Finding and Solving Problems
The goal of Finding and Solving Problems is to encourage cooperative work and problem-solving strategies through the use of technology tools and knowledge gained in a content area such as math or science.
Practice in Action
What Is It?
Finding and Solving Problems is an inquiry approach to learning that starts with posing a question or problem. The instructor uses questions to help students to identify a real-world problem or issue that concerns them (for example, ways to improve recycling or water conservation in their school or community). Students are asked to develop strategies that employ technology tools to help solve the problem. This practice promotes critical thinking and supports math and science content and skills development.
What Do I Do?
The key to the success of this practice is identifying a manageable and interesting problem to solve. Start small, and consider expanding or extending the activity if it proves successful. Working with students to identify a problem that interests them will increase their sense of ownership and willingness to participate. Encourage students to explore examples of projects from the Internet or from their school-day classes. Find out which technology tools are needed to make the activity successful.
Form teams that are appropriate for the activity and your students' age and skill level. As the project progresses, make any necessary adjustments and look for extension opportunities. When the project is complete, evaluate and plan the next one.
Remember that assessing student skills, completing the activity, and determining computer needs are all part of the planning process. Getting Started: Considerations for Activity Planning (PDF) will help you get underway.
Why Does It Work?
Finding and Solving Problems works because students are actively engaged in interdisciplinary, collaborative, open-ended, and challenging problems that are meaningful to them. Students can build independent thinking skills, and learn from one another. Further, aligning problem solving activities to the school day curriculum can enrich many content areas.
Planning Your Lesson
Great afterschool lessons start with having a clear intention about who your students are, what they are learning or need to work on, and crafting activities that engage students while supporting their academic growth. Great afterschool lessons also require planning and preparation, as there is a lot of work involved in successfully managing kids, materials, and time.
Below are suggested questions to consider while preparing your afterschool lessons. The questions are grouped into topics that correspond to the Lesson Planning Template. You can print out the template and use it as a worksheet to plan and refine your afterschool lessons, to share lesson ideas with colleagues, or to help in professional development sessions with staff.
Lesson Planning Template Questions
What grade level(s) is this lesson geared to?
How long will it take to complete the lesson? One hour? One and a half hours? Will it be divided into two or more parts, over a week, or over several weeks?
What do you want students to learn or be able to do after completing this activity? What skills do you want students to develop or hone? What tasks do they need to accomplish?
List all of the materials needed that will be needed to complete the activity. Include materials that each student will need, as well as materials that students may need to share (such as books or a computer). Also include any materials that students or instructors will need for record keeping or evaluation. Will you need to store materials for future sessions? If so, how will you do this?
What do you need to do to prepare for this activity? Will you need to gather materials? Will the materials need to be sorted for students or will you assign students to be "materials managers"? Are there any books or instructions that you need to read in order to prepare? Do you need a refresher in a content area? Are there questions you need to develop to help students explore or discuss the activity? Are there props that you need to have assembled in advance of the activity? Do you need to enlist another adult to help run the activity?
Think about how you might divide up groups―who works well together? Which students could assist other peers? What roles will you assign to different members of the group so that each student participates?
Now, think about the Practice that you are basing your lesson on. Reread the Practice. Are there ways in which you need to amend your lesson plan to better address the key goal(s) of the Practice? If this is your first time doing the activity, consider doing a "run through" with friends or colleagues to see what works and what you may need to change. Alternatively, you could ask a colleague to read over your lesson plan and give you feedback and suggestions for revisions.
What to Do
Think about the progression of the activity from start to finish. One model that might be useful—and which was originally developed for science education—is the 5E's instructional model. Each phrase of the learning sequence can be described using five words that begin with "E": engage, explore, explain, extend, and evaluate. For more information, see the 5E's Instructional Model.
Outcomes to Look For
How will you know that students learned what you intended them to learn through this activity? What will be your signs or benchmarks of learning? What questions might you ask to assess their understanding? What, if any, product will they produce?
After you conduct the activity, take a few minutes to reflect on what took place. How do you think the lesson went? Are there things that you wish you had done differently? What will you change next time? Would you do this activity again?
Friendship Bracelets (2-5)
An odd-numbered group of students are asked to pair up and create "friendship bracelets" for one another and problem-solve so that everyone can participate equally.
Duration: 5 to 6 sessions, 45 to 60 minutes each
- Work together to solve a simple problem using everyday math and logic skills and a visual learning application
- Learn more about each other by creating friendship bracelets
- Learn about the purpose and design of friendship bracelets
- Computers (1 per 2 students is best)
- Word-processing software, and Inspiration or Kidspiration visual learning (or a similar application) installed on each computer
- Digital projector connected to instructor's computer (optional)
- Digital camera
- Selection of beads and cords for the bracelets; materials will depend on student ages
- Tape measures or rulers, crayons, and paper
Instructors should determine students' computer skill level and select the appropriate technology tools. Instructors should also be familiar with any software or equipment used in the lesson, or enlist the help of a volunteer who is.
- Depending on the ages and skills of students, decide what type of bracelet they should create. Will this be a simple bracelet with colored beads, or a woven bracelet with a pattern? Do you want to include a brief introduction to designs and crafts of other cultures? For example, the knot-craft and hand weaving used to create traditional patterns stems from Native American handcrafts. For some helpful background information, see the Resources tab.
- Practice with the visual learning application. You can download a free 30-day trial of Kidspiration.
- Gather the beads, cord, and supplies needed for creating the bracelets.
- Practice by making several sample bracelets. The design and complexity will depend on the age and skill level of students.
What to Do
Engage students by talking about friendship bracelets.
- Ask if they have a friendship bracelet or have ever made one.
- Explain that friendship bracelets are:
- special and usually handmade;
- given from one person to another as a symbol of friendship;
- typically made from embroidery thread, wool, beads, and other materials—although styles will vary; and
- not meant to be removed from the wearer's wrist until they fall off naturally. By tradition, if a recipient wears a bracelet until it falls off naturally, he or she is entitled to a wish for having honored the hard work and love that went into the bracelet. If a bracelet is intentionally removed, however, the friendship is said to be over.
- Introduce the materials students will use for their bracelets and show the samples you made. You may distribute handouts that demonstrate how to make certain patterns and knots.
- Tell students that they are going to make friendship bracelets for each other.
Begin the activity.
Important: This activity only works with an odd number of students. If you have an even number of students, invite another student to participate, or participate yourself.
- Have them choose partners to discuss design ideas.
- In the pairing process, students discover that there are an odd number of students and one student is without a partner.
- Stop the activity and point out the dilemma. Then ask students how they can solve this problem. Tell them that they cannot work in a group of three, have one person make an extra bracelet, or have you be a partner (unless you are participating to make it an odd-numbered group).
- Have students discuss this amongst themselves, and ask them to share with the group any solutions they might propose.
Find and explain the solution.
- Introduce Inspiration or Kidspiration software and show how it can be used to "map" their solutions. Depending on their age and skill level, help students create symbols, and demonstrate how to move them around the screen.
- Question students and guide them through their problem-solving logic. If appropriate for the group's size, you may use a computer connected to a digital projector for the demonstration and sharing of ideas and solutions.
Make the bracelets.
- Arrange the group in a circle. Each student will make a bracelet for the person next to him or her, going around either clock-wise or counter-clockwise.
- Have students learn more about each other and take each other's picture with the digital camera.
- Demonstrate the steps for making bracelets and have each student make a bracelet for his or her identified partner. If time allows, students may make an additional bracelet for a person of their choice.
Note: Students may not want to make bracelets for partners they do not know. However, an important point of this activity is to meet someone new and learn something about him or her.
Write about the activity.
- After students have finished making their bracelets, have each write a short paragraph about the person for whom they made a bracelet. They can create the story on the computer and add digital pictures of each other and the bracelets.
- Explore other types of bracelets and types of materials. For example, find out more about cyclist Lance Armstrong's LIVESTRONG bracelet.
Outcomes to Look For
- Student engagement and participation
- Students share information about themselves and learn about others
- Ideas and comments that reflect an understanding of a problem, the use of problem-solving skills, and creative solutions
For more information and ideas to support this lesson, see the Resources tab.
Solution 1: List student names with the mapping software. Draw a vertical line connecting each name to the next, and then connect the last name to the first.
Solution 2: Arrange students' names in a circular pattern as shown below.
Hide and Seek with Geocaching (3-12)
Students locate objects hidden outdoors using a handheld global positioning system (GPS) receiver, learning about longitude and latitude, and global navigation.
Duration: 2 to 3 sessions of 60 to 90 minutes each
- Enhance and extend students' understanding of global geography
- Increase visual acuity
- Develop technology skills using handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers
- Computers with Internet access
- Digital projector (optional)
- Handheld GPS receivers, which may be purchased from a local discount or sporting goods store (one GPS unit for every 2 to 3 students)
- Digital cameras (optional)
- Paper and pencil for field notes and journal entries
- Objects to hide in caches (for example, Mr. Potato Head parts, other trinkets)
Instructors should determine students' understanding of longitude and latitude and their technology skill levels. Basic keyboarding skills will be required. Instructors should also have basic computer skills, basic geography skills, and experience operating both a digital projector and a handheld GPS receiver.
- Become familiar with your GPS handheld unit by following the instructions that are included with it.
- Familiarize yourself with the resources available at the Geocaching Web site.
- Create caches and either report them to the Geocaching Web site registry, or record coordinates manually.
What to Do
Introduce students to geocaching:
- Using a computer with Internet access and projector (optional), access the Geocaching Web site (www.geocaching.com) and provide an overview of this worldwide recreational activity.
- Generate and build on student interest by entering your afterschool location to see what caches might be nearby.
- If possible, arrange to take students to look for one of the caches registered on the Web site.
For younger students:
- Before the session begins, hide parts of a Mr. Potato Head in caches in the schoolyard and record their coordinates.
- Divide students into small groups, each with an adult supervisor, or have them work together without an adult.
- Using the handheld GPS receivers and coordinates provided, the group or groups should locate the caches. Discuss units of distance (for example, miles, feet) during the search process, and define geocaching vocabulary (for example, cache, satellite, waypoints, coordinates).
- Have students make an entry in the logbook at each cache to reinforce proper geocaching etiquette.
For older students:
- Before the session begins, create a cache or several caches in the schoolyard or in nearby locations. Record the coordinates from the GPS. Helpful hints on creating your first cache can also be found at the Geocaching Web site. This site also includes information on listing your cache so that others may find it. Note: You must be a registered user of the site to list a cache in the online registry.
- Divide students into groups of three, with one GPS receiver per group. In order to involve each student, assign roles, such as GPS handler, logbook keeper, and photographer (if you use cameras). Change roles so that everyone has a chance to use the GPS receiver and enter coordinates.
- Give each group coordinates to a cache and have them find it. Document the search using notes and photos (optional).
Back in the classroom:
- Discuss the geocaching activity.
- Have older students write a description of the experience on a computer, including the search coordinates they used, and any photos of their find.
- If this was a registered cache, have students make an entry in the Geocaching Web site.
- Take geocaching beyond treasure hunting, and make it a nature study, creative writing opportunity, or other activity. For some ideas, see the Resources page.
Outcomes to Look For
- Understanding of plotting techniques and geographical terminology, including latitude and longitude
- Comfort using technology tools, including the Internet and handheld GPS receivers to enhance learning
Building Robotic Machines (8-12)
This lesson provides ideas for setting up a LEGO lab classroom, introducing students to robotics, and leading students in their first construction.
Multiple 60-minute sessions, twice a week (depending on the difficulty of the activity and the experience level of the instructor and students). Projects could require several weeks to complete.
- Apply practical math and scientific concepts while learning design, mechanical construction, and computer programming
- Learn to read and follow directions carefully
- Visualize, think, and problem solve in a three-dimensional perspective
- Discover properties and use of basic electronic light, rotation, touch, and temperature sensors
- Choose and purchase a LEGO system that is age appropriate and suitable to your budget. To help make this investment choice, see these reviews in the Consumer Guide for Afterschool Science Resources
- Storage space: If you are familiar with LEGO building sets, you know there are hundreds of pieces to organize and store. Therefore, having a secure place to store student projects and parts is essential. Experience suggests an investment in some type of storage cabinet with multiple drawers for organizing all parts.
- Work space: Most of the projects require small-group work, so you will need a workspace with tables and chairs to accommodate up to four students. For the first session, set up a large table in the center of room with several boxes and trays holding a variety of LEGO blocks, wheels, rods, and gadgets.
- Assistants or volunteers: Experienced instructors suggest one instructor or teaching assistant for every two teams. Teams can vary in size from two to four students. Collaborations among instructors and students are encouraged. Once students become experienced, they can serve as instructor assistants.
- Sheets of white paper and colored pencils for drawing
- Computer with Internet access and projection to a large screen or interactive whiteboard
- Study the LEGO Teacher Guide for a clear understanding of the project and process you have chosen.
- Create a "Parts Inventory" of LEGO pieces in a Word document.
- Decide how students will be paired for the activity.
What to Do
Introduce the activity. What is a robot?
- Engage students by asking them what they think a robot is. Discuss what students know and believe about robots.
- Distribute paper and colored pencils.
- Ask students to draw a picture of a robot or robots using their imaginations.
- After students have completed their drawings, ask them to look at the robots they have drawn and consider the following questions:
- How does your robot move?
- Does it have arms? If so, does it have joints? Where?
- Does it have any other moving pieces? How and where do they move?
- Does your robot have a purpose?
- As students start to think differently about their drawings, walk around the room and ask individual students questions about their drawings.
- Ask students to think like an engineer or a scientist would think—more analytically and in more detail than they might normally think.
- Using the pictures previously bookmarked online, use a computer with projection to show students a variety of advanced robots. Ask students how they think these robots move and are powered. Ask students to visualize how their own arms, hands, legs, and feet move.
- Ask students to look at their robot drawings again and think more about their designs.
- Have students share what they might do differently now that they have seen pictures of other robots.
Introduce the project.
- With your LEGO "Parts Inventory" projected for all students to see, explain that as a scientist or engineer, it is important to keep tools and parts in the laboratory well organized and neat. Even though this class might not have a cabinet with drawers for each kind of piece, which would be ideal, there are bins for the different sizes and types of blocks, beams, plates, wheels, connector plugs, gears, axles, sensors, and lamps.
- Show students all the different parts as you talk and explain the organization of your classroom laboratory.
- Explain they will work in pairs and will share responsibility for gathering the necessary parts, keeping track of those parts, and returning them to their project bin with project instructions.
- Group students in teams of two for this project.
- Have students collect their materials from the parts trays.
- After they collect the materials and read the instructions, have students begin to build their beginning project.
- As students complete this introductory project, look at what they've made together as a class. Discuss what practical functions it might have in society.
- Ask how computer automations would improve their project.
- Ask students what they have learned as a result of this first effort and what they will do differently on their next LEGO project.
- Emphasize the importance of reading carefully and visualizing thoughtfully.
- Teacher guides, lesson plans, curriculum, worksheets, and video examples in various LEGO sets, which you can obtain from commercial publishers and the Internet, provide hours, if not years, of projects for students and teachers who are interested in technology and engineering.
- More advanced projects utilize motorized levers, gears, and pulleys as well as multiple types of sensors and advanced computer programming.
- Local and national robotic competitions will challenge students’ problem solving, practical math, scientific, mechanical construction, and computer programming skills.
Outcomes to Look For
- Students read and follow directions
- Students assemble a working robotic arm
- Students work responsibly with a teammate
- Students recognize the difference between a robot and robotics
For more information and ideas to support this lesson, see the Resources tab.
Ringstaff, C., & Kelley, L. (2003). The learning return on our educational technology investment: A review of findings from research.San Francisco, CA: WestEd Regional Technology in Education Consortium in the Southwest.
George Lucas Educational Foundation. (2001). Project-based learning research.Retrieved June 22, 2007, from Project-based Learning Research
Jonassen, D. H., & Stollenwerk, D. (1999). Computers as mindtools for schools: Engaging critical thinking.NY: Pearson Education.
The following resources are related to the "Finding and Mapping with GPS" sample lesson.
Geocaching - The Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site
You begin any geocaching project at this site because here is the place to register your cache and track a travel bug.
Geocaching for Kids
Website authors share their experience in creating and finding caches with kids. They answer questions commonly associated with geocaching and offer their personal favorite caches.
GPS Product Reviews
Before purchasing GPS units for geocaching check product reviews on this site. An online forum also provides answers to questions regarding GPS and geocaching.
GPS in Education
United States Geological Survey and Rocky Mountain Mapping Center sponsor this site which provides GPS lesson ideas including specific directions and website links to explain GPS satellites and the Degree Confluence Project as well as a mail group for teachers using GPS.
Find locations around the world
National Geographic Xpeditions
Maps for printing and copying
The following resources are related to the "Friendship Bracelets" sample lesson.
Wikipedia: Friendship Bracelet
A nice history and ideas for integrating other subjects into this project.
Student and teacher inspired ideas and step by step instructions.
Inspiration Software, Inc.
Lots of ideas for using this easy to use computer software.
The following resources are related to the "Building Robotic Machines" sample lesson.
Choose and purchase a LEGO system that is age appropriate and suitable to your budget. To help make this investment choice, see these reviews in the Consumer Guide for Afterschool Science Resources: