In the world of school activities, there are football dynasties, basketball dynasties, even marching band dynasties.
The Aurora Public Schools have a problem-solving dynasty.
For each of the past 30 years, the school district has sent at least one team to the Future Problem Solving Program's International Conference.
To get there, teams have to win their division in a state competition. On Wednesday, Aurora sent four teams — a total of 21 students — by bus to the 2012 conference in Bloomington, Ind., where they're competing this weekend.
That continues Aurora's status as the longest-running program in Nebraska and the one with the longest record of success, said Doug Monson, one of the program's coaches and a guidance counselor at Aurora Elementary School.
“We just try to work hard,” Monson said. “We put a lot of time and energy into what we do.”
Melissa Cody, state director for the program, said Monson's calculations appear to be on target.
She, in fact, has been part of the Aurora streak. Now a reading teacher at North Bend Elementary in North Bend, Neb., she participated in the problem-solving program when she was a student at Aurora, starting in the fifth grade. She went to three international competitions. One year, her team placed third.
To be sure, fewer schools participate in problem solving than in football, basketball or marching band.
During the past school year, 41 Nebraska schools took part. A student from Axtell Community Schools also is competing at the international event this weekend. In the past several years, Pound Middle School in Lincoln, Westside High School in Omaha and Norfolk Catholic Schools in Norfolk also have sent teams to the conference.
But thousands of students participate each year from the United States, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and other nations.
The Aurora program has had a number of successes at the international level.
Last year, student Blake Scism, who just finished his sophomore year, was part of an alternate team, made up of students from a number of schools, that took second place in one of the senior division competitions. The year before, Derek Ohlin, who graduated last month and remains on the team, placed first in the individual senior division.
Future problem solving essentially involves coming up with solutions for a problem set at least 20 years in the future using a six-step process.
During international competitions, students are given unknown scenarios involving a broad topic.
This year's topic, Monson said, is pharmaceuticals. So in mid-May, the Aurora group traveled to Omaha and Lincoln, meeting with a pharmaceuticals industry lobbyist, a pharmaceuticals industry representative and several people in the University of Nebraska Medical Center's pharmacy program.
Early this week, they responded to a practice scenario involving antibiotic resistance.
Once given a scenario, each team writes a 12-page booklet analyzing the problem and laying out an action plan. They're given two hours and are judged on creativity and insightfulness, so they can't just memorize answers and fill in blanks.
“It's fun to see how kids interact, and how they go off each other's ideas to come up with something unique and insightful,” Monson said.
Monson started with the program in 1983 when he began teaching in Aurora. Another teacher, now in Kansas, had started it in the early 1980s and persuaded him to try it. Marilyn Vrana, a middle school teacher, also coaches the teams.
Lori Henn said she's noticed the difference the program has made in her daughters' writing skills.
She has two on the team — Morgan, a recent graduate, and Madison, who just finished her freshman year.
“My youngest loves to do an analysis of the pros and cons of things,” Henn said.
Henn credited the teachers' commitment for making the program such a success.
Monson, for his part, praised parents and administrators.
“That's what makes it so appealing to kids. It receives support from all kinds of adults who are important to them,” he said.
Indeed, team members had been meeting four hours a day since school got out.
“That's the history of our program,” he said. “Kids are willing to sacrifice and work hard.”
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