“Problem-Solving Communities”

A recent blog post by Steven Mintz on the Inside Higher Ed site extolled the virtues of “problem-solving communities’ The piece referenced the history of problem-solving organizations and competitions in elementary and secondary education and gave a particular shout-out to Future Problem Solving Program International, an international organization founded in 1974 to promote problem-solving as a specific skill and mindset.

Twenty-five years ago I had a brief stint as assistant coach to a team of students who were engaged in the competitions managed by Odyssey of the Mind, founded in 1978, now also an international organization imagesand competition. Our team made it to the World Finals, but a tight budget kept me off the plane to Colorado, and thus I missed seeing our team finish third there! But the experience, and the program, inspired me.

Part of that inspiration has drawn me to a certain genre of reality TV that involves problem-solving and puts the problem and the solving over human drama. The old Scrapheap Challenge (known in the U.S. as Junkyard Wars) program enchanted me, with teams competing to solve engineering challenges under tight constraints and limited in their selection of raw materials to what they could find in what seemed to be the world’s most wonderful junkyards. Project Runway at its best offers the same kind of experience: a problem, constraints, solution design, coaching, and critiques. All these shows lack is the opportunity to iterate and improve the work product, but otherwise they give a fair representation of the “design thinking” process that many schools are talking about these days.

But I digress. The Interested Child likes to reference programs and opportunities offered in schools that might pique the curiosity and perhaps in time the passions of kids, and programs like Odyssey of the Mind and its counterpart, Destination Imagination, are superb in this area–and we suspect there are local and regional versions and variations that also ignite children’s creativity around solving complex problems in ways that incorporate every aspect of STEM, STEAM, and intellectual endeavors in general. There are also numerous robotics programs and competitions that serve the same purpose–and then there is Canstruction, which combines design, problem-solving, and service learning.

So if your school–or your interested child’s school–has a team or a program based on the idea of problem-solving, look into it. If you’re an interested adult, you might even ask about volunteering as a coach or a driver or a fund-raiser.

And if there is no “problem-solving” program, suggest that having an Odyssey of the Mind, robotics, Canstruction, Destination Imagination, or similar program would be a great way to engage kids in hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, the humanities in action, and even service learning. I remember the thrill of watching kids’ gadgets and machines and solutions in action at OotM competitions, and you and any interested children you know can be thrilled, too.

#73. Build a “machine” out of junk and duct tape or other cheap and easy-to-find materials

IDEA #73. Think of some sillyor important, eventask that you have to do and then build a “machine” out of junk and duct tape (or other cheap and easy-to-find materials) that performs the task. You can decide to make the machine beautiful and well-crafted, or you can decide to make it utterly ridiculous—the more duct tape, the better!

The cartoonist Rube Goldberg was famous for designing “machines” of absurd complexity that accomplished everyday tasks, and today there is a rich tradition in both engineering and design in using unlikely materials and over-engineering to create simple machines—usually in fact a combination of the classical simple machines (inclined plane, wheel and axle, pulley, wedge, screw, and lever)—to do things that are either necessary and useful or in fact totally useless.

No material has lent itself more to the uses of amateur inventors and engineers than duct tape, the ubiquitous silver-gray fabric-based tape that seems to stick to everything, especially itself, and that has famously been reported to have been used to perform emergency repairs on everything from shoes to airplanes. A pair of good scissors, some sacrificial cardboard boxes and a few sticks of wood are all the raw materials a young engineer might need to create almost anything; if other materials are also at hand, even Rube Goldberg’s creations might only be a starting point.

This is the unlikely time to introduce to the youngster the concept of scientific elegance. Some engineers are naturally tidy in their work and have an inborn sense to design that makes everything they produce look somehow elegant—simple, clean-lined, neatly made. Elegant solutions in science, engineering, and mathematics combine simplicity and grace, without extraneous elements, and the quest for elegance in an activity like this reduces the Rube Goldberg aspects to a bare minimum.

duct-tapeOn the other hand, there is an exuberance in recognizing that anything made primarily of scrap and duct tape is in itself likely to be a assemblage of casually combined and inelegantly put together pieces, and that therefore a certain amount of extraneity is to be welcomed and even sought. Why not make the thing as baroque as possible, with added elements that have nothing to do with function but add whimsy to the form? If the object reminds one a bit of a rabbit, why not add long ears, whiskers, and a cotton tail?

This activity is about invention, but above all it is about allowing imagination and inclination to run a little wild. Elegant or not, the duct tape invention is part of great way to explore how things work and how they go together—learning a bit of physics and industrial design along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#58. Try selling a work of art or literature that you have created

IDEA #58. Try selling a work of art or literature that you have created. The internet or your public library will have resources on how to sell your writing and illustrations, or perhaps a local art store will be willing to give you advice about marketing a painting or a piece of sculpture.

This activity combines the challenges of creativity with the sometimes greater challenge of finding a market for one’s art. There are vast numbers of low-circulation poetry and literary magazines that will accept work submitted by amateur or unknown authors (usually, alas, without payment, but look hard), and there are probably at least as many magazines, books, and websites dedicated to publicizing ways for authors to get work published. The chances are good that your public library will have at least one of these “how to sell your work” books, which may also have information on selling illustrations and fine art work to the same kinds of literary magazines.

There may be other markets closer to home. Some small-town or community newspapers will happily accept fiction, poetry, and even art work from local creators. There may even be local or regional literary magazines whose existence is unexpected; the library might be a good source of information here.

As far as the marketing of visual art goes, many communities have summer arts fairs where local artists can show and sell their work. Some of these are juried—that is, artists are selected by a committee to participate—but some are open. There is likely to be at least one art dealer nearby who might be persuaded to handle good-quality work by a rising young local talent, or there is always the equivalent of the lemonade stand: put up a booth on the curb.

If the youngster has a few friends with creative urges and a pile of poetry or paintings, why not suggest that they pool resources and publish their own literary magazine or start their own gallery? A few advertisements from local merchants or friends would pay to photocopy a few dozen copies, which could also be sold. Or perhaps a local business has a small spare room that could become gallery space. And there’s always a website: many blogsites are free and could be used to post poetry, short stories, or paintings or photographs, although it’s hard to make money on a blog.

It is easy to find people who will maintain that art does not pay, and often they are correct. But an ambitious artist (and friends) might be able to raise at least a few dollars in the art market, and along the way there will be opportunities to learn about both the creative self and the art market.

#12. Write a children’s book. Illustrate it yourself, or ask a friend to help. Field test your book by reading to children of the right age; ask them for feedback, and make changes until you have a book that kids really like. Once you know have written something appealing, find someone to publish your book.

IDEA #12. Write a children’s book. Illustrate it yourself, or ask a friend to help. Field test your book by reading to children of the right age; ask them for feedback, and make changes until you have a book that kids really like. Once you know have written something appealing, find someone to publish your book.

What was your (or your children’s) favorite children’s story? Do you still have a copy around? There is no better place to start imagining writing one’s own children’s book than by carefully examining the form and structure of another.

The secret to most great children’s books is that they combine a great simplicity of form—relatively few words to a page, short sentences, few characters—with a wonderful complexity or open-endedness. The book suggests or evokes rather than spelling out aspects of the character or the story. Goodnight, Moon, for example, provides a prop-filled setting but almost no context; the story could be about, and for, anyone, so every child—and every parent—feels included in the narrative, even if the great green room does not look much like home.

The next Goodnight, Moon might be a bit much to hope for, but creating a storyline and illustrations that might entertain a young neighbor or cousin is simply a great way to harness imaginative power. Which comes first, the pictures or the text, makes little difference, but the story should above all appeal to the writer, and if there are opportunities to introduce whimsy or humor—even irony—by all means take them, as even toddlers know a good joke when they encounter it.

Reassure the young author that the illustrations do not have to look professional—even many published children’s books are a bit rough in the visual department, as evocative is perhaps even more effective than precisely representational. An important physical characteristic for a children’s book is that it can be seen by the listener even as it is being read aloud—larger drawings are better than smaller ones, although some detail is always welcome.

The proof of the pudding, so to speak, will be the first time the story is shared with a young listener. Think of the first audiences as being like focus groups—gather feedback, and make changes as necessary, at least up to the limit of artistic integrity. A final, presentation copy can be made as a gift for a young friend, although the author may want to run off a color photocopy (although this can be expensive) to keep—or to submit to a publisher!

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