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Got a Problem? Students Can Find the Solution

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Erin Scott

By Matt Levinson

Schools are the perfect breeding ground for fostering students' questions, a place to spark students' interests and ideas for designing innovative solutions to real problems. Everyday, educators have opportunities to help kids develop the tools, skills and habits to come up with meaningful, lasting solutions to problems.

Take, for example, an incident that occurred in a first-grade teacher's classroom at Marin Country Day School in Northern California, which provided an opportunity to understand design thinking. Students were struck by the sound of a bird that crashed into the classroom window and died. After the teacher brought in a lower school science specialist to give an in-depth look at the qualities and characteristics of the bird, from sight to body structure, she challenged students to come up with designs to prevent another bird from crashing into the window. The teacher took her students through the design thinking process to figure out a way to save the birds.

For students to come up with authentic, functional designs, they had to have a deep understanding of birds. In scientific circles, the process goes like this, according to Teaching Institute of Excellence in STEM President Jan Morrison: "Designing is cognitive modeling in which a person gains insight into a problem, determines alternative pathways, and assesses the likelihood of success between solution sets."

So the first grade students had to first gain insight into the problem. This is where the lower school science specialist and her expertise with birds came into play. The specialist was able to help students better understand the features and habits of birds, so that students could then "determine alternative pathways" to help the birds survive and not crash into the classroom windows.

In addition, STEM classrooms need to be "equipped to support spontaneous questioning as well as planned investigation," which is exactly what happened in this first-grade class. Students developed and tested prototypes and came up with effective solutions, which centered on colorful designs to put in the window space. For the rest of the year, not a single bird crashed into the classroom window.


Another example: A group of fifth-graders wanted more Four Square courts. They approached the head of buildings and grounds and began to work with him on mapping and designing a new Four Square court, using measurement and mapping skills to find the right spot. They were able to implement a new Four Square court so more students could play at recess.

And still another example: An eighth-grade student, eager to be able to ride his bike home from school each day, approached his school with a petition to be able to leave before the time allotted for carpoolers. The school, however, saw a safety issue in having the student leave out of the main gate and having to cross oncoming traffic. But working with the student, the school helped him build a new bike rack (which included learning welding skills) to place on the opposite side of the main road leading into the school, so that students could safely cross a foot bridge to exit the school grounds in the flow of traffic. And a result, the student's solution created lasting change for the entire school.

This student's project tapped into what Thomas Friedman calls attention to in a recent The New York Times column. "Welding is now a STEM job -- that is, a job that requires knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math," he writes, emphasizing the importance of skills and knowledge, and what to do with that knowledge in today's changing economy and education narrative.

Issues like these arise every day in schools. For educators, the key is to listen to students, enlist them in looking for and building solutions, and empower students to become changemakers and innovators. It all comes down to listening to the questions.

Matt Levinson is the Head of the Upper Division at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, Calif. and the author of From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey.

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