Solving The World’s Problems In The Classroom.
Using case studies of real-life problems can be a productive way to make a subject more relevant to students. Students can come up with some clever solutions, and may be a useful resource to use in solving these problems.
Problem-solving can be an excellent exercise to cement learning, as it forces students to engage high cognitive functions and work with concepts and information covered in the course to develop their own solutions. In many courses, such as mathematics, chemistry, and physics, the problems presented to the students are often theoretical. There is a clear answer, and the benefit of reaching it for students is the exercise of using concepts taught in the class to reinforce those concepts. However, some classes, especially upper-level classes, may pose problems to students that do not have clear answers. These may be real-world problems which still need practical solutions. This sort of problem solving forces students to really engage with the material, and it pushes them to be both creative and use the knowledge they have about a system.
GRAPPLING WITH HUMAN COMPONENTS
Last semester I taught a class on insect pest management, which is a subject that provides myriad opportunities for problem solving. Pest management is NOT a field that has all the answers ready to go. Consider the recent headlines about the mosquito-vectored Zika virus or the continued heavy press focused on honey bee health, which implicates parasitic mites and agricultural insecticides. These problems do not have easy solutions, but provide fantastic opportunities for students to grapple with the broader principles of pest management to try to concoct solutions.
The biggest quirk of this assignment was that students were specifically pushed to consider not just the hard science, but also the human components of the system.
So far in this class, we have had several particularly exceptional problem-solving discussions in which the students did a fantastic job of devising solutions. The first four arose from a group project in which student groups were assigned topics: Emerald ash borer massacring ash trees, bed bugs re-establishing as dominant pests in hotels and homes, Varroa mites devastating honey bee colonies, and mosquito-vectored Zika virus’s recent rise from obscurity to globalization. The biggest quirk of this assignment was that students were specifically pushed to consider not just the hard science, but also the human components of the system. For example, the solid science has provided a variety of solutions to the Varroa mite problem in honey bees. Unfortunately, these solutions are expensive and/or labor intensive to implement, and doing it wrong can result in poisoning the bees, the honey, or both. As a result, many beekeepers choose to trust their luck rather than treating. Similarly, the collective “we” knows how to clear an infestation of bed bugs, but it’s expensive, time consuming, and labor intensive, which raises major questions of who is responsible for dealing with an infestation in a rental housing situation. The students did an absolutely fantastic job of synthesizing the current management strategies for each of these issues and proposing solutions that would potentially resolve, or at least improve, the situation without drastically disenfranchising anyone who is affected by it.
From a pedagogical standpoint, the purpose of these discussions was for the students to practice using the information we covered in class, and for me to assess how well the students were meeting the learning objectives of the class. However, these students also developed potential solutions to real-world problems. Unfortunately, I have not created any mechanism for their hard work to have any broad impacts beyond the class. I suspect that rigorous problem-solving exercises in upper-level classes could produce genuine solutions to real-world problems, though.
Jamie Kopco is finishing his Ph.D. in entomology. Among other pedagogical tasks, he is teaching an undergrad/grad class, doing science outreach, and generally trying to foster a sense of curiosity and discovery.