of four."

Preparing for success

At the start of each season, the team makes a list of goals, Johnston said, which included making it to the state competition. It's complicated to make it to state, she said, so she tries to temper expectations when it comes to making it a step further to the international competition.

What the kids probably enjoy most about the team are the friendships they've made, Johnston said. They come into the season as classmates, and through hours of practice and research, become good friends, she said.

Ulm said via email he likes the future problem-solving team because he gets to learn new things with his friends.

"I really liked learning about things I probably wouldn't have learned about in school like invasive species and 3-D printing," Ulm wrote.

Simpson said he likes learning new information other students his age aren't learning about.


"My favorite topic so far has been 'Energy of the Future,'" Simpson wrote. "We did all sorts of research on newer energy sources like nuclear, solar, and geothermal energy."

Scarlett Anderson said via email she likes learning about interesting and challenging topics she doesn't usually learn in school.

"In future problem-solving, I also like how you get to work on a team, which means you get to meet new people," Scarlett Anderson wrote.

The team is competitive and the international conference is expensive to attend, Johnston said, so the team wasn't just going there for a vacation. The students wanted to do well in both competitions they qualified in, she said. But after attending the conference last year as fourth-graders, the team realized it's not just about competition.

"It's really an experience, because there's kids coming from all around the world," Johnston said.

Each team brings about 100 small items to the international competition to exchange with kids from other teams and countries, Johnston said. The team received great donations from the community for the memento exchange, she said. During the Olympics-style opening ceremony last year, Simpson dressed up as Paul Bunyan to carrying the American flag. A student walking with Simpson dressed up as Spam.

Johnston is described as a retired gifted and talented teacher who lived in Minneapolis before retiring with her husband to Lake Shore for retirement four years ago. She spent three days enjoying retirement before speaking with Nisswa Elementary School Principal Molly Raske about volunteering to start a future problem-solving program at the school. She had coached future problem-solving for about 25 years in Minneapolis, so it was a good fit.

"It was the part of my job that I was most passionate about," Johnston said. "It teaches kids a process so they can solve any problem they could face."


How it works

Every future problem-solving team gets two practice problems at the start of the season, Johnston said. The Forestview team starts working on the second practice problem at the end of September, which is submitted to state evaluators. To compete in the regional competition, the team must complete the first practice problem. So after the second problem is competed, the team goes back to the first practice problem.

The regional competition is at the end of January, Johnston said, and the state competition is at the end of March, so there's not much time between them. This year, the team took first place in the Minnesota junior division in both global issues problem-solving and presentation of action plan competitions.

Last year, competing for the first time as fourth-graders, the team took first in the Minnesota junior division in both global issues problem solving and presentation of action plan competitions. Taking first place as fourth-graders has never been done in the state, Johnston said.

"To repeat the next year, and place first at international is extremely rare in the world of future problem-solving," Johnston said.

The team practices once a week during the school day for an hour, Johnston said. The team practices after school for an hour and a half once per week, which increases to twice and three times per week as the season progresses. There's also homework assigned to the students on the topic.

"A lot of teams, I would say, don't work this has," Johnston said. "But it's the extra practice at home that brings their writing to a higher level."

Topic categories include science, social science, technology, economics and law, Johnston said. The topic for the international competition was biosecurity, she said. Other topics have included trade barriers and space law.


Students start out by researching the topic using a basic research packet, Johnston said. The Forestview team goes beyond basic research by going on field trips and speaking to experts, she said. For biosecurity, the team spoke to Tim Plude, aquatic invasive species specialist at the Brainerd Minnesota Department of Natural Resources office. The team also visited an agricultural research farm in Staples.

"They really connect with the community and have hands-on research experiences," Johnston said. "In addition to tons of reading."

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