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  • Karen Finnerty

Problem Solving in Science: Teaching Outside Our Comfort Zones

This is how I thought about science as a first year sixth-grade science teacher: So much content and so few days to teach it all. I needed to get all those facts and content into their 12-year-old heads as fast as possible. A few weeks into a unit, though, I noticed sub-zero levels of engagement, motivation, and care for science. I remember thinking, “What is wrong with these kids?? Science is AH-MAZING.” And science IS amazing. But not in the ways I was teaching it. If the students you teach aren’t ah-mazed, please read on.

My students were being numbed by the textbook and its “exciting” materials because there was no inquiry. Even now, in my role as a coach, as I work in schools, I see far too much dependence on textbooks in the content areas; students reading rather than experimenting and applying a discipline’s invigorating ideas to solve something real in their lives. We can make a change in the way we teach our students, showing that we value problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking.

My own awakening to the power of problem solving came during the year I was required to do a unit on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math). In 6th grade we focused our STEAM learning on robotics using the VEX IQ robots. The problem was, I knew nothing about these robots—how to build them, program them, or use them. I had butterflies in my stomach and figured I’d be fired the day we opened that box of robot parts. This, however, turned into the greatest gift for both me and my students.

The sixth graders worked collaboratively to build, program, and execute missions with these robots. They were responsible for everything. I acted as a facilitator. Against all my initial worries, students built functioning, competitive robots. They were even able to share their new knowledge with the younger students in the school, all the way down to preschool, teaching them how to use the robots to complete tasks. The sixth graders organized a school-wide STEAM day that provided all students from preschool through fifth grade, with opportunities to learn about science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. My mind was blown. And I may have learned just as much as my students about the power of inquiry.

Here’s what I learned about teaching students to problem solve in science:

It is 100% okay to be learning alongside students. If we give students the base knowledge and the tools, they will absolutely figure out and learn more themselves. Your immediate thought might be to create some elaborate project, but sometimes just beginning a new unit or series of lessons with an open-ended, process-oriented question, an ‘aha question,’ is enough. As the days progress, students can go back to this question and tweak it, deepen it, as they learn and make connections. As teachers, instead of dispensing information, we use our expertise to open up the doors to new information, and help them get their hands on it. Reading print text and listening to us is one avenue, but there’s so much else out there: digital resources, opportunities to watch others, conducting experiments. Let the students make choices in how they gain that knowledge and be prepared to learn right alongside of them.

Students benefit from opportunities to work collaboratively. Most students don’t need us to do as much as we think. They learn to give and receive feedback, without everything coming from us. In collaborative groups, students see other perspectives in science as well have opportunities to revise their thinking. Through our robotics project, the students also learned a great deal about frustration and how to compromise with each other, only using the teacher for mediating, but not solving the problems for them. Through collaborative work, they learned invaluable communication skills amongst themselves and with outside sources, at times needing to call the VEX IQ service desk and also communicating via email with teachers and administrators at the school for planning purposes.

Provide students with authentic opportunities to make their work public. Sure, students will do work for you, but it won’t be the same as what they will do when they know their learning will be shared outside of the classroom walls. Set up opportunities for students to share their learning and teach others. Whether it be in other grade levels in the school, running a whole school STEAM or science day, or going out into the community to make their work public, these authentic experiences can increase student engagement and investment in their work.

Allow learners to demonstrate their knowledge in various ways. Let the project become the students’ instead of yours. The criteria and expectations were clearly outlined for our school-wide STEAM day, but the students had the opportunity to propose their group project and methods for teaching others. They used science class to become experts in their content and design learning opportunities for others. This approach gave students so much agency and independence in their own learning, it was unbelievable.

Something I realized is that in order to grow, I needed to get uncomfortable. If I want to see something different, I need to do something different. We often ask students to step outside their comfort zones, but as teachers we may tend to stick with what we know best. Maybe it is time for us all to step outside our comfort zones and try something in a new way. Be uncomfortable. Believe your kids can rise to the occasion.

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