Lesson: Problem Solving

Contributed by: Office of Educational Partnerships, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY

Two photos: (left) A woman's soccer team on the field huddles together to make plans. (right) A young woman in a suit and her surrounding team punch the air with their fists.
Everyday, teams problem solve to figure out the best solutions to various challenges.
copyright
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.

Summary

Students are introduced to a systematic procedure for solving problems through a demonstration and then the application of the method to an everyday activity. The unit project is introduced to provide relevance to subsequent lessons.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Scientists, engineers and ordinary people use problem solving each day to work out solutions to various problems. Using a systematic and iterative procedure to solve a problem is efficient and provides a logical flow of knowledge and progress.

Learning Objectives

  • Students demonstrate an understanding of the Technological Method of Problem Solving.
  • Students are able to apply the Technological Method of Problem Solving to a real-life problem.

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Egg Drop

A process for technical problem solving is introduced and applied to a fun demonstration. Given the success with the demo, the iterative nature of the process can be illustrated.

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The culminating energy project is introduced and the technical problem solving process is applied to get students started on the project. By the end of the class, students should have a good perspective on what they have already learned and what they still need to learn to complete the project.

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Energy Systems and Solutions

The Energy Systems and Solutions unit brings students through the exploration of science and engineering concepts as they relate to energy issues in everyday life. This project-based curriculum follows an engineering problem solving approach; students simultaneously learn and use scientific and math...

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Students are introduced to the engineering design process, focusing on the concept of brainstorming design alternatives. They learn that engineering is about designing creative ways to improve existing artifacts, technologies or processes, or developing new inventions that benefit society.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Design involves a set of steps, which can be performed in different sequences and repeated as needed. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations. Students should develop the ability to refine and refocus broad and ill-defined questions. An important aspect of this ability consists of students' ability to clarify questions and inquiries and direct them toward objects and phenomena that can be described, explained, or predicted by scientific investigations. Students should develop the ability to identify their questions with scientific ideas, concepts, and quantitative relationships that guide investigation. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions. Students should develop the ability to listen to and respect the explanations proposed by other students. They should remain open to and acknowledge different ideas and explanations, be able to accept the skepticism of others, and consider alternative explanations. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify appropriate problems for technological design. Students should develop their abilities by identifying a specified need, considering its various aspects, and talking to different potential users or beneficiaries. They should appreciate that for some needs, the cultural backgrounds and beliefs of different groups can affect the criteria for a suitable product. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Design a solution or product. Students should make and compare different proposals in the light of the criteria they have selected. They must consider constraints--such as cost, time, trade-offs, and materials needed--and communicate ideas with drawings and simple models. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Implement a proposed design. Students should organize materials and other resources, plan their work, make good use of group collaboration where appropriate, choose suitable tools and techniques, and work with appropriate measurement methods to ensure adequate accuracy. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Evaluate completed technological designs or products. Students should use criteria relevant to the original purpose or need, consider a variety of factors that might affect acceptability and suitability for intended users or beneficiaries, and develop measures of quality with respect to such criteria and factors; they should also suggest improvements and, for their own products, try proposed modifications. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Scientific inquiry and technological design have similarities and differences. Scientists propose explanations for questions about the natural world, and engineers propose solutions relating to human problems, needs, and aspirations. Technological solutions are temporary; technologies exist within nature and so they cannot contravene physical or biological principles; technological solutions have side effects; and technologies cost, carry risks, and provide benefits. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Perfectly designed solutions do not exist. All technological solutions have trade-offs, such as safety, cost, efficiency, and appearance. Engineers often build in back-up systems to provide safety. Risk is part of living in a highly technological world. Reducing risk often results in new technology. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Technological solutions have intended benefits and unintended consequences. Some consequences can be predicted, others cannot. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Technology influences society through its products and processes. Technology influences the quality of life and the ways people act and interact. Technological changes are often accompanied by social, political, and economic changes that can be beneficial or detrimental to individuals and to society. Social needs, attitudes, and values influence the direction of technological development. (Grades 5 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Introduction/Motivation

Scientists, engineers, and ordinary people use problem solving each day to work out solutions to various problems. Using a systematic and iterative procedure to solve a problem is efficient and provides a logical flow of knowledge and progress.

In this unit, we use what is called "The Technological Method of Problem Solving." This is a seven-step procedure that is highly iterative—you may go back and forth among the listed steps, and may not always follow them in order. Remember that in most engineering projects, more than one good answer exists. The goal is to get to the best solution for a given problem.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

The overall concept that is important in this lesson is: Using a standard method or procedure to solve problems makes the process easier and more effective.

1) Describe the problem, 2) describe the results you want, 3) gather information, 4) think of solutions, 5) choose the best solution, 6) implement the solution, 7) evaluate results and make necessary changes. Reenter the design spiral at any step to revise as necessary.
Figure 1. Technological Method of Problem Solving.
copyright
Copyright © 1993 Adapted from Hacker, M, Barden B., Living with Technology, 2nd edition. Delmar Publishers, Albany NY

The specific process of problem solving used in this unit was adapted from an eighth-grade technology textbook written for New York State standard technology curriculum. The process is shown in Figure 1, with details included below. The spiral shape shows that this is an iterative, not linear, process. The process can skip ahead (for example, build a model early in the process to test a proof of concept) and go backwards (learn more about the problem or potential solutions if early ideas do not work well).

This process provides a reference that can be reiterated throughout the unit as students learn new material or ideas that are relevant to the completion of their unit projects.

Brainstorming about what we know about a problem or project and what we need to find out to move forward in a project is often a good starting point when faced with a new problem. This type of questioning provides a basis and relevance that is useful in other energy science and technology units. In this unit, the general problem that is addressed is the fact that Americans use a lot of energy, with the consequences that we have a dwindling supply of fossil fuels, and we are emitting a lot of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants. The specific project that students are assigned to address is an aspect of this problem that requires them to identify an action they can take in their own live to reduce their overall energy (or fossil fuel) consumption.

The Seven Steps of Problem Solving

1.  Identify the problem

Clearly state the problem. (Short, sweet and to the point. This is the "big picture" problem, not the specific project you have been assigned.)

2.  Establish what you want to achieve

  • Completion of a specific project that will help to solve the overall problem.
  • In one sentence answer the following question: How will I know I've completed this project?
  • List criteria and constraints: Criteria are things you want the solution to have. Constraints are limitations, sometimes called specifications, or restrictions that should be part of the solution. They could be the type of materials, the size or weight the solution must meet, the specific tools or machines you have available, time you have to complete the task and cost of construction or materials.

3.  Gather information and research

  • Research is sometimes needed both to better understand the problem itself as well as possible solutions.
  • Don't reinvent the wheel – looking at other solutions can lead to better solutions.
  • Use past experiences.

4.  Brainstorm possible solutions

List and/or sketch (as appropriate) as many solutions as you can think of.

5.  Choose the best solution

Evaluate solution by: 1) Comparing possible solution against constraints and criteria 2) Making trade-offs to identify "best."

6.  Implement the solution

  • Develop plans that include (as required): drawings with measurements, details of construction, construction procedure.
  • Define tasks and resources necessary for implementation.
  • Implement actual plan as appropriate for your particular project.

7.  Test and evaluate the solution

  • Compare the solution against the criteria and constraints.
  • Define how you might modify the solution for different or better results.

Associated Activities

  • Egg Drop - Use this demonstration or activity to introduce and use the problem solving method. Encourages creative design.
  • Solving Energy Problems - Unit project is assigned and students begin with problem solving techniques to begin to address project. Mostly they learn that they do not know enough yet to solve the problem.

Attachments

Assessment

The results of the problem solving activity provide a basis for the entire semester project. Collect and review the worksheets to make sure that students are started on the right track.

References

Hacker, M, Barden B., Living with Technology, 2nd edition. Albany NY: Delmar Publishers, 1993.

Other Related Information

This lesson was originally published by the Clarkson University K-12 Project Based Learning Partnership Program and may be accessed at http://www.clarkson.edu/highschool/k12/project/energysystems.html.

Contributors

Susan Powers; Jan DeWaters; and a number of Clarkson and St. Lawrence students in the K-12 Project Based Learning Partnership Program

Copyright

© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2008 Clarkson University

Supporting Program

Office of Educational Partnerships, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY

Acknowledgements

This lesson was developed under National Science Foundation grants no. DUE 0428127 and DGE 0338216. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 4, 2017

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