BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Looking into the eyes of Holy Trinity Catholic’s Michael Hellman and one wonders just what’s going on in that young mind.
Hellman recently returned from the International competition of Future Problem Solvers. Hellman finished second in the state competition and earned a trip to the international competition in Wisconsin.
With the second place finish, Hellman was able to go to the competition in what’s called the MAGIC teams, which are teams of random qualifiers who are put together to address futuristic problems.
Hellman, just an 8th grader, didn’t place in the competition, but in his second year with HTC’s Talented and Gifted instructor Allison Arevalo, advanced this year in the individual contests. He says he can’t talk about the topics of the competition because FPS regulations tell participants to keep the information confidential until the following year.
But he said the experience, although awkward at first, showed him what life was going to be like as he moves through his education to a career.
“Anything you end up doing in life is going to require problem solving skills,” Hellman said. “This program gives us a chance to use our analytical skills and work through issues that may challenge us professionally.”
The answer may seem like something from a junior or senior or even someone at the collegiate level. But a conversation with Hellman is something more than what you get from a typical junior high student.
Hellman says he wants to go into some field of computer science as a career, but a simple conversation reveals a lot about this young man with high aspirations. His eyes dart about and hands go to work as he’s talking about whatever the topic of the day may be.
He said the competition starts at the regional level and then winners advance to state. Individual and team winners at state advance to the international competition. Runners-up are invited to the international competition in a random team competition, called MAGIC teams which stands for Multi-Affiliate Global Issues Competition.
Arevalo said the MAGIC teams are engaged in a more diverse and complicated competition because there is no prep time and there is no familiarity with other team members. It’s a random collaboration.
“The other teams that are up there are teams that have been competing together for years. His is more of a challenge because his team didn’t compete with each other. So it’s a totally different category,” she said.
The groups were responsible for identifying solutions out of a group of problems facing the future and then had to categorize the solutions based on several factors like cost, efficiency, applications, etc. to score points based on the realities of the solutions. Hellman said he had two hours working with his group.
“No. 1, it’s very enjoyable to do and it’s a little intense at times,” Hellman said. “They don’t give you much time. At the same time you rattle out a bunch of ideas and no one’s going to criticize you because it’s all brainstorming. “It interests me because the fields I want to go into require a lot of problem solving. All those places at some point involve the problem solving skills you learn at Future Problem Solvers. You gotta come up with creative ideas.”
Arevalo said the competition runs deeper than career preparation.
“They’re making careers that Problem Solvers would help you prepare for. But in life, in general, really what they’re doing is looking at problems that seem overwhelming, or many many problems, and picking those problems out,” she said. “Just the decision-making process and looking at all the problems is overwhelming but the prioritizing and identifying solutions is something that goes with every aspect of life.”
Arevalo said she’s new at the program, but she’s had a couple teams go to state and she still has a lot to learn about it.
“When you see what the program is, certain kids stand out and I knew Michael would be perfect for this,” she said.
Hellman said the random setting of teams is also a valuable part of the competition.
“The first half hour we were doing problems but we were also testing the waters with each other. I was a little shy but I decided to handle it this way. Instead of worrying about what they are going to think, I thought of it like – if this goes well we’ll talk with each other and if not, these people live in a completely different state, – so you just put yourself out there,” he said.
“I want to do it again for sure but I realized that Future Problem Solvers is a lot bigger than I thought it was. There were easily 5,000 people there. I learned new techniques, but you need to not have everyone focusing on the same thing, halfway through maybe someone starts the planning stage and then halfway through that someone starts with the action plan.”
HTC principal Michael Sheerin said Hellman’s success at the convention brings a different kind of prestige to the school.
“I think that Michael brings a special addition to our school,” Sheerin said. “Most schools are caught up in athletics and fine arts and they make a lot of noise and get attention, but students like Michael are under utilized. The great thing about this program is it gives students like him and others an avenue to be recognized for the wonderful skills they bring to the school. They really do enrich our program and diversify our school.
“We’re very happy Michael’s family chooses to send him here and what a great ambassador he is.”