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Young Problem-Solvers Visit LACMRERS

Posted on April 25th, 2011

Students participating in the Future Problem Solvers program visited LACMRERS this spring to learn about water quality.

Students participating in the Future Problem Solvers program visited LACMRERS this spring to learn about water quality.

Water quality is a big problem in the Midwest. Fortunately, some of our finest young problem solvers are at work on a solution. The students are participants in the Future Problem Solving Program (FPS), which this year focused on a problem related to water quality.

Thirty-five of these young scientists, ranging in age from 10 to 17, recently visited the Lucille A. Carver Mississippi River Environmental Research Station (LACMRERS) to learn more about water quality. LACMRERS is a unique university-sponsored research station situated on the banks of the Mississippi River near Muscatine, Iowa. It is a part of IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, a unit of The University of Iowa College of Engineering. LACMRERS is a place for students, scientists, and anyone concerned about the health of our rivers and streams to meet, interact, and collaborate, learning about the river in a hands-on and enjoyable way.

LACMRERS Director Doug Schnoebelen says he was happy to welcome the students and their volunteer coach, Paula Moore. Moore believes strongly in the Future Problem Solvers program, and she has invested a lot of her time in the program. “I have coached Future Problem Solving teams for 24 years!” she says. Moore works mainly with home-schooled students from the Iowa City/Kalona area. She says the program is designed to encourage the development of creativity, critical thinking, and teamwork.

“I enjoy the fact that FPS is an academic challenge,” she says. “I have high expectations for the students, and they respond accordingly.” The students use a six-step problem-solving process that came from the business world. They analyze the problem and determine its most significant aspects, brainstorm and evaluate solutions, and describe the best solution as a plan of action.

With a topic like water quality, a visit to LACMRERS was a natural—especially since Schnoebelen’s own kids are part of the program. “It worked out perfectly,” Schnoebelen says. “It just so happens that water quality is what I have been doing my whole career now, for 20 years!”

Schnoebelen was able to give the students a real-life, hands-on look at water quality. “I talked about various problems in water quality, such as bacteria, nutrients, pesticides, and inorganic and organic pollutants,” Schnoebelen says. “I showed them tools I use in my job, such as water-quality sensors and other instruments we use to measure pollutants, and the computer modeling we use to track and estimate residence times for pollutants in the Mississippi River.”

It sounds technical, but the kids loved it. “[They] asked a lot of good questions,” Schnoebelen says. “It made me break down some complex topics for the younger kids, too. They laughed when I compared the chemical and computer modeling we do to Wii games for scientists!”

He adds, “We talked about potential solutions we might use—limiting pollution, biological solutions, how water treatment plants work—all things that stimulated a lot of discussion.”

FPS includes a competitive aspect, and the students who visited LACMRERS were preparing for the state competition in Ames, held in April. The program is used worldwide. Students can compete at several levels: local, state, national, and even international. Eight of her nine teams qualified for state competition this year, and six of those teams qualified for the Future Problem Solving International competition. Moore has had at least one state champion team every year for the past 13 years.

She says the skills students learn through FPS can be useful later in life as well. “It is extremely gratifying to have former Future Problem Solving students come back and explain how valuable their FPS experience has been.”

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