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Judy Spooner Viewpoint: Problem-solving lessons apply in school and life

A good education should include learning to solve problems, according to educators. Our offspring need to identify a problem and analyze possible solutions.

From a committee meeting at church to putting an ice rink in your backyard, you will be asked to solve problems all your life.

To incorporate more problem solving, teachers are using "project learning." An example is a project Oltman Middle School kids will be doing with a generous grant from 3M. They will design and build a roller coaster. In the process, they will learn principles of physics and working well in groups. Robotics clubs are another example of project learning.

My own project learning concerns asphalt shingles. I've been asking people over the past week how they would remove the nails from shingles. Some of them fall to the ground and can be picked up, but the presence of nails keeps them as construction waste.

One man said he'd use a magnet and the problem would be solved. If you think it's that easy, you need some project learning. Magnets would not remove all the nails.

Another solution is to remove them by hand. That is an "at source" solution and would work.

But it's labor intensive. If you own the roofing company, you're adding to your overhead and would have to get money from recycling the shingles.

Daughter Margie's friend Amy said you might solve the problem by starting at the end of the process. First, decide what usable product you could make from used shingles. Maybe the nails wouldn't matter.

I thought about using nails that melt.

"I was only trying to think outside the box, as they say," I told husband Gary. "Some things would not have been invented if ideas were rejected because they sounded silly."

Margie suggested melting the shingles and removing the nails with electro-magnets. That would work, but if you missed one it couldn't be used for playgrounds. The nature of the asphalt is changed by heating. The end product would be hard and the choices as to how to reuse it would be fewer.

Cold causes matter to contract. What would happen if you put shingles in a freezer and used a magnet?

The teacher's role in project learning will be important in that a solution proposed by a student might not be possible because of something the teacher already knows. Knowing when to encourage and when to shoot down a solution is important, according to Jim Huber, Park High School's robotics advisor.

The asphalt recycling is hypothetical, of course. Someone could already have a solution. But it's an example of pure problem solving because the answer is unknown.

On the other hand, maybe I should just send the problem to "MythBusters." If you blow up a bunch of shingles, maybe the nails just fall out.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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