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Problem solving in computing and across STEM - part 1

Published: May 20, 2016 4 min read

Dave Gibbs

STEM Computing and Technology Specialist

National STEM Centre

UK students are good problem solvers. PISA tests reveal that they are better than most international peers, including those from countries with better performance in mathematics and reading. Can this help their achievement in computing and other STEM subjects?

This series of articles explores problem solving in computing and across STEM, asking ‘what is problem solving?’, ‘what is its value?’ and ‘how can we equip students to be problem solvers’? This important topic is so vast, we will merely scratch the surface. 

Problem solving as a STEM skill

The OECD define problem solving as: 

“An individual’s capacity to engage in cognitive processing to understand and resolve problem situations where a method of solution is not immediately obvious.” 

Problem situations can be found across and beyond the curriculum. There are commonalities and differences to be found between the STEM subjects but the idea of transferable skills is an attractive one, especially for a subject as new as computing. If students can make use of their learning elsewhere, might they accelerate their progress in the only eBacc subject that didn’t exist two years ago?

As a teacher I despaired that students couldn’t associate their knowledge and skills from one subject to another. I soon realised, however, that abstracting and applying knowledge, skills or thoughts to another domain is a hard thing to do, and we teachers weren’t making it any easier. To support this joined-up thinking, I needed to join-up the lessons in a student’s day – the language of problem solving creates the ideal opportunity. 

Each STEM subject has their own approach to problem solving:

  1. The National Curriculum for mathematics “aims to ensure that all pupils... become fluent... reason mathematically... and can solve problems”. 
  2. The Design and Technology Association encourages students working on projects to define the user and their needs. They then specify the purpose of any solutions, and students in design and technology are well practised at drilling down into a problem through surveys, observation and prototype testing. 
  3. Computational thinking involves formulating problems so that computers can assist in solving the problem. 
  4. In science, problems are defined as ‘can be investigated, removing or controlling extraneous variables to come to a solution’. 

Defining the problem is what lies at the heart of each subject-specific approach.

It is then useful to identify the tools and skills needed to solve the problem. Decomposition, as found in computing, is a way of breaking down a problem into smaller parts, each of which is clearly described and can then be solved. According to Keith Devlin, mathematical thinking includes the identification of key parameters and formulation of formal definitions of them. These two concepts are clearly linked. Common approaches used across both subjects will develop student’s learning. 

Solutions to problems in each of the STEM subjects will clearly look different, however, opportunities are there for bringing mathematics, electronics, science and engineering into the computing classroom. For the most impact, students need to be given a problem that draws upon prior learning in STEM subjects but also directly relates to their lives. Incorporating issues that students care about gives them the motivation to engage in their learning. Teachers can help by making explicit the links to problem solving across STEM: no need for time-consuming cross-departmental planning, just conversations between professionals that raise awareness of ways of working. 

In upcoming articles we will look at a workable structure for solving problems in computing, and the cross-curricular value of debugging.

More from this series:

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