Solving Problems

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Solving problems drives good teaching and learning. Teachers use problem-solving to help students apply new knowledge. If the curriculum goal calls for learning the formula for calculating area, for example, students can practice using that formula by applying it to a problem that needs solving such as: If a class room is 30ft by 30ft, and each chair needs approximately 3ft by 3ft of space, how many chairs can you fit in the classroom? (30×30=900 divided by 3×3=9; 900 divide by 9 equals 100 chairs). Problem solving leads to skill building of applying new knowledge, in this case, the skill of applying a mathematical formula to solve a real-world problem.

The Problem with Solving Problems

Calculating the area of a classroom provides students with a useful skill for the future, but the problem with this type of education is that the future’s problems will be different. We may have to think differently about what we teach now given that the future will be so different. Take for example the shuttle disaster of 30 years ago:

But on the eve of the tragedy’s 30th anniversary, there are other scientists who should come to mind as well: The ones who worked tirelessly to figure out what had gone wrong so that changes would ensure it would never happen again. Perhaps the loudest of these was Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate in physics who contributed to the Rogers Commission Report. Feynman didn’t need to devote hours to calculations about the structural integrity of the shuttle in order to reach any conclusions about the cause of its disintegration. His brutally simple explanation that the shuttle experienced colder temperatures than any in which the craft had ever been tested. And what may have seemed like a trivial few degrees spelled inevitable disaster for the crew once the Challenger lifted off.

“Feynman was not a perfect man, and he remains one of the more problematic “heroes” of scientific history. But his work on the Rogers Commission Report — just two years before his death — was arguably his crowning achievement. He reportedly distanced himself from the government-affiliated authors involved, choosing instead to interview as many engineers involved in the project as he could. Feynman was so critical of NASA’s role in the tragedy that his chapter of the report was shuffled to the appendix. The scientist didn’t mince words: He pointed out that NASA management ranked the safety of the shuttles thousands of times higher than the engineers did, which encouraged unrealistic launch timelines and a tendency to underestimate risky flight conditions.”

Washington Post

Teaching for the Future

So it may be that teaching and learning problem solving actually results in lower level learning precisely because we are solving for lower level problems of the past. The engineers at NASA were much more concerned with safety than management. The problem that needed to be solved to prevent the shuttle disaster was the tension between politics and engineering! How will we teach for that? How will we learn for that? And most importantly, how will we help students acquire the proper skills of engineering math and political tension compromise?

Learning for the Future

So there is another example of a person who identified the real problem for the future, and his fifteen year retreat to solve that problem. Featured on January 6, 2019 and again on 6o Minutes last night, Xyleco is the world’s leading expert in unlocking the potential of non-food biomass.

Xyleco was founded by Marshall Medoff with the vision of increasing the world’s available sustainable resources.

Examples of Xyleco products
Non-food biomass waste is plentiful and renewable.
In order to create a sustainable resource from biomass, it is necessary to change the molecular structure into a new material. Centuries of scientific effort have failed to find a commercially viable way to do that.
Mr. Medoff carefully studied this science problem. Inspired by natural forces including light and solar energy, he ultimately innovated and patented sustainable technologies that cleanly and inexpensively restructure biomass into a new material with a changed molecular structure.”


“The sugars obtained from this new material produce a wide range of downstream building block products, as well as intermediate and final products to inexpensively house, feed, medicate, clothe and provide clean energy and the other necessaries, and together create a trillion-dollar global product market. Xyleco has established a multi-billion dollar valuation.”


“Mr. Medoff’s Natural Force® technologies represent a transformative ethical and scientific breakthrough that use only non-food sources, significantly reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and significantly increase the world’s sustainable resources. For example, Xyleco’s ethanol is estimated to reduce greenhouse gasses by better than 70%. For more information click here.”

Xyleco’s home page

Identify the Right Problem

Mr. Medoff never took a chemistry course. His identification of the problem is aimed at the part of the problem most companies have not solved, the future as defined by the requirement that the future includes a sustainable source of energy. Most of the energy companies today are aiming to achieve a future with some sustainability. And this is understandable, because burning energy like oil and gas was previously thought of as sustainable with no end in sight. In previous decades, there was plenty of coal, gas and oil, until we realized much more recently that there was not enough. But we are stuck in the old way of doing business, solving old problems, and burning old energy while polluting our world and actually using up our available energy resources. Now that we can measure how much we have, and predict that we will run out, we are ready to move on. And we know that there is much more biomass than any of those other types of energy. Solving the right problems is a constantly changing priority we can all get behind. We must keep up, constantly, and define the problem so that our children will solve for the right problems.