Future Problem Solving Program

Spring 2003 Masthead

Marion Rogalla
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

Imagine yourself observing an enrichment classroom. In the middle of the room, a team of four, 5th graders is arguing about the effects Virtua Tech, a virtual corporation in the year 2056, has on the mind and body of its employees. In the back corner of the room you notice a fourth grader in deep thought. It almost looks as if his head is steaming. As you get closer, he jumps up and says: “Yes! I’ll use the roaches as an endless energy supply.” While you are listening to his ideas six, 11th graders enter the classroom and present with pride business cards created for their cyberphobia group of adults. Amazed by the students’ creativity, problem solving skills, and excitement for learning, you decide to investigate the problem solving model they are using.

The Future Problem Solving Program (FPSP), started in 1974 by E. Paul Torrance, today reaches approximately 250,000 students in 43 Affiliate Programs (coordinated by the international office in Lexington, Kentucky) throughout the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and Canada. Full time staff members prepare all materials and topics: practice problems, qualifying problem, affiliate bowl, and International Conference. Teams and individuals successful in the qualifying problem advance to the affiliate bowl and bowl winners in each division (i.e., junior, grades 4 to 6; middle, grades 7 to 9; and senior, grades 10 to 12) are invited to participate at the International Conference. Trained evaluators review and compare student work of the same age division on all topics (Future Problem Solving Program Coach’s Handbook, 2001).

Topics and Student Interests

To best meet student interests, the selection of FPSP topics is guided by the results of a poll of the students participating in grades 4 to 12 (Torrance & Safter, 1999). Student votes overwhelmingly center around the newest cutting-edge frontiers of humankind. The topic areas of these frontiers seem to change with age. Younger students’ (grades 4 to 6, junior division) preferences center around innovative instrumentation and processes such as solar energy, computer education, pedestrian conveyor-belt travel, intelligent machines, and mass use of electric cars. These topics may be categorized as human control over the physical environment. Students in grades 10 to 12 (senior division) show more interest in psychological frontiers, such as genetics, human engineering, hypnosis, and mind-altering drugs, than younger students. Middle division students (grades 7 to 9) seem to be in transition between interests of junior and senior division students. Their interests are similar to the younger age group. They do not seem to share the introspection of the seniors (Torrance & Safter, 1999).

The wide variety of extra-curricular topics chosen every year provides students with opportunities to find their area of passion. Torrance (1981, as cited in Torrance & Sisk, 1999), found in his longitudinal studies of creative achievement, that adult creative achievement was influenced by students’ experiences of falling in love with something during their elementary school year. Most adults however, including teachers and parents, do not have much information about these frontier topics to teach the background knowledge necessary for solving problems related to these topics. The FPSP coach’s role includes facilitation of learning and the modeling of processes whereby new knowledge is acquired. Students have to be prepared for self-directed learning (Torrance & Safter, 1999). FPSP goals, therefore, center around the acquisition of problem solving skills.

Goals of the Future Problem Solving Program

Although the FPSP provides students with opportunities to enhance their awareness of everyday issues and increase their knowledge base, the main goal of the FPSP is to teach students how to think. The development of higher order thinking skills will help students use their knowledge to solve problems. The program focuses on the creative problem solving process and futuristic issues to develop the skills necessary to adapt to a changing world and shape the future (Future Problem Solving Program Coach’s Handbook, 2001). Specifically, the creative problem solving process:

  • helps students to improve their analytical thinking skills
  • aids students in increasing their creative thinking abilities
  • stimulates students’ knowledge and interest in the future
  • extends students’ written and verbal communication skills
  • encourages students to develop and improve research skills
  • provides students with a problem-solving model to integrate into their lives
  • guides students to become more self-directed and responsible
  • promotes responsible group membership (for team Future Problem Solving and Community Problem Solving)

The Future Problem Solving Program:

  • provides students with unique opportunities to enhance their awareness of everyday issues
  • models effective processes that can be used throughout their lives
  • incorporates the basic skills taught in the classroom by extending students’ perceptions of the real world
  • promotes responsible group membership
  • encourages real-life problem solving experiences
  • promotes continuous improvement through the evaluation process
  • offers authentic assessment in the product produced (p. 11)

The FPSP also extends students’ perceptions of the real world and helps them apply the skills learned to real life issues. The experience of implementing a proposed solution is provided through the Community Problem Solving (CmPS) component. Students learn to continuously improve their problem solving skills from the feedback provided in the evaluation process.

Students are expected to apply a 6-step creative problem solving model when solving a problem in each of the three FPSP components: Team Problem Solving, Scenario Writing, and Community Problem Solving. The mastery of these 6 steps is therefore at the heart of the FPSP.

The Six-Step Problem Solving Model

Guided instruction of the 6 steps seems to be easiest within the team problem solving component. The international office of the FPSP releases the curricular topic for all problems before the related Future Scene is given to the participating students. This allows students to conduct in-depth research to acquire a strong knowledge base on the general topic related to the Future Scene. Once the future problem solvers receive the Future Scene, they work through it using a 6-step model, based on the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) process (see Figure 1). Students complete a booklet that guides them in a linear, sequential way through the creative problem solving process.

Understanding the Problem
(1) Identify Challenges,
(2) Select an Underlying Problem,
Generating Ideas
(3) Produce Solution Ideas,
Planning for Action
(4) Generate and Select Criteria,
(5) Applying Criteria, and
(6) Develop an Action Plan.

Source: Future Problem Solving Program. (2001). Future Problem Solving Program coach’s handbook. Lexington, KY: Author, p. 15.

Figure 1. The 6-step model.

During step 1, students are asked to carefully analyze a specific situation given—the Future Scene—related to the general topic. They learn how to use macro and micro analyses to gain a good understanding of the complex and ill-defined situation. Thereafter, they identify the 16 most promising challenges, issues, concerns, or problems imbedded in the situation that needs consideration. The Future Scene describes a fuzzy situation projected 20 to 30 years into the future, a time when the students might obtain leadership roles. Students are required to use the knowledge gained and project it far into the future. In step 2, the students go through the list of challenges, consider possible underlying problems, and formulate a key underlying problem that is neither too broad nor too narrow. Students are required to follow a standard format in formulating the underlying problem they intend to solve throughout the remaining steps. The standard format helps students to focus on one challenge only and proceed with further analysis of the problem as well as a uniform structure that helps evaluators make comparisons across student booklets. In step 3, students are asked to generate 16 varied and unusual solution ideas that have potential for solving the underlying problem. Students, in step 4, generate the five most appropriate criteria for judging the solutions, which they apply in a evaluation matrix to select the solution with the highest total rank (step 5). Finally, in step 6, students write an action plan based on their highest scoring solution idea. The students have to complete the whole booklet within 2 hours.

The Coach’s Handbook suggests and explains tools for generating options—using divergent thinking—such as Brainstorming, SCAMPER, and Morphological matrix. The acronym SCAMPER stands for: Substitute? Combine? Adapt/Add/Alter? Minify/Magnify/Modify? Put to Other Uses? Eliminate or Elaborate? Reverse/Rearrange/Reduce? The Morphological matrix consists of 4 columns and 10 rows. Team members identify four major aspects (people, place, obstacle, and goal) of the topic and/or future scene (one per column) and list (in the rows) 10 elements of each aspect. Then they explore random combinations and make new and interesting possibilities.

For convergent thinking, the handbook includes tools such as: Hot Spot and Paired Comparison Analysis. A Hot Spot is the common element that clusters of promising ideas share. Paired Comparison Analysis is used in comparing one possibility or idea against another idea, one pair at the time, until all possible pairs have been examined. A number is assigned to each pair as the option is chosen and rated for importance, 1, 2, or 3. The ratings for each possibility can be totaled to provide a rank ordering or prioritizing of the options.

Components of the FPSP

The FPSP includes different components: Future Problem Solving (FPS), Community Problem Solving (CmPS), and Scenario Writing (SW). The primary emphasis of the academic year program (October to June) is on instruction with feedback offered to the teams. FPS asks students to solve complex scientific and social problems of the future.

An example of a future scene focusing on a virtual corporation, an approach to solving a local community problem related to the use of technology, and a response to a scenario involving the increasing need for energy are provided on the insets that follow.


Future Problem Solving Virtual Corporations
Future Scene for International Conference, 2002*

(Future Problem Solving Program, 2002a, adapted)

One scene, for example, pertains to a virtual corporation Virtua Tech in the year 2056. The scene is based on facts and projections about virtual corporations and their organizational structure with a focus on the dynamics of a corporation existing in virtual space. The scene opens with Aluui, a programmer, who shares her excitement about her prospective work place with her mother via her Holographic Mailbox and explains that her work partners will be from all over the world. “Virtua Tech is run by an impressive executive team, a group of individuals from leading universities, governmental bodies and traditional corporations around the world,” Aluui explains. During this conversation with her mother, Aluui receives a message from Virtua Tech saying that her software program was accepted and 25,000 Digital Monetary Units have been deposited into her account. However, the scene goes on to raise concerns about the operation of this virtual corporation, including effects on the mind and body of employees that are not fully understood. Therefore, concerned nations, industry groups, and Virtua Tech representatives have created an advisory group. This group is asking the International FPS Alliance to direct its very best problem solving teams across the globe to help them examine important issues involved with the operation of this unique corporation. The FPS teams’ task is to identify possible challenges relating to Virtua Tech, formulate an underlying problem, generate solution ideas, and develop an appropriate action plan.

Community Problem Solving (CmPS)
Helping Achieve New Demands in Society
Whitharral High School in Whitharral, TX (Coaches: Karol Albus & Gayle Mullen)
Community Problem Solving: 1999 International Conference Champions

(Future Problem Solving Program, 1999, adapted)

The goal of the project was to educate adults in the computer field and also to eliminate cyberphobia. The team did so by offering complimentary computer classes to the adults in their community because it felt that the amount of computer knowledge obtained by adults was not sufficient for the technological demands of today’s society. The team was very successful in their efforts and was asked to teach office computer skills to the clerks at the Hockley County Clerk’s office. The project brought multiple benefits to the small rural community of Whitharral, TX. Besides decreasing “cyberphobia” among the adult population, it helped to bridge the gap between generations. The CmPSers learned how to research, plan, and adjust a curriculum to fit the needs of their students—from farmers and secretaries to local business owners and senior citizens. The adults created business, cards, mailing labels, and greeting cards. They learned how to use various software applications, save hundreds of hours in documenting expenses, and safely navigate the Internet. With the aid of grant money awarded by Learn and Serve America, the CmPSers plan to expand the class offerings as well as recruit and train new teachers.

Scenario Writing Educational Options (Junior Division)
The Wheels of Energy
Barrett Robertson, Gardendale, AL
2002 International Scenario Writing Champions

(Future Problem Solving Program, 2002b, adapted)

Josh sat at his desk thinking and pondering in the darkness. The only thing moving during the blackouts were the roaches. Josh knew he had to find an alternative energy fast. Why were humans so dependent on electricity? Almost everything ran on solar power or rechargeable batteries now (year 2051). Unfortunately, the ozone layer is being depleted more and more each year, which affects solar power. Rechargeable batteries became every hospital’s savior and every asthmatic person’s life improved.

Reaching for his keys, Josh went to the hovercraft. On the ride home, he swerved to miss the tow craft explosion right in front of him. Swooping to street level, he knew he had seen his share of crashes. There are no rules of the road in the air. He thought of how many times he had been here before. Falling fast and low, he wished his craft could run off the glides alone.

“Why not?” thought Josh. “Why can’t we somehow harness the power of movement? Kinetic watches have been around for over five decades. Surely there could be enough power in everyday movements to power a battery. Is it possible to reconfigure kinetic power into a battery as a source of energy? How about using a pendulum-like movement to harness the power into a battery? That way it will let us have less power plants.”

Josh went into the assembly room and found an old rechargeable unit. “I wonder if it will work?” he thought. For the next week, Josh continued to look at his belt attachment. At first, it was every few minutes, later every few hours. He was determined this would work. By the ninth day the rechargeable unit registered enough power. Over the course of the next few weeks, Josh recharged a dozen batteries. His ideas formulated like fireworks, thinking of what he could attach this device to, and how much more power he could generate.

Then the idea struck him like a rocket. YES! I’ll use the roaches. Josh constructed a large circular platform with a rotating basis. It was kind of like a hamster wheel turned on its side. Finding the roaches was not a problem. It was catching them that was difficult.

Josh placed the platform in a large, clear, round tube and added the roaches. Immediately, the roaches crawled and moved to the platform. This turned the platform, creating a way to transform movement, kinetic energy, into a stored source. The roaches ate little, and the old ones were eaten by the others. It took Josh a few more months to perfect his assignment. In the next few years, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his efforts in creating a new and virtually endless energy supply that renews itself.


Training in problem solving skills facilitates situational creativity (i.e., students can be creative within prescribed activities related to a specific topic), whereas CmPS fosters real product creativity. Students in the CmPS identify a problem they would like to solve in their school, community, or state. Then, they use the 6-step Future Problem Solving process to solve the problem, (i.e., to develop an action plan and implement the plan).

The scenario writing component encourages students to use their imagination in creating a futuristic short story based on an FPSP topic. The scenarios must be placed at least 20 years into the future and are limited to a length of 1,500 words.

FPSP Competitions

Selected teams and individuals participate at regional, state, and international competitions. During the 2-hour competition of the FPS component, teams of four students or individuals analyze a Future Scene and complete a problem booklet that guides the students through the 6 steps as described above. The Future Scene relates to the topic the students were encouraged to research prior to the competition. No research materials or notes may be used during the actual competition session. Students have to be very time conscious and pace themselves at each step to complete all steps within the very limited time frame. Following this session, students are asked to persuade others of the merit of their idea. Having a good idea is not enough, one must be able to “sell” it. During a 5-minute skit presentation, students can demonstrate their creative, persuasive, and oral communication skills (Steinbach, 1991).

Scenario writers may also compete against one another. They select a topic for their story from the pool of five FPS topics for the respective academic year, research the topic, and write a short story of a maximum of 1,500 words (Shewach, 1991). Students individually write drafts of a futuristic scenario. Editing and revising occurs under the guidance of a coach, who decides whether to submit the scenario to the contest or not. Winning scenarios are awarded at the FPSP competitions and published thereafter.

Any number of students from one to a whole classroom can become a team of community problem solvers. Students identify real problem situations in their school, neighborhood, or community and use the 6-step model to develop and implement the solution idea over an extended period of time (i.e., 6 months to 3 years). The students’ report describes the full process including the area of concern, action plan, the efforts to solve the problem, and reflections. The evaluators examine the report and display at the competition and interview the students to secure their ownership of the product.


The FPSP provides educators with enrichment activities that can take place in a pullout program, after school program, resource center, or with students in a regular classroom. The high level challenge of the activities is especially appropriate for intellectually and creatively gifted students. Future Problem Solving takes students into new worlds. They gain new knowledge about cutting-edge research and use it in combination with higher order thinking to create original solutions for futuristic problems. Most gifted students love this kind of intellectual challenge. Seeing Community Problem Solvers grapple with real life problems and grow in their awareness of their capability to have a positive impact on the world around them is also gratifying to educators. The most obvious effect of Scenario Writing is improved writing skills. However, all FPSP components help students develop their written and oral communication skills. Improved communication skills and a thorough understanding of the 6-step problem solving model can greatly benefit the students far beyond the program (e.g., in other curricular activities and in their future careers).

Future Problem Solving Program. (1999). Community Problem Solving: 1999 International Conference champions. Ann Arbor, MI.
Future Problem Solving Program. (2001). Future Problem Solving Program coach’s handbook. Lexington, KY: Author.
Future Problem Solving Program. (2002a). Future Problem Solving International Conference: 2002 junior division virtual corporations. Unpublished future scene and evaluation notes.
Future Problem Solving Program. (2002b). 2002 International Scenario Writing champions. Lexington, KY: Author.
Shewach, D. L. (1991). Scenario writing: A vision of the future. Gifted Child Today, 14, 32-36.
Steinbach, T. (1991). FPS presentations: Selling the best solutions. Gifted Child Today, 14(2), 37-38.
Torrance, E. P., & Safter, H. T. (1999). Making the creative leap beyond. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation Press.


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