Solver Communities

A breakthrough pedagogical model.

December 8, 2015

What if we asked students to collaborate in order to solve an authentic problem?

Students would then have to think through the challenge systematically, identify underlying problems, conduct research, evaluate alternative approaches to the challenge, and generate a solution.

In the process, they would forge a genuine sense of community – as well as the ability to think creatively and critically, review literature, and undertake a rigorous assessment of proposed solutions.

This is the idea behind solver communities – an idea that has emerged simultaneously in the business world and in K-12 education.

Perhaps the best known example is InnoCentive, a Massachusetts-based crowdsourcing company that is asked to solve problems posed by companies engaged in chemistry, computer science, engineering, the life sciences, mathematics, the physical sciences, and management. InnoCentive frames these as "challenge problems," crowdsources solutions, and awards cash prizes for the best answer.

But the solver community approach is not confined to the business world. Future Problem Solving Program International, Inc., founded in 1974, engages students from Australia, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, Turkey, United Kingdom, and some 26 U.S. states in competitive problem-solving activities.  A challenge is identified, rubrics are established, solutions and implementation plans are generated and assessed.

The solver community approach strikes me as a pedagogical strategy that holds out great promise for undergraduate education. It treats students as problem solvers, not as passive learners. It asks them to address a meaningful challenge rather than undertake “cookie cutter” assignments. It encourages a project-driven approach to learning.

If done well, it requires the students to work as a team, seriously research the problem, establish criteria for evaluating alternative approaches, and devise a detailed solution.

In addition, it allows us to cut across institutional walls, and see how teams from multiple colleges and universities approach a challenge.

Some examples exist. There are a variety of Engineering challenges, including some posed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration also poses a series of competitions which offer prize money and even the chance at internships.

In her graduate course “Current Issues in Learning Technology,” Marni Baker Stein, the Chief Innovation Officer of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a visionary and implementer of future learning models, offers advanced investigations of selected problems in curriculum theory, program design, and research design.

Each week, leading educational technologists, instructional designers, game developers, and data scientists introduce students to the problems that they are attempting to solve.

As a final project, the students themselves serve as a solver community, tasked with identifying a technology-assisted strategy to foster conversations among faculty, instructional technology staff, and Austin’s ed tech community.

If we are serious about making education more learner and learning-centered, the solver community approach provides a needed step toward achieving that goal.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.


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