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Problem Solving – Summer Series Part 4

When I started thinking of ways to convince teachers to try STEM I knew problem-solving would have to be included. For me, it is the very heart of STEM and it’s my favorite part.

I know, as an adult and a very right-brained person, the way I approach tasks and solve problems is vastly different than the way 8-11 year old kids do. Students often find a way to make something work that I would have never thought of in a million years. #hyperbole

Students are fearless and don’t mind trying over and over with a challenge. I am going to share some things with you to illustrate what I am talking about and you are going to be amazed!

Problem Solving is the heart of STEM and the most interesting part to watch. Students are fearless and will keep working until they find a solution! And, their solutions are often amazing!
Solving problems in STEM class using straws and paper clips.

Joining with Paper Clips

To make platforms we needed to connect straws and paper clips. I thought kids would do what I do with straws and paper clips. The photo shows you how to bend a paper clip and insert it into two straws. The bent paper clip becomes a corner. This is my method.

This is not what students did at all. They had their own way of connecting with paper clips.

Students learning how to attach items in STEM class using straws and paperclips.

Can you see how they clipped the straws together and also threaded the straws through the ends of the paper clips? For the most part this did work!

Aha! But that is one of the best parts of STEM Challenges! The kids learn to be thinkers without my input and most of the time they do very well at it!

We always have a planning time as we begin our STEM challenges. Students will sketch elaborate and neatly labeled design plans and then discover quickly that things are not going to be completed as smoothly as they would like.

Students attempting to secure their cargo before a cargo drop test in STEM class.

It Never Works the Way You Expect

This is a Cargo Drop Challenge. This team planned to build a square container and place the cargo (marshmallows) side by side in the container. They have cardboard on the bottom and craft sticks extending out in several directions.

Well, when they finished and dropped this container the cargo popped out.

The photo above is their second attempt to solve this problem. They added a cup to the container packed with bubble wrap and craft sticks inside the cup to add some stability because the cargo cannot easily move around.

Did it work? Yes- but they added the rubber band after another round of testing. Test and improve!

Trial and Error

This happens constantly in our challenges. The students plan a design, build it, try it out, and watch what happens. Based on what they see in the trial they make adjustments, take away, add to, and solve the problems. But, isn’t that real life? I some examples to share!

Gliding Bridges STEM Challenge-Students must build a support system to hang a pulley-driven system.

This is a challenge I call Gliding Bridges. Students must build a support system to hang a pulley-driven system.

In both these photos students had to find a way to make a string bridge work. The idea was that a container suspended from a rope would cross a river. By pulling on the rope the passengers in the container could transport themselves across the river. The problem shown in the photos is that the string was popping off the support columns and the container would crash.

The students had to find a way to keep the string in place. In the top photo the team curled a paper clip around the column (dowel stick) and made a little hook. In the bottom photo the team used pipe cleaners to make an enclosed spot so the string would stay in place. They also cleverly used the extra string to make a guide wire to hold the contraption in place! Amazing!

Things I Would Never Think Of

I have watched students solve some pretty tough situations. One day I had a student say, “I can’t tell you how many times we have failed at this!” Did he give up? Absolutely not! He went right back to his group and they kept working. They just tried something else! Here are samples of some of my favorite solutions invented by students.

STEM Challenge Rescue Devices- two teams work together with each building part of the device. Then they must join their two parts together to rescue their cargo.

Rescue Devices

This photo is from a challenge in which the kids had to build a rescue device that could wind up a cargo platform. Look closely. They have woven a straw through the craft stick platform at the top and by turning the straw they can wind up the platform on the ground. This was a challenging task. Making something that would actually wind up was harder than you think!

Cargo Drops- in this challenge students must build a platform that holds fragile cargo and then drop it in a "rescue" attempt.

Cargo Drops

This photo is from the Cargo Drop challenge. The cargo had to be inside a container with no top on it and when dropped the cargo could NOT move. This team added the paper “spring” to help absorb the impact of being dropped. They expected the cup to bounce like a shock-absorber and keep the cargo safe.

Bridge Towers- in this challenge two teams each create part of the structure. One team builds the bridge and the other builds the tower and then they join the two parts.

Bridge Towers

This photo is what some third graders did to solve a bridge problem. The bridge made of straws needed to support the weight of a tower that would be placed on the bridge later. This group used craft sticks to connect the straws across the opening for the bridge, but the straws and sticks kept slipping. Do you see what they did? They added a rubber band and then taped it in place to stop the movement of their bridge.

Gliding Bridges STEM Challenge-Students must build a support system to hang a pulley-driven system.

Gliding Bridge

This solution is one that has made me marvel every time I see this photo. It’s from the Gliding Bridge challenge. The gliding bridge device had to span an opening between two tables. On each side of the span kids built a support column of dowel sticks.

A string connected the two support columns on each side of the span. The string had to be movable. We actually pulled the string to make it slide around the support columns and transport the passengers. The group in the above photo came to me and asked if they could have a pulley- which I thought was rather genius. Of course they needed a pulley and I was pleased they knew this. Sadly, I told them they could not have a pulley. So, what did they do?

They built one using the bottoms out of cups they had in their supply bins.

Are you kidding me? Kids are Ah-May-Zing!

They think so much differently than we do. And here’s the thing. They can solve some pretty tough challenges and problems.

I bet you engineer something in your house or classroom all the time. 

Kids can solve those problems, too!

Try a STEM Challenge with your students this year! They will amaze you! You will be hooked!

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Problem Solving is the heart of STEM and the most interesting part to watch. Students are fearless and will keep working until they find a solution! And, their solutions are often amazing!