Got a problem? Good!

When it’s a bright, sunny day outside, should I wear a black or a white t-shirt to stay cool?  What an easy question, right? I was reformulating my engineering lesson on space suits to share at the ISTE conference this year when this question surfaced. After all, astronauts have the same dilemma, right?

My initial idea was that white is better because…well…everyone knows white reflects light and black absorbs light. But my testing was indicating that black was better. The discrepancy suggested I repeat my testing in case I had not done it properly or carefully enough. But in fact, the re-test showed the same result. I was moving from curious to frustrated when I decided to investigate further. Subsequent testing with the sensor revealed a reason why a black t-shirt might work better. In short, when black absorbs light it prevents that light from hitting your skin, whereas white may allow radiation to strike your skin. For me, it was a eureka moment, the type of experience that drives scientists to solve problems. And, as teachers, if we want students to develop those same problem-solving skills, we need to encourage and support them to persevere and have the possibility of experiencing their own aha moment.

So how do we bring this to the classroom? First and foremost, one’s content knowledge must be strong. A teacher needs to know and be confident about the subject matter, because he or she will be guiding students as they navigate their way through it. The teacher must be comfortable with an open-ended question, for which he or she doesn’t have an answer -- which is fine, by the way. It’s the risk-taking that inspires perseverance. When we show students that we’re willing to take a risk, they’ll be much more likely to take risks themselves. All this is much messier than a more direct approach, but, unfortunately, a direct approach does not lead to better problem-solving skills -- or to science understanding for that matter.  

In addition to subject knowledge, the teacher should be able to provide tools and resources that will be available to students as they navigate more deeply into the problem. It is not always possible to have every tool imaginable, but, fortunately for science teachers, there are many low- and high-tech tools available today.

Teachers who know their subject and have access to the proper tools can explore and discover with their students. Only a catalyst is needed: engagement in a question that is interesting or relevant to students. That question could be generated by an event the teacher shares, such as, “What t-shirt is better for a sunny day like today?” Discrepant events, or events with non-intuitive results, are great. Or the question can be one that students have come upon from other projects or investigations. In either case, the teacher’s knowledge and access to tools can be leveraged to guide the student.

Coincidentally, days after my eureka moment, I visited a teacher who said she had a question for me. Her students were outside and asked, “What color t-shirt is best to keep cool?” They assumed white t-shirts would be better. They asked another teacher who, surprisingly to them, said black! The students were confused, so they Googled and found that black was better. She asked me what was up with that, and I explained what I had discovered. For the students, however, what was learned here? At best they will remember that “a black t-shirt might be better” as a factoid.  At best.

If we want to help students become problem solvers, then we must focus on generating a problem-solving atmosphere in the classroom. Solving the problem may take a while, and sometimes you may not even solve it, and that’s fine. Sometimes you don’t have the right equipment, and sometimes the equipment doesn’t even exist; but, that’s how science progresses. Theorists come up with ideas, the experimentalist measures stuff and then the theorist gets to work -- all in an iterative fashion. There’s a constant tug-of-war between the experiment and the theory; that’s where we want our students to be so they can learn how to solve all the problems we, and the rest of the world, throw at them.

Greg Bartus is the senior curriculum and professional development specialist at the Center for Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Bartus uses PASCO wireless sensors in the classroom.

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