Educational competitions were no exception to those having to pivot from live events to virtual events due to the pandemic. Many competitions were left with the choice last year to cancel their culminating conferences and events of the competition season or quickly adapt their programs to the virtual space. The following educational competitions not only engage participants to solve incredible problems but have taken lemons and made lemonade by bringing about some outstanding virtual conferences and symposiums for their finalist teams to compete.

Check out these competitions making waves with their programs and upcoming virtual events!


Future Problem Solving Program International Conference 2021: Neurotechnology

June 9th – 14th, 2021

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Future Problem Solving Program International’s (FPSPI) VIRTUAL International Conference will host over 2,200 problem-solvers from around the globe. The Opening Ceremony on June 10th, 2021 will kick off this annual event!

Champion problem solvers who have earned their spot at the International Conference will have the opportunity to virtually compete with others from around the world and will have access to many virtual collaborative experiences as well as their specific competitions. Several speakers will share sessions with students and collaborative sessions include such events as the Coach Connection, Senior Forum, Parent Meeting, and CmPS Tips and Tools.

These 4th-12th grade students have displayed futuristic thinking and the creative problem-solving process; local qualifying competitions earned them a coveted invitation to the conference. Through its programs, FPSPI prepares these students to be tomorrow’s leaders, ready to solve global problems. Global Issues Problem Solving and Scenario competitors arrive equipped to tackle potential neurotechnology problems set in the near future. These teams and individuals must research all aspects of the topic to be prepared for competitive events where a futuristic scenario will be analyzed and addressed.

Details on the topic can be found here.

Community Problem Solving is showcased in a featured event, displaying projects spanning the past year. For these student-driven projects, the participants designed a project to serve an identified need in their community. The Community Problem Solving Showcase will feature videos and posters on the FPSPI’s virtual online platform. Their YouTube channel will also feature student projects so the public can admire these dynamic youth and learn about the change they enacted.



Modeling the Future Challenge 2021 Symposium

April 22 -23rd, 2021

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The Modeling the Future Challenge (MTFC) Symposium will virtually host the top 12 finalist teams to join leading actuaries, scientists, and business leaders from across the actuarial industry. An opening ceremony and keynote on April 22nd, 2021 will kick off the event. Students will then present their projects via pre-recorded videos to a live panel of actuary judges who evaluate the projects and select the four teams who will receive their part of a $60,000 award purse! 

The MTFC by the Actuarial Foundation and managing partner, the Institute of Competition Sciences, tasks students with identifying and characterizing current or future risks, and using mathematics to make the best recommendations for how to manage or respond to those risks.

The 2020-21 MTFC launched an “open theme” for the challenge in which students got to choose their own project topic, similar in structure to science fairs. They then followed the Actuarial Process, designed to guide students through the stages of identifying a project topic and completing their research report for the MTFC like actuaries do for their companies and clients.

The MTFC virtual symposium is a one-of-a-kind experience for students who have a chance to participate in career sessions, problem-solving activities, icebreaker trivia events, and other unique experiences from their partners. At the conclusion of the Symposium, four teams will walk away with college scholarships, but all the students will have an amazing experience encouraging them to continue pursuing mathematics and data science in their own futures.


The Plant the Moon Challenge Spring Summit

April 28th – 29th, 2021

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NASA scientists, Space Grant Consortiums, and other experts join the Plant the Moon Challenge (PTMC) for a virtual display of final presentations and best-in-show awards on April 29th-30th, 2021. This event will be the inaugural finalist summit for the Plant the Moon Challenge!

The PTMC is produced by the Institute of Competition Sciences in partnership with Exolith Labs – the competition is a global science experiment, learning activity, and inspirational project-based-learning challenge to see who can grow the best crops using lunar regolith simulant.

Participants in the Plant the Moon Challenge will join this experiment and research challenge to examine how vegetable crops can grow in lunar soil. Each team will receive real lunar soil simulant from the University of Central Florida’s CLASS Exolith Labs! Teams will design and conduct a set of experiments using this lunar simulant to grow crops for a future long-duration lunar mission.

Teams will use a custom-designed Project Guide to help define their own experimental parameters such as the structure of the plant growth setup, amount of water used, and nutrients or fertilizer added to the lunar simulant to support plant growth. After a 10-week growing period, they submit final project reports and join the global network of researchers helping to expand the world’s lunar exploration capabilities!

All participants with completed projects will be invited to showcase their projects at the virtual symposium with NASA scientists, program executives, and other dignitaries where Best-in-Show awards will be presented to teams with the best experiments.




If you are interested in any of the competitions and events above or you’d like to learn about others, head to our competitions page to see what academic competitions are coming up. Set up your account to follow competitions that excite you and stay up-to-date on all the news with academic competitions.

Upgrade to a premium account so you can track your progress in competitions, get insider information on academic competitions, access the I.C.S. competitions concierge, and gain exclusive discounts on ICS-managed programs


Critical-thinking skills are crucial for students to thrive in the 21st century business world. Unfortunately, this is also one of those skills that is not a direct part of many school curriculums. Students often can only learn critical-thinking by going beyond the traditional classroom and participating in academic competitions and challenges that engage them in unique problem solving situations.

By putting themselves out there, taking risks, and being put into situations that require problem-solving and critical-thinking students better prepare themselves for the “real-world.”

While schools do their best to equip students with these skills, the classroom’s controlled environment is a difficult place for students to take the calculated risks that teach critical thinking. That’s why many students are turning to academic competitions to fill in the gaps of their education and learn those valuable lessons that will serve them into adulthood. However, not every academic competition teaches critical-thinking skills in the same way.

Because “critical-thinking” captures such a diversity of skills itself, we wanted to explore how the leading academic competitions teach students critical-thinking skills on their own. Here are a few examples of competitions that help students in this life lesson.




Future Problem Solving Program International

Our featured program is a long-standing stalwart of critical-thinking and creativity. The Future Problem Solving Program’s goal is to get kids thinking about their vision for the future. It also works to prepare them for leadership roles where they will drive change and lead others to innovative thinking. This is a 4-part challenge that includes:

  • Community Problem Solving
  • Global Issues Problem Solving
  • Scenario Writing
  • Scenario Performance

Creating real change in your community takes a lot of planning and follow-through. From identifying a problem, coming up with a solution, and getting in touch with the appropriate community members, students will have to exercise their critical thinking skills in every aspect of this program.

The comprehensive structure of the Future Problem Solving Program provides a great, well-rounded way of educating students on critical-thinking challenges at all stages of the problem-solving process.

In addition to the skills they will hone, students will also gain valuable experience for their college applications and the opportunity to work with their peers and professionally present their ideas to industry leaders.



While the FPS program may be the most well-rounded competition students can engage their critical thinking caps in, other programs teach critical-thinking skills in unique formats that may help inspire learning in specific areas.

The Modeling the Future Challenge (MTFC)

This academic competition offers students the opportunity to hone their risk management skills by teaching them the Actuarial Process. Much like the scientific method, this process gives kids a system they can utilize any time they need to analyze risk. From start to finish, the Actuarial Process and the Modeling the Future Challenge offer students the opportunity to think for themselves and exercise their critical-thinking skills.

The MTFC helps students learn to use data and mathematical analysis in critical-thinking.


Autonomous Aerial Vehicle Tournament

In this academic tournament, students program drones to complete specific tasks alongside other students. Each student is responsible for their own drown, and the participant that best completes the task wins. Since every student competes on the same playing field, they need to use critical-thinking skills to determine the best way for their drone to complete the required task before they can even begin programming.

The Autonomous Aerial Vehicle Tournament helps students learn critical-thinking from an engineering perspective to better solve technical challenges.

Best Robotics Challenge 

This competition is as fun as it is educational. To compete, students will design a robot that can perform specific tasks and make it through a field of obstacles on tournament day. With every student competing on the same course, the winners will have to think outside the box and demonstrate excellent critical thinking skills to come out on top.

Best Robotics focuses student critical thinking in a unique robotics environment – encouraging students to think how to solve a challenge from a unique perspective.


Academic challenges like those listed above are an excellent way for students to embrace the subjects they love while also learning crucial life skills like critical-thinking. For a comprehensive program that incorporates critical-thinking into all aspects of the problem-solving process, check out the Future Problem Solving Program.

For students with special interests in data analysis, mathematical modeling, engineering, or robotics, check out our other recommendations.

And don’t forget to head to our competitions page to see what academic competitions are coming up, and find programs that are unique to your interests and needs. Set up your account to follow competitions that excite you and stay up to date on all the news with academic competitions.

Upgrade to a premium account so you can track your progress in competitions, get insider information on academic competitions, access the ICS competitions concierge, and gain exclusive discounts on ICS-managed programs.

The Future Problem Solving Program includes four competitive challenges: Community Problem Solving, Global Issues Problem Solving, Scenario Writing, and Scenario Performance. All four are designed to allow students to work together to make the world we live in a better place.

Students are encouraged to think about the world around them, gather information to fully understand the situation, and come up with multiple solutions to the problems they see. Then students will choose the best plan of action and see what it takes to enact real change in the world. This often brings important lessons about working in the community and what it takes to collaborate with others for the common good.

While 2020 was a challenging year for us all, the 2020 International Conference participants did not disappoint. Teams and individuals worked harder than ever to bring many positive changes to their communities. Here is a look at some of the inspiring projects from last year:

Necessary Skills for Life: These students noticed that the education system was not adequately preparing students for their futures and decided to do something about it. They banded together with local community members to come up with a solution. Because of the work of The Duff-Allen Central Elementary School CmPS team, life skills such as sewing, cooking, and finances are now being offered in their community.

Project SMILE (Seniors Matter In Life Every Day): Many seniors have been left isolated without the knowledge of technology to navigate the digital world we live in. Project SMILE has worked hard to end this within their community. They now have organized events to socially engage lonely seniors and teach them how to thrive with technology.

Keeping Children Safe Online: Internet safety is a huge issue as more and more of our lives gets moved online. Students are spending more time with remote learning than ever online, and team iSAFE (Internet Safety for Everyone) has come up with a solution. They have worked with many local schools and organizations to hold workshops to educate parents and students on internet safety. Many parents are unaware of what their students can access, and if they do know, they aren’t sure what to do about it. These workshops have been well received in the community and are making great strides in spreading awareness.

Kindness is Key: Students can sometimes be unkind to anyone who is different. To create empathy and understanding, Kindness is Key is helping others understand the neurologically different students within their school. They are also taking it a step further and giving students with neurological differences opportunities to work within the school setting to break barriers and get-to-know their community.

Operation H.O.P.E (Hawks Out Preventing Exploitation): Over 40.3 million people are affected by human trafficking every year. Operation H.O.P.E has collaborated with their local communities to bring resources to combat human trafficking in Metro-Detroit. They have also organized events to provide food, clothes, and toiletries to human trafficking survivors trying to get their lives back.

As you can see, the 2020 Future Problem Solving Program participants have worked together to develop some fantastic solutions to problems plaguing their communities. While these projects have made our world a better place, they have also taught each participant what it feels like to make a difference and given them real-world experience in what it takes to make change happen.

Are there any problems in your community that require real change? Start thinking NOW about how to get involved for next year’s events.

Learn more about the Future Problem Solving Program and how to get your students involved!


Head to our competitions page to see what academic competitions are coming up. Set up your account to follow competitions that excite you and stay up-to-date on all the news with academic competitions.

Upgrade to a premium account so you can track your progress in competitions, get insider information on academic competitions, access the ICS competitions concierge, and gain exclusive discounts on ICS-managed programs.


Critical thinking is possibly the single most important skill a student can learn. The ability to identify problems, analyze situations, apply research, and develop solutions is an invaluable skillset in any career. For as important a skill as it is, critical thinking is often left out of core curriculum. Frequently, students are often taught facts and figures but not how to analyze data and apply knowledge. In other words, students are taught what to think rather than how to think. Fortunately, teachers have the ability to inspire curiosity and critical thinking in their students, both in and out of the classroom.

The development of critical thinking skills is a predictor for student outcomes, higher education retention, and career success. Educators can incorporate activities into their daily lessons that foster research, analytical, and problem-solving skills. TEDEd, PBS Learning, and Edutopia offer lesson plans, media, and other resources to promote critical thinking skills in your students.

One of our ICS partners focuses specific attention on the skills needed to foster critical thinking and teaching students how to think. The Future Problem Solving Program (FPSP) offers opportunities for students to develop critical thinking skills through problem-solving based competitions and curricula. All FPSP components are centered around understanding and solving some of the most pressing international issues, like food waste, criminal justice systems, artificial intelligence, propaganda, and much more. By participating in FPSP, students won’t just learn how to think; they’ll confront and devise solutions to real-world issues that are relevant to their lives and futures. 



Tips from Winning FPSP Coaches

We asked teachers who coached winning teams in the FPSP for their best advice for educators who want to increase their skills in teaching critical thinking and helping their students learn “how to think.” Jill Stone, coach for the Paris Independent School District in Texas, and Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy, coaches for Mount Horeb School District in Wisconsin, shared their tips, tricks, and lessons learned from their winning seasons of the FPSP. Here are the top tips they recommend for other educators:

(1) Get creative in encouraging creative thinking 
“One of our favorite activities [to push “out of the box” thinking] is to have them find a research article about the topic, read it critically, and make notes of possible challenges, key verb phrases, and solutions. We then ask them to take those potential solutions and “tweak” them in a futuristic and creative manner while still having plausibility.” – Jill Stone

“We also work together to brainstorm different topics and ideas as well as sharpen our critical thinking skills with logic puzzles and games, STEM challenges, and SCAMPER.” – Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy.

Note: SCAMPER is a tool to promote creative thinking that stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse.


(2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help
“I would tell those that are new to the competition to not be afraid of reaching out to other affiliate coaches for advice and lesson ideas. Know that it will be time-consuming and frustrating at times.  However, the growth you will see not only in your students but in yourself will be worth every second.”  – Jill Stone

“It takes time to really understand and get to know the process. Practice, practice, practice. The feedback from evaluators is valuable, and spending a lot of time reviewing feedback and applying suggestions and comments is helpful.” – Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy 


(3) Help your students rise to the challenge
“Students are often given information and told exactly what to do in order to get a specific answer. This time there is no specific answer, it is all about the method and the process.  We have had students tell us after graduating that it has given them an advantage as they work with others in a problem-solving environment.” – Christine Parmley and Chris Kealy

“The pandemic was the biggest hurdle to overcome this year. The prospect of travel is of course part of the appeal of the competition. With that off the table, it was all intrinsic motivation. We told them that continuing the competition would strengthen them not only as a student but as a person. A dependable person will keep going and see a commitment through. They rallied like never before. The sense of accomplishment was so much greater and spoke volumes about their character.” – Jill Stone


Any teacher can take this tips and put them to work with their students. Joining the Future Problem Solving Program is one of the best ways to nurture these skills with your students. You can also learn about other competitions on our competitions page to see what academic competitions are coming up. Set up your account to follow competitions that excite you and stay up-to-date on all the news with academic competitions.

Remember that you can also upgrade to a premium account so you can have more tools to track your progress in competitions, get insider information on academic competitions, access the ICS competitions concierge, and gain exclusive discounts on ICS-managed programs.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “problem-solving”? Maybe it brings to mind troubleshooting a design issue or managing a crisis during a group project. Perhaps you think of word problems about two trains leaving different stations at the same time.

The truth is that problem-solving isn’t merely a task; it’s a skill that proves invaluable in every career path. As a 21st Century Skill, problem-solving is at the core of college readiness and workforce development. The ability to analyze situations and implement innovative and creative solutions is a much sought after skill in the fastest-growing job sectors, from tech and informatics to sustainable development and healthcare.

Problem-solving is an especially vital skill for the upcoming generation, with global issues like infectious disease outbreaks, climate change, limited resources for a growing population, and ethical tech ever-present in the lives of students. Despite its growing importance, many students don’t have the opportunity in school to learn or develop their problem-solving skills.

April Michele, Executive Director, shares her passion for the importance of problem solving “When students apply their problem solving skills to futuristic or local topics they are experiencing real life application of vital skills.  They practice the process many times during their experiences in FPS – on topics such as drones, wearable technology, recycling in their schools, helping elders with technology, and the list goes on.  Each time they work through a problem, the process becomes embedded in their personal toolbox, empowering them with a process for whatever problems they encounter in their lives.  I feel secure knowing that FPSers are prepared as the leaders for our future!”

Future Problem Solving Program International (FPSPI) offers students just such an opportunity.  The international program empowers students to learn the problem-solving process and use their creativity, critical thinking, and analytical skills to solve some of the most pressing global issues. Open to students, the academic competition has three divisions: Junior (grades 4-6), Middle (grades 7-9), and Senior (grades 10-12).

FPSPI has four different ways for students to start solving problems:

  • Global Issues Problem Solving – In this team or individual competition, students research a series of topics related to global issues and use a six-step creative problem-solving process to develop solutions and present a plan of action
  • Community Problem Solving – In this team or individual competition, students propose solutions to problems in their own communities using a six-step creative problem-solving process. Then the students TAKE action to enact positive change.
  • Scenario Writing – In this individual competition, students write a futuristic short story based on 1 of 5 Future Problem Solving topics.
  • Scenario Performance –  In this individual competition, students develop and perform an oral story based on 1 of 5 Future Problem Solving topics.

Problem-Solving in the Classroom and Virtually

If you’re interested in bringing problem-solving into the classroom, FPSPI also offers a non-competitive Action-based Problem Solving resource. The curriculum is designed to introduce primary students to the creative problem-solving process through hands-on activities.

Future Problem Solving has partnered with Renzulli Learning to offer virtual opportunities.  The content is designed to be a virtual offering for students to explore lessons, activities, and the six-step process.  This is not a substitute for registering for official participation within local affiliates which is where the official Future Scenes, competitive experiences, and authentic assessment and feedback are provided.

For more information about problem-solving and FPSPI, visit


*This is a guest post from Addie Boswell and the Future Problem Solving Program – a creative problem solving program involving thousands of students from around the world each year. Learn more about Future Problem Solving here*


More than a decade ago, I wrote a Pandemic-themed scenario for students in the Future Problem Solving Program to, well, solve. When March 2020 imploded in the U.S., I dusted that document off. Here’s what it said:


In the year 2035, an unidentified RNA virus is spreading rapidly, causing an array of flu-like symptoms: cough, fever, shortness of breath, headaches, body aches, and diarrhea. Within two weeks, many victims develop pneumonia and/or acute respiratory distress syndrome, which leads to difficulty breathing and can result in organ failure.


The future virus originated in dead animals after a flood in Ethiopia, and quickly spread from refugees and first responders to the general population. Death rate was estimated at 10% and only one anti-viral (Xifan) had shown any relevance, only when taken within 48 hours. With shortages of hospital staff, ICU beds, isolation rooms, and ventilators, the WHO predicted that every inhabited continent would be forced to deal with this pandemic.


Sound familiar? Based on this scenario, students in 3rd-12th grades proposed all sorts of challenges that have now come to pass in 2020: naval contagion, financial collapse, price-gouging, production chain stoppage, and more. But perhaps more importantly, they proposed solutions. Here are just a few of the ideas that these Future Problem Solvers identified and how they stack up with real-time actions from adults in our current pandemic.



See how the kids suggestions stack up…                        to real-time adult actions.

The government will use NASA satellites to create a Global Surveillance System to help predict where the virus will show up next and warn people away.



In June, NASA collaborated with the European and Japanese space agencies on a dashboard of satellite data. It documents planet-wide changes to the environment and socioeconomic activity, and with enough modelling and data collection, may be used to predict outbreaks in the future.

The WHO will create a finger-prick Virus diagnosis system, similar to a diabetes blood sugar measurement, for doctors to accurately triage patients.



As of June, the rapid diagnostic tests are neither as fast or as plentiful as hoped and rely on nasal swabs. Antibody finger-prick tests have been developed but have so far been unreliable. These tests should be coming.

WHO will recruit volunteers who have recovered to form the Blue Nile Volunteer Corps to take care of the sick, dispose of bodies, and fill in jobs at critical industries, which will relieve strain on hospitals. NO

Though recoverees have donated plasma, scientists remain unsure if the infected have sufficient antibodies and if they last. A volunteer corps– and the troublesome idea of “covid badges” – remains unlikely.

The CDC will develop Reverse Transcriptase Nucleoside Analogues (developed in experimental phase as HIV medications) which terminate the genetic data’s replication when they attach to the new genetic material.


YES (trials underway)

Multiple Nucleoside & Nucleotide Analogues that are used in cancer and HIV treatments are in trial now, with Remdesivir the most promising in shortening recovery time so far.

Universities will develop genetically modified viral vectors, putting a small portion of the bad virus DNA or RNA into a harmless virus which is injected into the host.


YES (trials underway)

Many universities, pharmaceutical companies, and governments are betting on a COVID-19 vaccine from genetically engineered viruses, (called adenoviral vectors.) The FDA just fast-tracked two candidates, but it remains to be seen if they work and can be scaled.

The medical manufacturers of vaccines will give intellectual property to the WHO in exchange for a 10% royalty on profits


The WHO will temporarily suspend the patent on Xifan, allowing governments to produce their own, until the pandemic is over.



WHO launched a voluntary pool for patent rights and other data, and an international group of scientists and lawyers started the Open COVID Pledge to encourage patent sharing among large companies. But the U.S. hasn’t joined, and international warring makes the theory shaky.

Scientists will create the Color Smart, a microchip implemented in the body and connected to computer software. It will change to black if virus is indicated. NOT EXACTLY

Many wearable sensors are in production to try to detect symptoms and predict coronavirus. For example, NBA players are testing the OURA smart ring, which measures temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate, and sleeping patterns, and syncs with a smartphone.

The Maritime Association will requisition several large cruise liners and retrofit them as floating hospitals, with the benefit of being isolated at sea.



Carnival Corporation has offered up its cruise ships for this purpose, and the U.S. Navy provided some hospital ships to coastal areas, but the idea hasn’t caught fire – perhaps because early outbreaks on cruise ships were so difficult to control.

Businesses will appoint a pandemic manager, who will arrange the floors, introduce a shift-work system, and plan thorough cleaning. All non-essential meetings and training sessions will be online via tele-immersion or tele-working.


YES and NO

Remote working is a success story and may be the new norm. And some companies have employed risk management teams and safety consultants to transition back to the office. But usually individual managers are responsible for interpreting and applying health guidelines.

If an individual is deathly ill, scientists will use cryogenics, giving them shots of Trehlose into the bloodstream. Frozen bodies will be transported to a warehouse until a vaccine is created. POSSIBLE

Though Cryonics organizations have not been able to revive people yet, cryopreservation is a reality. It is therefore possible that a Covid-19 patient could be frozen to await vaccines, though governments and medical associations in no ways support the idea.


Like many adults, I’m proud of students who are paving the way for international collaboration and innovation. Reading through their solutions from a decade ago – probable, possible, even unthinkable — I am inspired by the ingenuity and willpower of the youth that responded to this 2009 hypothetical problem. These kids are young adults now and heir to the mess we make today. I pray they remember their grand and noble ideas.


Future Problem Solving is an international program involving thousands of students annually from around the world. Developed in 1974 by creativity pioneer Dr. E. Paul Torrance, Future Problem Solving (FPS) provides competitive and non-competitive components for today’s curriculum via a six-step model which teaches critical and creative thinking, problem solving, and decision making. 


Don’t miss out on the 2020-21 Future Problem Solving Season. Get registered today!


Addie Boswell is a writer and artist in Portland, Oregon, specializing in community-based murals and children’s picture books. She has been involved with the FPS program for three decades, as a student, evaluator and writer, in Iowa and Washington state, and thinks every functioning government should use the FPS process on sticky situations.  



Ask any football player, and he’ll tell you that he had sat in his locker before a game and imagined himself making the big play. There isn’t a pitcher alive that hasn’t imagined himself striking out the big home run hitter in the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded, two outs, and a three-run lead. Basketball players imagine buzzer-beaters and boxers imagine landing the big knockout punch. It’s something athletes do. They imagine themselves playing well and being successful as a motivational tool. The image helps make them confident in their ability to do what they envisioned.

But while envisioning an outcome in the future can help make it happen, it wouldn’t be possible without something else— knowledge.

A quarterback must know how to complete a pass 40-yards downfield to a wide receiver that appears covered (no, you don’t just throw it). Basketball players needs to know at what angle he should shoot and how hard to make a shot. A boxer needs to know how to defeat his opponent’s defenses so that he can land a knockout punch.

Knowledge an imagination both play a role in helping people shape their own future. But is one more important than the other? Albert Einstein would say yes, having stated that:

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

Imagination can help a football player become better at his game. It can help a moviemaker create better movies. But what about the rest of us? Is imagination not as important to the factory worker, teacher, grocery store clerk, or politician?


The Importance of Imagination

In his article, The Importance of Imagination, Psychotherapist, and Social Ecologist Tao de Haas explains how a strong imagination helps us:

"The ability to imagine things pervades our entire existence. It influences everything we do, think about and create. It leads to elaborate theories, dreams, and inventions in any profession from the realms of academia to engineering and the arts. Ultimately, imagination influences everything we do regardless of our profession. Imagination is the key to innovation."

Dr. Haas went on to say:

"Yesterday’s knowledge alone will not suffice. Imagination is essential for anyone, especially for leaders, who not only have to lead people into the future but have to foresee the challenges not yet known that await mankind."

Okay—but how does imagining the future actually help us change it? By foreseeing challenges that could arise, we can develop a plan for dealing with them before they become an issue. For example, rather than wait for a virus to mutate and become a super-bug, we can develop a vaccine that eliminates it. On a smaller scale, it can help a person whose life appears to be spelled out in front of them change their circumstances for the better.

Researchers tested this theory in a pair of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. The results were especially telling concerning women with challenging upbringings. Envisioning a happier, more secure future helped drive them on the path towards achieving it. Mesmin Destin, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University, had this to say about the results of the studies (Psychology Today):

“This research shows that (they) can draw from vivid and motivating images of their own futures to help support their motivation and persistence during challenging and uncomfortable tasks. It also suggests that faculty members should welcome students into their offices and engage with them about their goals as a potential way to help mitigate the power imbalance that many students experience.”


How Academic Competitions Help Students Imagine their Future.

Athletes test their skills against their peers on their respective game-field. Students can test their knowledge on a subject matter through examinations. But how can we put our imagination under the microscope to see how well developed it may (or may not) be? How can we train ourselves to picture the future in ways that will help us achieve the goals we want to? We’ve searched through the competitions database to pull out three competitions that are explicitly designed to help students use their imaginations of future possibilities to learn how to solve challenges and tackle hurdles ahead of them.


Modeling the Future Challenge

This competition challenges high school students to imagine how new technologies may change the future, but it also asks them to go a step beyond this and actually use real-world data and mathematical analysis to project how that change will happen. Students have to propose what the change is that they think a technology will bring, and then demonstrate logical reasoning and mathematical analysis showing what they know about the specifics of this change.

Get your students involved in the Modeling the Future Challenge to not only help them with imaging the  future, but also with using STEM techniques to project specific details of the change new technologies will bring.


Future City

The Future City competition challenges students to imagine a future design of a city that incorporates new technologies and new systems into the city structures themselves. Students must first imagine the future of the city they hope to see, and then examine how that city could come into being.


Future Problem Solving Program

The Future Problem-Solving Program has 4 competitive components: Global Issues Problem Solving, Community Problem Solving, Scenario Performance, and Scenario Writing. All of these components can help students learn to use their imagination to become better at solving problems and creating the future they want to see; but Scenario Writing and Scenario Performance particularly come in handy. Participants are asked to take one of the five topics for the year and imagine a scenario 20-years in the future (or more). What actions were taken to handle the problem in the scenario? What were the outcomes of those actions? What actions or events are currently taking place in the scenario and how well are they working out? Successful participants will have to use their knowledge of the subject matter and the power of their imagination to come up with potential solutions to whatever the issue is.


Competitions like Modeling the Future Challenge, Future City, and Future Problem Solving Program all give participants a chance to exercise their imaginations. By putting their imaginations to the test, they can develop them further and refine ways to use them to solve challenges that will help them design the futures they want. The better developed a person’s imagination is, the more possible outcomes they’ll be able to create.

By helping our students imagine a better future, we can help them figure out how to make it a reality. So what are you waiting for? Get imagining!

Each summer a distinguished group of global change-makers comes together, tasked with solving some of the world’s most challenging problems. But they aren’t the world’s top politicians or business moguls, they’re the top high-school problem-solvers competing for the Global Issues Problem Solving (GIPS) competition in the Future Problem Solving Program International (FPSPI). As they take the stage, a tense silence falls over the conference center. The crowd of thousands waits to hear how the speakers propose tackling global problems including everything from environmental disasters to cyber security to the fast-paced changes in technology and growing inequalities in society.

The Future Problem Solving Program International’s Global Finals gives the next generation of critical thinkers a chance to test their skill at solving all kinds of challenges. Students from around the world are presented with the daunting task of solving future problems ranging from desertification to the treatment of animals to artificial intelligence. The 2017 topic focused on bio-security. Each team works out a proposed solution to the challenge, which they pit against the others in a bid for the title of top problem-solver. And trust us, these students are good.

Over the last four years of the competition, one state has far out-paced all others in their ability to produce great problem solvers. And it’s probably not who you expect. We looked at all the results from the Senior Division of the competition (high school level) and analyzed the teams placing in the top 10 each year. What we found was surprising to us - Kentucky reigns supreme in the GIPS.

Yes, a state smack in the middle of Appalachia, one of the most economically impoverished areas of the country, and ranking only #24 on the US News and World Report’s list of PreK-12 education rankings, placed more teams in the top 10 problem-solver spots than any other state at every GIPS competition for the past four years. Not only that, they had more than twice as many as the next contender (Minnesota).

While not always taking the top spot, the Bluegrass State consistently lands between 2 and 3 schools among the top 10 finalists each year – and it’s not even close! Kentucky’s total of 10 top placements over the past four years absolutely dwarfs the next closest total – 4 for Minnesota and 3 each for New Jersey, Virginia, Connecticut and Washington. Setting Kentucky even further apart from the rest of the pack, for the past 4 years they have had at least two teams placing in the top 10 every year! No other state has had two teams in the top 10 more than one year. And not a single other state has had 3 teams make it into the top 10 in any year, like Kentucky achieved in both 2014 and 2017!

Of course, teams from different regions of the country have made their way in and out of the top 10, some with more success than others. Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and New Jersey’s West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, for example, have each managed to crack the final a handful of times. But no state has come close to maintaining Kentucky’s ironclad grip on the top spots.

Reviewing the placements from Kentucky and other states highlights the consistently impressive performance of the Appalachian teams. Included below are the figures for the average number of top-10 placements and the ICS badging point totals over the past four years (take a look at our badging points system page if you need a refresher – the badging points provide a way to measure overall placements across multiple competitions):

While the rest of the pack is clustered at an average of less than one top-10 placement per year (with MN just squeaking in at an average of 1 per year), Kentucky smashes through that barrier at 2.5, earning more than double the ICS badging points of the closest competitor, Minnesota. What does this mean? It means that not only are Bluegrass State teams ending up among the finalists, they’re leading the pack with more 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finishes than any other state! A look at the 4-year badging point totals gives us a clear picture of just how handily Kentucky is outperforming the rest – hitting 36500 total points versus the next highest at 14500!

Unfortunately for those of us outside of the Upland South, this dominance shows no sign of letting up. The share of top placements held by Kentuckians has remained consistently strong each year, earning them 13,500 ICS badging points this year. After a stellar performance in 2017 – three top ten placements and two of the three highest point totals, expectations will be high for Kentucky’s problem solvers in 2018. Though most people might point to Kentucky for its history of coal and bourbon, the state should also be recognized as a leading producer of amazing teams of young problem-solvers.

The 2018 Future Problem Solving season is already getting underway as teams prepare for local and regional competitions. We’re watching to see which states might have a chance at stepping up to Kentucky’s high bar in solving our future Global Issues! So stay tuned as the next round of the world’s top problem solvers are crowned.