Journal of Technology Education


JTE Editor: Mark Sanders

Volume 1, Number 2
Spring 1990


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Preparing Students for Living in a Technological Society: A Problem Solving Approach to Teaching

James R. Braukmann Melvin J. Pedras(1)
The ever changing perception of the role of technology in our society provides educa- tors with a myriad of challenges and problems for the curriculum. Technology is alter- nately seen as a major source of society's problems, or as the salvation of society. This confused role, compounded with the cur- rent trend toward life-long learning, and the need for future citizens who can function ef- fectively in a modern technological society, provides educators with innumerable opportu- nities for integrating realistic problem solving techniques into the teaching environ- ment. The purpose of this article is to pro- vide practical suggestions on how a technological problem solving environment can be created and used by educators in any area of study to help prepare students for living in our modern society. Addressing the issue of technological change and the need for educators to teach problem solving, the National Science Board Commission on Pre-College Education in Math- ematics, Science and Technology (1983) noted the effects of technological changes in its report: We must return to basics, but the basics of the 21st century are not only reading, writing, and arithmetic. They include communication and higher prob- lem solving skills, and scientific and technological literacy -- the thinking tools that allow us to understand the technological world around us... De- velopment of students' capacities for problem solving and critical thinking in all areas of learning is presented as a fundamental goal. The commission's report indicates that society has undergone significant changes. Many of these changes and problems facing so- ciety have occurred because of advancing technology. Robert Ornstein (1985) of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge wrote: Solutions to the significant problems facing modern society demand a wide- spread, qualitative improvement in thinking and understanding. We are slowly and painfully becoming aware that such diverse contemporary chal- lenges as energy, population, the envi- ronment, employment, health, psychological well-being of individuals and meaningful education of our youth are not being met by the mere accumu- lation of more data or expenditure of more time, energy, or money... We need a breakthrough in the quality of think- ing employed both by decision-makers at all levels of society, and by each of us in our daily affairs. Hatch (1988, p. 88) notes that society is in desperate need of individuals capable of finding viable solutions to a variety of challenges. These needs have prompted many leaders to suggest that education now imple- ment methods of teaching that can enhance the problem solving ability of students. Accord- ing to Costa (1985, p. 4), however, "most teachers do not regularly employ methods that encourage and develop thinking in their stu- dents." We as educators, and especially those concerned with technology and general educa- tion, have an opportunity to fill a void in the liberal education of students. We under- stand the role humanities and the social sci- ences play in the preparation of students for living. Integration of the humanities and social sciences with math, science, and tech- nology, enables students to think more cre- atively and identify technological solutions to real-world problems. If students can be placed in a problem solving role as they study ethics, sociology or history, they can learn to recognize very real problems under the guidance of an expe- rienced professional. An example would be to consider the implications of replacing work- ers with automated equipment. Should the criteria for this decision be limited to the availability of such technology, and the po- tential for increased production? What will be the effect on displaced workers? What re- sponsibility does management have for the personal development of workers in a technol- ogy related field? What lessons can be learned from the study of history, ethics, or philosophy? Problem solving techniques can help students in the systematic delimitation of such problems, the listing of possible solutions, the analysis of effects of poten- tial solutions and in with the logical se- lection of a potential solution.

PROBLEM SOLVING AS A TEACHING METHOD

Students need the same acquired skills in business and industry as are necessary for success in any professional field -- communi- cation and interpersonal skills, linked to problem solving skills. Today in industry, a designer or manage- ment professional will be working on a project group or product team with a direc- tive to find the best solution to a critical question. No longer can any one person be expected to master a body of knowledge, with available information doubling every six years. As an example, an industrial designer in the 1950's might have needed to be expert in mechanical design, steel fabrication and hydraulics. Today, the list could easily in- clude digital controls, computer interfaces, data communication protocol, light and pres- sure sensors, radio frequency interference, and more. Their background should also in- clude ethics, philosophy, social sciences, and the ability to interrelate the basic ten- ets of these disciplines with technology. Not even the most gifted engineer can be ex- pected to know enough about all of these fields to develop an adequate design by to- day's standards. However, a group who's col- lective expertise covers this list could succeed, assuming that they could work to- gether and draw on each member's strengths. The ability to function effectively in a project group involves skills that are often addressed by technology education. However, the skills are not unique to technology, but broad based and applicable to many endeavors in an increasingly complex society . We can cluster these skills into two general catego- ries -- group dynamics and problem solving strategies. Group dynamics includes leadership, com- munication, presentation, and persuasion skills. These skills are vital in business or academia, in industry or politics, from committee work to designing. We should com- pel students to use them. For example, if a group of students will be evaluated on a final cooperative product, and no one member can manage all the work, persuasion, communi- cation, and cooperation will develop. The group must find ways to organize and communi- cate internally and externally to accomplish a common goal. The second category, problem solving strategies, includes the design process, in- formation management, and learning skills. Creativity is not difficult to cultivate. The following problem solving model (Figure 1) is borrowed from science and technology. The process it describes works for a single person or a group, and in disciplines as di- vergent as the humanities and social sci- ences, business and education. 1. Define the problem carefully and com- pletely. Everyone involved in a chal- lenging project needs to understand the problem in order to avoid counter- productive or divergent goals. Any time so spent will save time in later stages. Many problems in our society are solved simply by being successfully iden- tified and isolated. Consider, for exam- ple, the problem of excess waste material. The problem might be more clearly defined as one of how to develop an efficient disposal system, or to find constructive use for the waste material, or to find a way to decrease the amount of waste material produced. Each of these three definitions of the problem will generate different criteria. 2. Establish criteria for a solution. All those involved must set and agree to re- alistic goals, limitations, and expected or possible consequences. Be careful to allow for future adaptations that may be- come necessary, but are not immediately apparent. Finally, agree to a schedule for the completion of the process steps. All this will set up the evaluation phase to come later. Questions to ask at this point might include: What must be accomplished? With what accuracy? How will the sol- ution interact with other factors? Do limitations, such as cost or size, exist? Must the solution be transportable? Once initiated, must the solution be self- sustaining? Must it be adaptable? Will there be a negative environmental impact? If the solution involves a machine, can the machine be easily produced? Can it be easily repaired? Are there any poten- tial safety problems? How important is the appearance? Will it be used for pro- motional activities? 3. Research possible solutions. Information management is necessary to avoid re- inventing the wheel. Has this problem been solved before? Are there lessons to be learned from other's mistakes? Where can information on similar topics be found? A specific example from technol- ogy might be to find and compare the strength-to-weight ratios of steel, alu- minum, and hardwood in order to choose the best material for a certain applica- tion. The key is to promote the use of libraries and research techniques. 4. Brainstorm all sensible and seemingly non-sensible potential solutions. Make this an open activity with as much lati- tude and as few rules as possible. At this point, the ideas do not have to closely match the criteria. Quantity of ideas is better than quality. Specify a group member to record as quickly as pos- sible the widest variety of ideas without judging them. Any evaluation of these ideas is left to the next step. 5. Narrow the acceptable or promising options and develop them. Sketchy, brainstormed ideas need to be expanded before they can be completely evaluated. This process can be done by individuals or subgroups of two or three students who see potential in one of the ideas. Pres- entation and persuasion skills are fos- tered by having student subgroups favoring specific solutions compete, and be evaluated by the whole group, or by the teacher acting as manager. Communi- cation here becomes more than an exercise in that it is an opportunity for student to persuade others of the value of their point of view, or for the student to avoid having to adapt to the point of view of another. This opportunity tends to be taken rather seriously. Students should be taught that a better presented idea has as good a chance of prevailing in this arena as a better idea. A project development team that is armed with production drawings, decisions supported by research, and an organized presentation will be most per- suasive. Another team with a promising idea that has not been completely worked out, or with a confusing presentation will be less persuasive. Finally, the teacher/class should select one or more of the most promising solutions, using the criteria developed in step 2 above. 6. Create a working model or models. In a typical problem solving exercise, project leaders are assigned, within teams, with responsibility to organize the effort. Team decisions are made outlining indi- vidual responsibilities, and the manner in which the individual efforts will fit together. Procedures must be in place to handle new problems that might appear. All communication from this point needs to be documented: memos from the project leaders, and reports from the project workers. Within the teams, students are work- ing and communicating for a purpose. Their individual effort is needed by oth- ers to solve the problem and achieve the common goal. 7. Evaluate the end result. At this point the end result must be compared to the criteria established in step 2, above. If it does not meet the criteria, a rede- signing or rethinking cycle may be initi- ated. Perhaps other solutions from step 5 might be re-evaluated. If the solution does meet the criteria, can it be easily improved? Does the particular way in which this problem is solved create new problems? Perhaps the original criteria need to be re-evaluated. Necessary changes are made and the final end result is formally presented to the class. This process is capable of generating thought- ful and refined solutions, as well as op- portunities for enhancing leadership, communication, presentation, and persua- sion skills.

THE ISSUE OF TECHNOLOGY LITERACY

A disturbing trend of 70s and into the 80s, is the delivery of a general education without relating curriculum to the realistic social framework of an increasingly techno- logical world. Students who do not under- stand the implications of abruptly replacing an industrial worker with a robot, confusing power with license in genetic engineering, or limiting access to computer information as a cause for social stratification, do not un- derstand the ultimate nature of a liberal ed- ucation. When establishing criteria for the de- velopment of a new product, is it enough to consider only the market potential and pro- fits to be made? What are the long term im- plications for social institutions? What will be the impact on future supplies of na- tural resources? In a decision to market a telephone that displays the caller's number, what are the implications for such issues as a right to privacy and freedom of speech? In supplying cost effective aerosol containers, should the destruction of the ozone layer be considered? Every technology teacher has overheard students objecting to the history, economics or government classes that they "have to take." Such integral parts of a balanced cur- riculum must be made relevant to these stu- dents. Through the use of a problem solving strategy, the study of technology can be re- lated to social, economic, and environmental issues. Additionally, technological topics and similar problem solving strategies in hu- manities and social science classes can pro- vide students with an understanding of the problems of our technological society that would otherwise be elusive. We cannot afford to have a curriculum which is too often desultory, inconsistent and lacking in rigor as reported in a recent issue of the Chroni- cle of Higher Education. (DeLoughry, 1989) Cote observes that as the specific prob- lems assigned in a class will support the course content, the manner in which the sol- utions are achieved can support broader goals related to interpersonal working relation- ships, communication, and problem solving skills. The role, then of the educator should be to provide the student with appro- priate experiences for defining and solving problems. (Cote, 1984)

SUMMARY

A continuing challenge to educators is to prepare broad-ranging thinkers with the skills to confront the problems of the fu- ture. In this endeavor, we cannot afford to continue to isolate technology from humanity, or we run the danger of using technology for it's own sake, unrestrained by heritage and careful consideration, in a society that equates computer prowess to license. As a curriculum in technology can be im- proved by relating the core material to so- cial and humanistic value systems, so might a curriculum in the humanities or social sci- ences be improved by a focus on the problems and potentials of technology in an increas- ingly complex society. ---------------- 1 James Braukmann is Assistant Professor, Department of Technology, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, Washington. Melvin Padras is Associate Professor and Chair, Industrial Technology Education Department, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho. REFERENCES Costa, A. (Ed). (1985). DEVELOPING MINDS. Alexandria, VA: Association for Super- vision and Curriculum Development. Cote, B. S. (1984). A paradigm for problem solving instruction. JOURNAL OF INDUS- TRIAL TEACHER EDUCATION, 21(4), 17-30. DeLoughry, T. (1989, January 18). Study of transcripts finds little structure in the liberal arts. THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER ED- UCATION. pp. A32. Hatch, L. (1988). Problem solving approach. In W. H. Kemp & A. E. Schwaller, (Eds.), INSTRUCTIONAL STRATEGIES FOR TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION Mission Hills, CA: Glencoe. National Science Board Commission on Pre- College Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology. (1983). EDUCATING AMERI- CANS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. Washington, D.C. Ornstein, R. (1985). In A. Costa, (Ed.), DEVELOPING MINDS. Alexandria, VA: Asso- ciation for Supervision and Curriculum De- velopment. Permission is given to copy any article or graphic provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for sale. Journal of Technology Education Volume 1, Number 2 Spring 1990

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