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Getting to the Heart of Problem Solving

The following is an article by ThinkFun CEO Bill Ritchie, recently published in ThinkFun’s bi-weekly Classroom Connection newsletter.  To receive these mailings, click here

This weekend I am off to volunteer as a judge at the FIRST Robotics New Jersey Regional Tournament, which I do every year. Founded by legendary engineer Dean Kamen, this is a wonderful program that teams high school students with adult professional engineers. Each team has six weeks to build a robot with special skills such as placing soccer balls into hanging baskets, and then we gather for a big weekend tournament and have a blast! The best teams move on to the National Championship.

FIRST calls this program “The varsity sport for the mind.” To be successful, teams must have strong engineering skills and be well organized. Most basically, though, successful teams are those whose members have learned how to be good problem solvers.

So what makes a good problem solver? For these kids, certainly it involves creative imagination. Should your robot have an arm to lift the ball or a leg to kick it into the goal? Do you focus on offense or defense? And once you decided the big directions, how can you tweak your design to ensure best performance?

first robotics 300x201 Getting to the Heart of Problem Solving

A Robot on Display at the 2009 FIRST Tournament

As a non-engineer, I’m not qualified to evaluate the engineering choices teams make. Rather, I serve as a “Team Attribute” judge, which means I ask questions like, “What are you doing to make your community a better place?” and “How are you mentoring younger kids to understand your values and aspire to be like you?” The FIRST organization encourages teams to see themselves as leaders and innovators and to aspire to the strong FIRST value system, and the kids’ responses are just amazing.

Both through their creations and in speaking with these young engineers, I get to see what is in these kids’ hearts. With the most dedicated and inspired teams, I see the same problem solving skills at play. The choices are humanist rather than engineering, and they all involve creative imagination and a blend of strategy, planning, collaboration, and execution. At the underlying core of it all, the decisions these kids make all stem from passion and perseverance… Robotics with heart!

I spend a lot my time thinking about problem solving… and if you are reading this, I bet you do also. It’s a very hard thing to define, and thus a hard thing to measure or test. But it’s really important!

Here’s what I believe: Problem solving starts deep in the emotions. It starts with a drive, a desire to get someplace, a belief that you can achieve. From there, you gain experience, by observing, modeling, trying, stretching yourself. Through this you learn confidence and perseverance, and then you’re on your way!

What do you believe makes a true problem solver? Please share your comments and let’s get the dialogue flowing!

2 comments to Getting to the Heart of Problem Solving

  • I recently joined a brain game company, which makes web-based games inspired by brain fitness exercises invented by psychologists. I’ve been thinking about how ThinkFun style problem solving games fit in and concluded that they are related but with an important difference.

    Brain exercise games like Concentration target specific low-level cognitive skills like memory or visual attention in isolation. These games are analogous to exercise machines, in that they target specific mental “muscles”, and produce steady easy to measure improvement.

    Strategic problem solving games like Rush Hour target much higher level cognitive skills like looking ahead or working backwards, which are made up of many low-level cognitive skills used in concert. These games are analogous to complex coordination exercises used in sports training, like basketball exercises, which are made of many low-level physical skills used in concert. These sorts of exercises can also produce measureable improvement, but the measurements are often more qualitative and less fine-grained.

    High-level skills of course require skills in all the low level skills, but even more important they require the ability to rapidly coordinate how those many skills are used together, which is a skill in itself. After all, a key part of problem solving is knowing when to use which strategy.

    Low-level cognitive skills are about which area of the brain is being employed, and are driven bottom-up.

    High-level cognitive skills are about achieving a certain sort of result, using whatever low-level skills are appropriate. High-level skills are driven top-down.

    What does this mean for ThinkFun? Both sorts of mental skills are important, but they need to be taught somewhat differently. Low-level skills can be exercised through rather rote methods — a strong memory in one area will transfer rather easily to a strong memory in other areas. Problem solving skills need to be exercised through a variety of means…learning to apply a problem solving strategy in many different contexts is crucial and not automatic, since the details of how a strategy is applied may vary considerably in different situations.

    So explicitly transferring what you have learned to a different domain should be part of ThinkFun’s curriculum. I love the story about the teacher transferring Chocolate Fix thinking to geometric proof. Perfect example.

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