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Future problem solvers, Thomas Jefferson students make the grade at state level

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Four girls from the West Jefferson Hills School District won the state championship for 'Future Problem Solvers' competition in April. They are, from left, Aleah Bousquet, a freshman at Oakland Catholic, and Ashley Martier, Kaitlyn Salmon and Mary Rose Lowman, all freshmen at Thomas Jefferson High School.

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Plastic filled the Pacific Ocean surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. It was harming the environment — likely killing fish, livestock and vegetation, students surmised.

The best way to fix the problem would be to submerge a clean-up device into the ocean to siphon out the plastic particles, the students agreed. Those, then, could be repurposed and turned into lumber and oil.

Although the situation was not real, students from across Pennsylvania were tasked with finding solutions for how to fix this potential international crisis during the statewide “Future Problem Solving” program last month.

Four girls from the West Jefferson Hills School District — Kaitlyn Salmon, Ashley Martier, Aleah Bousquet and Mary Rose Lowman — had the best solution, judges said, awarding them first place in the state.

They now will represent Pennsylvania in the international round of competition at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., in June, where they will compete against nearly 2,000 schools from across the world.

“I was about to cry. I said, ‘It was all worth it, even the broken ankle,'” said Martier, 15, a freshman at Thomas Jefferson High School.

Getting that state victory took months of preparations, studying, and even a twisted, possibly broken ankle, for the energetic team that has worked together since seventh grade at Pleasant Hills Middle School.

“The excitement is there all of the time. They're very passionate about it,” said Pleasant Hills Middle School gifted teacher Andrew Capretto, who has supervised the girls for the last three years.

The competition presents students with hypothetical future scenarios where trends today have gotten out of control. The scenarios are typically set between 20 and 50 years in the future. The students are given the topic, such as “Ocean Soup,” to study. But the scenario is not presented to them until the time of the competition.

The students must decide what the biggest problem is in the given scenario, then determine the best way to fix it. They also perform a “funny or dramatic” skit, acting out their solution — and that is how Martier possibly broke her ankle.

“We kind of just go crazy once we get into the (hotel room),” said Salmon, 15, a freshman at Thomas Jefferson.

Studying the topic takes months.

“We Google things, a lot,” said Bousquet, 15, a freshman at Oakland Catholic.

“I don't think I slept for a week before the competition,” Martier said. “They all slept in the car. I was up studying.”

The group meets after school twice a week at Thomas Jefferson High School to study the topic, brainstorm and prepare.

Working together for three years, they have things down to a science.

And each year working together, they have improved.

Three of the girls were on a team in sixth grade which came in fourth place in the state. In seventh grade, the girls finished third in the state. Last year, they were second.

That meant added pressure for this year's competition.

Salmon, 15, a freshman at Thomas Jefferson, remained calm the entire way.

“I figured we would get it. We had gotten better each year,” she said.

The others, though, were a bit more nervous.

“There was a lot of anxiousness this year,” Bousquet said.

The pressure is on again as they prepare for the international round. The goal is to be among the top 10 teams in the world.

They know this will be a challenge, they said. They're competing against teams from the United States, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Portugal.

Though the topic for this competition seems fitting for the all girls team, as it looks at the global status of women.

“I feel like we can relate more to this issue,” Bousquet said.

The girls are researching women's participation in government and religious practices.

They were surprised to find out, they said, that the United States does not have the highest rankings for women's freedoms, according to their research.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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