A group of Forest Lake middle schoolers got tho show off their problem-solving skills in an innovation competition earlier this month at the annual Minnesota School Board Convention.
The DLR group is a design company that is working on the Forest Lake Area School’s building project and also works with many school districts across the country.
Part of the DLR business model is not only to provide architecture, engineering, planning, interior design and building optimization assistance, but also to create innovation challenges for kids.
“We were approached in November by representatives from DLR who said they would like us to find a group of kids that could work as a team and compete against other teams from neighboring districts to develop a complex solution to a multifaceted real-world problem,” Century Junior High Principal J.P. Jacobson said. “We were told that the competition would be held at the annual school board conference and that DLR would be picking up all the costs of transportation, food and lodging. We leapt at the opportunity because we knew this would be so great for our kids.”
Jacobson met with a team of science teachers in his building and asked them to come up with two boys and two girls to compete on the team. The trick was that these students couldn’t be just any run-of-the-mill kids.
“The direction that we got from DLR was that our team should not only be bright, but that we needed kids who were good speakers, self-starters, outside-of-the-box thinkers, could start and carry on a conversation with someone they didn’t know, could work as a team and were able to actively seek information even if it wasn’t readily available,” Jacobson said.
Eventually, eighth-grade students Brian VanWagner and Indy Walstrom and seventh-graders Lydia Ross and Josef Leagjeld met with Century science instructor Amy Gibson and a DLR representative to begin the Student Innovation process.
The first meeting was an opportunity for the students to come up with a question that would be used in the competition. White Bear Lake and Prior Lake, the other competing schools, went through the same process. The Century students came up with the following:
“Minnesota is one of the top agricultural producers in America. Our products feed local communities as well as people nationally and internationally. Some estimates predict that, given current population trends, farmers will need to increase productivity by 70 percent by 2050. Climate change and changing consumer attitudes towards food affect farming on many levels, from growing conditions to the economics of agriculture.
“1. Given the systematic and economic challenges to Minnesota agriculture, consider ways Minnesota farmers can adapt to changing climate while maintaining high levels of productivity and responsiveness to consumer demands.
“2. Create/develop an innovative technology/tool/device such that Minnesota farmers can increase productivity by 35 percent by the year 2025.”
The questions were chosen at random, and one was given to each competing school. Teams found out in early January which questions they would be tasked to solve. The Forest Lake question was given to White Bear Lake. White Bear Lake’s question went to Prior Lake. Forest Lake received the following question written by the Prior Lake team:
“In Haiti, the suffering doesn’t end with hurricanes. Years after one of those massive storms hit, the small island and the people that live there are faced with complications that arise in the aftermath.
“Cholera has been a major issue that develops from contaminated water supplies. After a hurricane strikes, unclean water is mixed into the water people drink every day. Each year, more than 100,000 people in the world will die of cholera. Disasters, such as the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, can take thousands of lives in a few short months.
“1. Considering Haiti’s available resources, develop a system or process that will relieve current cholera outbreaks and prevent further outbreaks by the year 2030.”
“On the day we returned from holiday break, we began meeting to research our question,” Gibson said. “From then on, we met four days a week for several hours after school. These students were tireless in their efforts to come up with the most information to provide the best solution possible.”
The students arrived in Minneapolis at the convention center on Jan. 11. They were to present their solution the next day. Before that, however, DLR presented them with a twist. With minimal time to research, the three teams from Forest Lake, White Bear and Prior Lake were to come up with a set of solutions to a surprise problem. They were told that in the year 2040, there was a massive contamination of the Mississippi River and its surrounding soil. The population in and around the river had to abandon the area for a period of three years. The teams were to list the nine (three each) most critical steps that needed to be taken to make the transition as smooth as possible. Forest Lake suggested cholera vaccines and water bottle filters for all evacuees and an organized system from transporting the evacuees.
“They knew they were going to be presented with a twist, but they did not know what it would be,” Jacobson said. “The ability to think on the fly at such a young age speaks volumes about the quality of the students involved in this competition.”
The Century students worked into the night on the 11th. They awoke on the 12th with an offer from Gibson to travel to a restaurant for breakfast. All four students declined the offer and instead chose to grab something they could eat on the run, as they wanted every available moment of their time to go toward their project.
“The students broke into teams of two, and one group stayed with the booth and the other went to the vendor area,” Jacobson said. “The two at the booth would present portions of their project to random people attending the conference to make sure that it could be understood easily by someone who was unfamiliar with the specifics of the problem. The other team visited specific vendors that they believed might be a good source of information related to their problem.”
Later that evening, the students retired to an empty conference room, where each presented their solution individually while the others acted as mock judges.
At 9:45 a.m. on Jan. 13, the teams presented their solutions to judges. In short, the Century students suggested vaccinations, barrels to collect rainwater, water bottle filters, public health education, pit latrines and trash composting as a method of sewage containment, and an underground water pillow tank to filter the water and make it safe for Haitians to pump and use.
Ultimately two teams tied for first in points, and the third team was only a few points behind. The judges made a call and declared White Bear Lake the winner. It was not revealed how many points the other two teams earned.
“I was extremely impressed by the work all of these students did,” Gibson said. “It forced them out of their comfort zone and helped them to stretch intellectually. Also, they were not only able to learn about a different culture, but they had to try and look at things from that culture’s point of view. The solution to the problem had to go beyond our western way of thinking and the students were forced to mesh the two different cultures.”
Josef Leagjeld’s mother, Jessica Leagjeld, called the experience an excellent one for her son and believes that other students could gain from it as well.
“This was a great opportunity for him (Josef) to research with a team on a problem statement and come up with a solution,” she said. “It also allowed all the kids to explore areas of engineering, medicine and science as well as public speaking that they might not get in the classroom. If this could be adapted so that it could happen at a school level, I think a lot more kids could benefit.”
The construction project currently taking place in the district spans multiple years. Although The DLR group has not announced any formal plans for Student Innovation 2018, the project could very well feature a new set of Forest Lake students.