Converting a Topic into a Problem

Here are some examples of going from "coverage" of a topic (typical instruction) to turning it into a messier problem for students to work on.

You give students a motivating, ill-defined problem or real-world project, and the learning of the content falls out of that. You don't just lecture or spoon feed the content.

In general, some things to think about when converting a "topic" to a problem:

  • Think of real-world applications of the knowledge/topic
  • Think of the history and origins of the knowledge/topic - how and why was this knowledge discovered? What problems were they trying to solve?
  • What are common misconceptions students/trainees have learning this topic? - pick a problem that brings those out


Topic Area

Weather / Emergency Preparation

Instead of giving them an emergency plan or lectures on the weather, have them develop an emergency plan and research the weather, with your help of course. From pages 18 & 91,PBL in K-8 classrooms book:

You are at home one evening watching TV. A warning message comes across the TV screen. It says the NWS has issues a Severe Thunderstorm/Tornado Watch with the possibility of flooding in your area.

What will you do to prepare for the storm?
How does a thunderstorm or tornado cause flooding?
What other types of weather can cause flooding?
What other types of weather can be harmful?
Devise a safe plan for this possible storm.

Plate tectonics
Time traveling into the distant past and future. Imagine you want to time travel back millions of years, but your time machine cannot move. You need to find a spot that will still be on land in the past or in the future. A simulation of plate tectonics would help here.
Geology / Rock types

Used by the Learning by Design curriculum. Your project is to plan a tunnel from Atlanta to Savannah for an underground train.

How to design a door alarm using the snap circuits for example (learn about switches and circuit loops). How to design a xmas light like circuit where the other lights stay on if one goes out (learn about parallel vs. series circuits).
History - U.S. Reconstruction

An example Ken Bain mentioned in a talk at USU. An instructor asked students when did the Katrina disaster start? When the hurricane hit, or much earlier?
Power, electricity, graphing, spreadsheets

The electricity usage monitor project. Find out how much energy your family's house is using and where you can save money.

Nice example of a real-world problem: "Since 1999, Austin waterways have been plagued by a plant called Hydrilla. The city is very concerned about this issue and has hired a team of researchers to develop a Hydrilla Management Plan for the city of Austin. Your task, as a researcher, is to identify the problems caused by hydrilla and propose a cost effective solution. You will then have to make a presentation to the City Council outlining the justification of your strategies." See here.
Internet research, information literacy

What evidence can you find to support the claim that Tim Berners-Lee is the real father of the internet? Notice students aren't just memorizing a factoid, they have to do some research. See here.

*FYI, Berners-Lee was trying to solve a training problem when he invented the web, which is a constructivist learning environment, too - he was trying to develop a system for capturing the complex knowledge employees had so that it wasn't lost when they retired. See his proposal.

See also:

And in case you think this is only useful in K-12, problem-based learning and the Legacy cycle have been used in higher education. PBL was invented in medical schools (think episodes of House where you are given a tough case and have to diagnose the problem), and PBL is used extensively in business and other areas.

At the Hill air force base too, even for aircraft maintenance training they develop realistic scenarios. They don't just "present" the information or make trainees memorize facts.

When you just memorize facts, that doesnt connect the knowledge to the situations where it is useful. It becomes inert knowledge, as discussed in the How People Learn book.

Last modified: Thursday, 3 February 2011, 6:29 PM