Why open-ended problems?
Here is one approach based on a model of an engineering design firm.
This isn't the only approach. Use a situation you know to connect the classroom
work to a real-world application. This guide will refer to a previosly
documented open-ended problem-solving project which can be found at www.tjhsst.edu/~jleaf/tec/html/index.htm
An RFP (Request For Proposal) is a standard way that the government or a business asks other businesses to solve a problem. The RFP defines what the final solution will do and what constraints must be met. The path to get there is not defined. One example of an RFP comes from the reference project with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baileys Circus. (Circus RFP)
For any project that has a long duration, two weeks or more, intermediate milestones must be used. The nature of students is to put off as much as possible to the night before. Don't let them. Intermediate milestones are planned to have pieces of the project completed along the way. By completing these pieces, the last few days do not become panicy and do not produce poor results. Look at the milestones for the circus project, as an example.
This is scarey. On an open-ended project, the results cannot be known in advance. Plus, it's hard to give up control. Let them go. Most students will exceed teachers' expectations, if the teacher gets out of the way and lets them run.
On open-ended projects, the teacher becomes a sheepdog. ?? A sheepdog points the herd in a direction and lets them run. The sheepdog's major roles are to pick the direction and steer strays who wonder off back into the herd.
One point must be made here. Total failure is not total failure. If a solution doesn't work prefectly the first time, students are programmed to feel that they failed. That's not realistic. Nothing ever works right the first time. If the initial design does fail, have them analyze the failure:
The problem-solving process is reasonably standard. Go to The Problem-Solving Process for a detailed description. There are several points to be made when teaching this process:
According to Roger von Oech in A Kick In The
Seat Of The Pants, every problem-solver wears four hats. Student evaluation
of themselves is one way of creating teams. Have students read the four
definitions in The Creative Problem-Solver and
rate themselves in order of strength at each. Organize teams with a balance
of individual skills. There is no good way to put teams together without
having a team from hell, but this way seems fair to most of the
There is no fool-proof method for creating teams. Student self-selection often does not create the most effective teams since selection is based on social rather than skill considerations. That is, unless you are the smartest kid in the class. Then everyone wants to be on your team. Random methods, like pulling names out of a hat or alphabetical schemes, are fair, but allow for major mis-matches in skills.
Another alternative that has some success is to create teams by skill or interest level:
Many students are uncomfortable working in teams. Stealing from business, an opening team-building exercise may help bring the team together. One is to give the teams the outline of a crest or shield, or any shape, divided into compartments. One compartment is allocated for each team member, with a central compartment for the team. Each individual draws an image or icon which represents him or herself. Then, the team creates an image that represents the entire team. The team then presents their shield to the rest of the class.
This method was successful in the Circus
project. There are many other activities of this type. The public library
may carry books of games trainers play or training activities. If you know
someone in corporate training, ask him or her. The idea is to get them
working together and building respect.
Each student must keep a logbook.
Now its time to put the teams to work. First, have them do preliminary
thinking on the subject. (This may be done before the project starts) Then,
have the teams list all of the operations that will need to be completed
to complete the project. Next is to develop the Gantt Chart. Every project
is different, so there are no easy rules to tell you what to do. It might
pay to talk to a business planner or an project engineer to help you organize
and direct student thinking on planning a project.
Students don't know how long things take to complete. Students may see a final due date far enough out that they don't see a need to work hard early. Milestones somewhat help to overcome procrastination, but tasks other than those directly related to the the milestones may be put off.
For this reason, weekly status meetings are necessary. This is standard business procedure. Every week, the teacher should sit down with each team and review the Gantt Chart with respect to progress. Teams should show where they are on their Gantt Chart and explain why any operation is behind. (Note: The teacher should evaluate early in the process each Gantt Chart to see if teams, at least, understand the project and have a good idea what will have to be done to successfully complete the project.) Teams should also be able to state what work is expected to be accomplished during the next week and which person on the team will be doing it. Accountability is important.
Logbooks should also be checked during status
The best ideas are worthless unless they can be communicated to others. Also, along with teamwork, communication is one of the most important skills for success in the business world today. Therefore, students must present their solutions to an audience. Making it a sales presentation helps focus students on what they have to do. Also, having them present to outside professionals who come in for the day, motivates students to work hard. Embarassing themselves in front of the teacher is one thing, but students do not like to embarass themselves in front of strangers. Besides, as Woodie Flowers puts it, "Students need to learn to become friends with the lump in the pits of their stomachs. (Note: Woodie Flowers in a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. He runs the ping pong ball competitions you may have seen on PBS.)
For a simple student oral communication handbook, look at The
As Long As You Have To Talk You Might As Well Get A Good Grade Handbook