Grand & Everyday Challenges for Education

This project framework involves students and teachers in real world problem solving activities jointly with others, including people from the world outside of education. Questions and problems and other challenges, both "grand" and everyday, are posed by folks for whom these are real challenges. These are available from a "challenge server." Students and teachers can search the server for relevant challenges, and can then interact with the challenge posers and work to develop solutions. Groups of students and teachers can form "tele-task forces" to work together over the network to solve challenges. Successful solutions will in some cases lead to creative solutions that the experts in the field would not have developed on their own.

Goals: To develop students' problem solving skills, especially problem solving collaboratively with others, both locally and remotely. To have students learn skills and knowledge within a broader, more motivating context.

Grade levels: This project can involve students of any grade level or ability level. The ways in which students become involved can vary, but all are welcome to participate.

Content Area: All content areas can be involved.

Network use: Challenges can be submitted through email or World-Wide Web forms, and responses to the challenges can also be sent either through email or forms. Some of the mediation will be done automatically while other mediation will be done by people.

Here are some examples of how the Grand & Everyday Challenges for Education can work:

Grand Challenges

A world class mathematician posts on an unsolved theorem that is important to the progress of her work. A high school math class teacher selects that challenge and poses it to his students, who apply a new piece of visualization software to the problem and develop some promising new approaches which assist the mathematician in developing a new way of thinking about the theorem that allows an innovative solution.

A panel of ecological experts is concerned with the issue of how to increase the rate of recycling plastics. They are particularly concerned about the impact of "juice boxes", since they are a composite of plastic, paper, and aluminum. They post as a challenge how to deal with the problems raised for recycling of "juice boxes". Two elementary school classes chooses to consider this challenge jointly. They interview their fellow classmates about what they like and dislike about juice boxes, they interview their parents about why they buy them, they observe the ways that they and their classmates use and dispose of them. They consider alternatives to juice boxes, and develop an alternate that they write up and submit back to the ecological panel, which considers it, and includes it in their report to Congress, which changes regulations about the manufacture of such containers to encourage the more effective solution suggested by the elementary school class and refined by the panel.

A team of scientists developing state-of-the-art supercomputer-based models of tornados posts a description of a puzzling mismatch between their model and data from a set of recent tornados in Illinois. A middle school science class in Illinois examines aspects of the model though their network connection, accesses additional weather information about those tornados from their online state weather database, and formulates some new hypotheses to explain the anomalies. They communicate electronically with the team of scientists to clarify some aspects of the mismatch, and to get suggestions for ways to test those hypotheses by applying the model to additional tornado data. Then the class submits the surviving hypotheses back to the team of scientists for further investigation.

Everyday Challenges

A local park district is in the process of deciding what new play structure to install in a local park. They post their challenge, and a local elementary school teacher organizes her class to collect and create a variety of designs, to analyze preferences, cost and safety factors, and to report back to the park district a design supported by their analyses.

A university professor, as part of her research project, needs to know more about middle school students' concepts of friction, in order to design a better way to teach the concept. She posts the challenge, then several schools together take up the challenge, conducting the surveys, analyzing them, and sending the survey results and their summary report to the professor.

A local agency serving homeless people faces a shortage of child care workers. It posts the challenge. A group of schools contact the homeless shelters in their areas, and compile a list of different ways in which child care is provided. One approach, to work with a local retirement home to involve retired people as child care providers, is proposed as a solution to the challenge. Details of how that solution works in another location are provided, along with some suggestions of modifications that would make the solution more effective in the challenge location.

A county planning group is trying to decide which of several locations to select for a new landfill They post the challenge. A group of schools access network resources on the geology, the population density, and land-uses of those areas. They work with a simulation model of ground water flow that they locate on the network, and they produce qualitative predictions of the impact of the different locations on water quality. They contact other classrooms in areas that have created new landfills, to identify the kinds of issues involved. Finally they create a report which they send back to the local planning group, which uses the report in their decision process.

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Last updated: 18 June 1996
by Jim Levin