by Lacy Compton
With the emphasis on 21st-century skills and growing expertise in gifted students, Problem-Based Learning (PBL) units have the potential to teach kids global skills while helping them creatively solve real-world problems. Such units introduce a "fuzzy" or ill-structured problem--one that doesn't have enough information included to be solved. Students then use research skills, critical and creative thinking, and other skills to help determine their solution to the problem. The best part? A good PBL unit doesn't have a set solution--PBL units allow students to self-direct their learning. It's a flexible alternative to learning that taps into kids' love of open-ended problems.
How can teachers implement this type of strategy in the classroom? Start by reading this article, "Problem-Based Learning 101," by Shelagh Gallagher, one of the gurus of this method of teaching. Then, why not look into current research and "problems" real scientists are facing as inspiration for writing your own PBL units? Some stories you might read for inspiration include:
- National Geographic recently reported on a study that purports to find the reason behind why the 1918 flu was so deadly. Considering this is a mystery that's troubled scientists for decades, it and other similar disease outbreaks can be used as fodder for PBL units. For example, you can ask students to think futuristically and pretend a similar disease is sweeping the world--then have them propose solutions for containing and preventing it.
- A common problem facing gardeners and biologists both is the shortage of bumblebees in North America, as reported by the National Wildlife Federation. Such a problem can be localized, asking students to contact local biologists and wildlife specialists, as well as gardeners, nursery owners, etc. to help them determine how they would increase the bee population in their city.
- The National Science Foundation has an entire website dedicated to "Brain Power" or the ways neuroscience is affecting technological innovations. The fascinating articles on this site could be helpful to teachers, especially when thinking about the ways neuroscience is working to solve problems like paralysis, hearing impairments, and visual impairments.
These are just some ideas for inspiring your own fuzzy problems. Whatever course you take, don't forget to throw some kickers in for the students--side problems that might shake up their discoveries and cause them to rethink the solution paths they were building. For example, with the bee problem, you might have a group of parents of children highly allergic to bees protest having new fauna planted in local parks that contain public playgrounds. Students have to weigh these opinions and determine how they affect their plans.