Project-based learning and problem solving
Sep 1st, 2011 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Today I conducted a project-based learning workshop for the Science Department at East Haven High School. It’s always a bit never-wracking to present on a new topic – although I have been under the influence of project-based learning almost my entire career.

It’s amazing to see what works successfully and how you question it. For example, when talking about problem solving, I always bring up alternatives to hypthesis-based strategies. For example:

Abstraction: solving the problem in a model of the system before applying it to the real system
Analogy: using a solution that solved an analogous problem
Brainstorming: (especially among groups of people) suggesting a large number of solutions or ideas and combining and developing them until an optimum is found
Divide and conquer: breaking down a large, complex problem into smaller, solvable problems
Hypothesis testing: assuming a possible explanation to the problem and trying to prove (or, in some contexts, disprove) the assumption
Lateral thinking: approaching solutions indirectly and creatively
Means-ends analysis: choosing an action at each step to move closer to the goal
Method of focal objects: synthesizing seemingly non-matching characteristics of different objects into something new
Morphological analysis: assessing the output and interactions of an entire system
Reduction: transforming the problem into another problem for which solutions exist
Research: employing existing ideas or adapting existing solutions to similar problems
Root cause analysis: eliminating the cause of the problem
Trial-and-error: testing possible solutions until the right one is found
Proof: try to prove that the problem cannot be solved. The point where the proof fails will be the starting point for solving it

I think it is important to give a tangible example as well. I am particularly fond of goal-oriented problem solving, which often takes the form of trial-and-error. Today I showed the square peg-round hole problem from the movie Apollo 13, and to follow up we made our own creation by just following oral instructions: an origami box. I am always curious/cautious to see what happens when I try a new activity. To my relief and surprise, I was informed that this was an activity some of the teachers were going to try on the first day of school. Glad it had an impact!

I think one of the things that made it a success, was that I was explicit about the reason for doing it: to promote spacial literacy – relationships of shapes – ability follow oral directions – and tactile development. I have found that many teachers fall short on the explicitly of learning. Students are often puzzled as to the reason for their learning – evident by “what do we need to know that for?” I have found that when students have a clear understanding of what they are learning and justified reasoning, they often engage better and are more accepting and willing.

Perhaps we all should do some origami today.

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