Problem solving was not a skill taught when I was a student in school many eons ago. School back then was all about rote memorization, following directions, and doing exactly what the teacher told you to do. There was no wiggle room when I was in school. If the teacher said you needed to use complete sentences to answer the questions, you failed the assignment if you did not use complete sentences, even if you answered the question correctly and used support to back your claim. Creativity and problem solving were not skills we were ever introduced to or had a chance to practice. In fact, when we did get creative or showcase our ability to problem solve as students, we were penalized. “That’s not what I told you to do. You need to write an essay explaining why America got involved in WWII, not create a poster. You are so very wrong. Now you must redo this assignment by tomorrow morning or you will fail the course.” It was all or nothing back then. School for me seemed to be more about falling into line and being a drone than it did learning anything useful.
As a teacher, I’m trying to break free from the constraints of what our society once thought school should be. School is a place to learn, engage and interact with the content and skills, practice failing and solving problems, and be creative and take risks. Great, effective classrooms encourage creativity and foster a student-centered approach to education. The students are provided options and choice to showcase their learning and growth as students. There is no one way to complete a task or meet an objective. School is a fun-filled adventure where anything is possible and dreams come true.
If we want our students to be able to live meaningful lives in a global society that is rich in pollution, crime, unpredictable weather due to climate change, and many other problems, then we need to equip our students with the necessary tools. People no longer have a use for memorizing information as we can access it with the touch of a button. People need to know how to find creative solutions to problems and think critically about the world around them. We are living in an ever-changing world and we need to prepare our students accordingly.
In STEM class today, my students began working on the final project for our unit on climate change. Understanding what climate change is, how it came to be a serious issue, and how it is impacting our planet, it is not enough for my students. I want them to see beyond the information and content. I want them to apply this knowledge to creating a solution that addresses the issue of climate change. What can humans do to make a difference and help slow down or reduce our human impact on Earth? So, the students, working in pairs, brainstormed possible ideas and solutions to the global problem of climate change. The students used their critical thinking skills to the max today as they sketched ideas, researched information, and created some creative and unique solutions. I was so impressed.
Some of the ideas my students brainstormed today included:
- Attach tiny solar panels to the side pieces of eyeglasses that will collect the sun’s energy and store it in a small USB battery device that would be attached to the end of the ear piece. This battery could then be used to charge electronic devices. This solution would help reduce the amount of electricity needed to power gadgets, thus reducing the amount of carbon being released into our atmosphere.
- Create a small-scale greenhouse within a large tube that would be attached to the top of smokestacks of factories. The pollution being released from the factories would be filtered through various carbon-absorbing plants. The air and gas would then be released into the atmosphere, containing a lot less carbon and other harmful greenhouse gasses.
- Build a robot that would float around in the world’s oceans, sensing salt levels. When the salinization level becomes too low, the robot would release salt into the water to help maintain a healthy balance of salt within the sea water. This invention would hopefully help to keep sea life healthy and safe.
Wow! My students are brilliant. These ideas were certainly not the first creations they devised today in class. The students would come to me with their ideas and I would ask questions, probing them to think about the feasibility of their idea. Most of the initial ideas the students brought to me today were not the ones they are using to complete this project. By challenging the students to think critically and complete more research, they were able to devise new and exciting ideas and solutions. Perseverance was alive in the sixth grade classroom this morning. The students worked with their partner to find a way to make the world a safer and better place for all living organisms. Not only were the students engaged in this activity and having fun, they were creating real solutions that could one day be in use around the globe to help reduce our human impact on climate change.
In almost every STEM project or activity my students complete, I empower them to solve problems and think creatively. I don’t need them to regurgitate information learned onto a worksheet or poster, I need them to synthesize what they are learning to answer questions and solve problems. As the students of today will become the leaders of tomorrow, I need them to know how to encounter problems, solve them, fail, try again, and persevere. Our world isn’t about knowing information any longer. Although knowledge is power, if people don’t know how to think critically to solve problems, then our world is sure to fall apart within the next century.