RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS: Solving Real World Problems in the Classroom – A Realistic Application of STEM/STEAM Principles

Published in the Journal of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children [IAGC], March, 2014. This article is reproduced with the consent of the Editor of the IAGC Journal, a nationally recognized forum for the education of gifted children and related issues. More can be learned about this organization at

Harry T. Roman
Distinguished Technology Educator

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.” – Peter Drucker [Men, Ideas & Politics]

Studying how problems are solved in the work-a-day world is a powerful way to allow gifted students to practice multi-dimensional problem solving, and apply STEM/STEAM principles in the classroom. The process is the same, and can be learned early in a student’s life, for such skills never obsolesce. The world will always need problem solvers.

Solving problems involves these important basic aspects:

1) Asking good quality questions, querying the problem in detail—for this approach often leads to high quality solutions;
2) Thinking in an integrated manner, seeing the relationship between concerns and possible constraints—which also leads to robust high quality solutions; and,
3) Assembling and utilizing the advice of a diverse project team—for such teams are generally able to generate 12 times as many good ideas as a person thinking alone, and tend to surface a variety of interesting outlooks on the problem.

Notice, there is no implicit discussion of the speed of the solution. While desirable in the business world to have high speed-to-solution for competitive market positioning, this does not always guarantee a robust solution. Robust solutions require hard work and integrated thinking, tempered with high quality question asking. Experienced problem solvers and project managers in industry will often coach young folks— about 50-70% of the time needed for solving problems is expended in understanding and planning the solution for the problem. Rushing into a quick solution is fraught with many pitfalls. Time spent up-front and careful analysis is the way to go.

A Quick STEM/STEAM Overview
STEM/STEAM is an educational paradigm that integrates the curriculum; both process and content oriented; and standards-based.

It exemplifies open-ended problem solving in the workplace; representing life-on-the-job after graduation, from either high school or college; team-based, head and hands learning. In its most fundamental form, STEM/STEAM thrives in a team-based environment….more to be discussed about this at the end of this treatise.

It uses the scientific inquiry process [asking questions]; the invention process [creativity]; and the engineering design process [designing with constraints].

STEM/STEAM’s fundamental premise …the world is interconnected; and solving problems is an inter-disciplinary and multi-dimensional endeavor … involving active learning, teamwork, collaboration, and student empowerment.

It challenges students to become comfortable with open-ended, context based problem-solving … defining the problem first-then asking high quality questions; so robust and high quality solutions can be evaluated. [The quality of the questions asked, determine the quality of the solution(s)]

Problem solution is necessarily an iterative process. There is no answer in the back-of-the book, or a discrete solution that is “right”. It is about asking questions and exploring the problem; and then designing a solution that answers the questions. [Non-linear, insightful thinking, lateral thinking, and experiential insights can play a powerful role here.]

STEM/STEAM shines best when students see how math can be used for practical applications; and gain an appreciation of the problem’s magnitude and significance.

Designing with constraints, often uses a matrix-style of solution identification, assessment and selection. High quality solutions blend together the technical and non-technical concerns in potential solutions.

Teachers should conduct the classroom in a Socratic style, encouraging students to try new things, document their work, to learn from failure and be ready to try again. Teachers tie the students to the problem, leading them to pursue solutions through their students’ own natural exuberance and creativity.

The arts, humanities, and language skills are very important. In its most concentrated state, STEM/STEAM is a complete integration of the entire academic curricula.

Good written and oral communications is an absolute must for students. In the workplace, great ideas poorly presented will not be implemented.

“Think outside the square. Think for yourself don’t just follow the herd. Think multidisciplinary! Problems by definition, cross many academic disciplines.” -Lucas Remmerswaal, [ The A-Z of 13 Habits]

A Timely Example
Let’s consider a realistic example of multi-dimensional problem solving. Our case for consideration shall be a solar photovoltaic (sunlight to electricity) system to be installed on the roof of a local school, maybe even one near you. The perspective to be taken by your G&T students will be that of a project manager-the one responsible for planning and implementing the installation of this system.

In our example, we shall note some typical [although not all the possible questions] which could be asked about the project, with these questions arranged in relevant topical categories. This exercise is meant to be illustrative in format and not totally comprehensive … so you will appreciate how question asking and project management of those concerns are undertaken. The important aspect of this discussion is for your gifted kids to see the integrative aspect of the problem solving-looking at the total picture.

A project engineer would usually be placed in charge of this project and his team of multi-disciplinary talents would be involved in major aspects of the project, probably managing the topical categories shown below, and reporting progress. Such teams might include members, maybe more than one, having disciplines like:

  • Engineer
  • Economist
  • Lawyer
  • Mathematician
  • Environmental Expert
  • Consultants/Subject Matter Experts
  • Sociologist
  • Safety Expert

In the case of a publicly sponsored project like this, it is entirely possible there would be members of the community represented or acting as liaison to the team; such folks as council members, teachers/educators, parent-teacher organizations…etc. The project team could be significantly expanded; and these members of the community can ask some interesting questions for the project manager to deal with—which can add to the robustness of the solution.

This is how real world projects are handled by companies and their project engineers, seen through four decades of engineering project management by the author. Much of the discussion below manifests as questions the project manager and his team would be asking.


  • Shall we use single crystal, polycrystalline, or thin film solar panel technology?
  • Will the panels be flat mounted to the roof, or angled at the latitude?
  • Whose panels and equipment will we order?
  • How big will the collection panel array be?
  • Should we have single or multiple inverters to convert the DC power generated to AC power for use in the school?
  • Can the school roof support the load of the panels, and its normal snow load as well?
  • Can we tie into the school’s electrical system and sell back excess power to the local electric utility?
  • How long will it take to order and receive all the panels, wiring, and interface equipment?
  • What equipment guarantees can be expected?
  • What is our likely completed installation date?


  • What will the cost of this solar installation be?
  • How long will it take for the energy collected and sold to recoup or pay back the initial cost of the system?
  • What is the local utility buy-back rate for the energy generated?
  • How much will the yearly operation and maintenance costs for this be?
  • How will the presence of this installation affect the school’s insurance policy and those costs?
  • Is it better economically to buy cheap solar panels or expensive ones, considering system lifetime and operational costs?
  • Is it better if the school/town owns the system or does a partnership with an energy purchasing company make better sense?


  • What are the safety concerns with a roof mounted system and potential worker injuries to be possibly incurred?
  • In the event of a roof fire, is this installation and its weight a hazard to fire-fighting crews?
  • During a fire, will the burning of solar panels release hazardous materials in the air and impact the neighborhood?
  • How do we protect this installation from lightning?
  • How do we prevent people receiving shocks if they touch the metal work of the installation?
  • How do we make sure this system shuts down in the event of a power loss at the utility end, so it does not feed-back and possibly injure utility line workers?

“What people think of as the moment of discovery, is really the discovery of the question.” – Jonas Salk


  • What forms must be filed-out for the school to qualify for the solar energy tax credits for this system?
  • How does the school system account for this in its annual budget?
  • What local town/city building and other codes apply to this installation?
  • Must we have code approval authorities on-board from the beginning of the project? Who coordinates this…..the project team or the school administrators?
  • What codes and standards must be complied with to obtain local utility company buy-back?
  • What is their application process time and how soon do they need to be on-board?


  • How do we work in an educational aspect of this installation for the pupils in the school?
  • Should there be an interactive interface available for students to see how the solar system is working?
  • Do we make this interface via a webpage or a link via the school webpage?
  • Is there money for this educational aspect in the original budget or should we include more funding?
  • Should there be a teacher’s resource book for teaching solar system basics and operation that can be used in science and technology education classrooms here in the school? Who should write this?
  • Should we have some teachers on this project team as well?


  • How do we coordinate this work with the town mayor and council?
  • Is there going to be an educational liaison person assigned from the mayor’s office, or the board of education?
  • Is there a protocol we need to follow before speaking to any newspaper or media folks about the project?
  • If we are asked to host visitors to the site, who will coordinate that or are we free to do so?


  • Is this system likely to produce a sun glare problem for the surrounding homes at certain times of the year? If so, are there mitigating techniques we can use that will not compromise system operation and collection?
  • Are other schools in this school system likely also to be candidates for such an installation?
  • What is the town’s general feeling for paying for this system in their taxes?
  • Is there any possibility we could see negative press in local newspapers?
  • Will this solar installation detract from the architectural beauty of the school or from nearby homes, structures, or municipal edifices?

As discussed at the beginning of this section, this is by no means a comprehensive itemization of all the possible questions a project engineer would be working on. Most likely there will be many more, and new ones that manifest as the project progresses…..and the inevitable problems that arise during normal construction and start-up. The team may need to be expanded to include other experts as well, and their opinions and specialties consulted. These impact areas are quite realistic for this solar technology, and draw upon the author’s thirty years of experience with designing and installing solar energy systems during his previous employment.

Practice in the Classroom
Your gifted and talented students can solve complex problems like this as well.
You can organize project teams of 4-5 students and ask them to try and solve problems using the paradigm discussed above—problems that are specific to the school. Each team member can be responsible for assessing one or more concerns and bringing their questions to the plan for a solution. Here are some possible problems with which to challenge your gifted students:

  • Add a large and working greenhouse to the school
  • Add a new STEM based wing of classrooms to the school
  • Change the academic day to a studio-type environment, with each class having a three-hour duration—how would classes be taught?
  • Re-design the streets around the school to facilitate better parent drop-off and school bus access.

“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” – John Dewey

Working with Student Teams—Dynamics and Motivations Affecting Student Response
The very basis of most gifted and talented STEM/STEAM design challenges has its roots firmly planted in student teams working cooperatively. Important it is therefore to examine these dynamics. The very way such teams are initially established in class can influence how well they do in completing their challenge. Monitoring and mentoring these teams is also important to keep them focused and on track. Inter-disciplinary/ inter-departmental teams are a routine part of the globally competitive marketplace. It is never too early to learn this critical skill.

Establishing and Mentoring Teams
Following is a rough listing [not in any rank or priority order] of the things that affect how students/teams respond to design challenges.

Left to their own choosing, like-minded students will tend to self-organize into comfortable teams—not always the best situation. Ideally, teachers will want to mix head and hand learners on teams so a diversity of approaches will be available for team members to learn from. A team is as important in what it teaches each of its members as how well it collectively accomplishes its goal of solving a specific problem. Teams of 3-4 gifted students are usually best.

How gifted students/teams generally perceive the challenge that confronts them … interesting, timely, something they had input in choosing and forming … goes a long way to initially motivate the team. Ultimately this helps the team crystallize around the problem, taking ownership of it, wanting to solve it. Allow team members to freely discuss the problem and take possession of it, become comfortable with its texture and feel, knowing they have the freedom to solve it the way they feel is best.

It helps a great deal to let teams develop a logo or name that is unique to their members—a visual construct that puts their own personal stamp upon the problem, letting other teams know who they are…establishing their turf as it were, hoisting their colors, staking their claim … and setting the stage for some creative tension and friendly competition. Teams that compete are teams that rise to the challenge in unconventional and out-of-the-box ways.

Bear in mind that team members come to school with past experiences, personal ideas and thoughts about how the world works and maybe should work; and possibly strong perspectives about technology and its use. This serves to enrich the team setting, exposing other members to new ideas and personalities-much of which makes for a better chance of generating unusual and unique ideas. Experts agree that teams are probably capable of generating 10-12 times as many ideas as a single person working alone.

To be really effective, teams must be able to communicate effectively among their members and with the teacher and other teams. Great ideas poorly communicated are not going to be convincing. Good oral and communication skills must be strongly emphasized from the very beginning of the team formations. A team log or invention book whereby all members contribute their ideas and thoughts is encouraged as this will help teams to capture their ideas and organize them for discussion and presentation later.

Beware the dominating personality! Teams are supposed to be dialogues, not monologues; but a strong G&T student can overwhelm the others, imposing their will and directions on others. One way to avoid this is to assign rotating team captains so everyone has a chance to lead the team and experience the joy and fun of being team leader.

Open-ended, context based design challenges can be quite disturbing for those used to the regular “chalk and talk”, “sage on the stage” ebb and flow of traditional classrooms. Being out in the deep water where “nothing is given and nothing is known” can be paralyzing for gifted head learners. Make sure all teams are comfortable with the ambiguity of learning as you go along, making mistakes and learning quickly from them. Team challenges are largely iterative exercises, something your hand learners may be faster on the draw at than head learners. This is why it is so important to have the teams balanced with both types of learners.

Closely allied with the preceding paragraph is empowering teams to fail, and to learn from mistakes. The stigma of failure is ingrained in students and must be brought to the surface and banished from team dynamics. Thomas Edison always said to “fail your way to success”. There is no shame in failure, only shame in not learning from it. Remind your gifted students….. everyone gets to fail in the privacy of their home every night. It’s called homework—from which each student learns from their mistakes. Erasers are on the backs of pencils for a reason.

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” – Henry Ford

Typically teams will start off in divergent thinking modes, skittering here and there, generating ideas and creating lots of comments and ideas. Eventually they will enter a convergent thinking mode where they zero-in on potential solutions and pick one that seems to be best. Allow enough time for this divergent-convergent crossover! Make sure the teams do not rush this and race to possible solutions.

Always … always … always … make sure your teams are asking questions of their challenge, turning it over in their minds, trying get it to yield information. So crucial is this for context based problem solving; and so powerful will this become later as they enter the professional world. Remember the so-called “ah-ha” moment is not when you get the answer to a challenge, but when you realize the right question(s) to ask of it!

Managing Teams
An effective way to manage student teams is to put them through a series of milestones or checkpoints, guideposts that help organize and focus team energy. Here are some suggestions:

1) Have each team develop a plan for how long it will take them to develop a solution to their challenge and make sure they stick to this schedule-with frequent reports of progress and key tasks completed.

2) Make sure teams daily enter their thoughts, ideas, diagrams and sketches in their notebooks and that other students witness these entries and initial that they have indeed reviewed the work and understand it.

3) List the key questions asked about their challenge and what was concluded.

4) List the resources they consulted with … human, Internet, books, articles … etc. and what was learned from these sources.

5) Rotate team captains at regular time intervals.

Water and fertilize team soil, encouraging them to think out of the box, and seek unusual solutions. Give them plenty of cheerleading as they iterate toward a solution. These sorts of open-ended challenges are not easy for newbies-testing them at many levels at once. They may be literally treading water and seeking solutions at the same time. It might be very worthwhile to do a warm-up exercise or two in class before establishing formal teams, or maybe a small scale project each student can try on their own first in maybe 2 person teams. It is OK to work up to a larger challenge.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” – Babe Ruth


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  3. Dombroski T. (2000). Creative Problem Solving: The Door to Individual Success and Change. Lincoln, NE: toEXcel Press.
  4. Roman, H. T. (2011). STEM—-Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education for Gifted Students: Designing a Powerful Approach to Real-World Problem Solving for Gifted Students in Middle and High School Grades. Manassas, VA: Gifted Education Press.
  5. Roman, H. T. (2010).  Exploring Energy & Alternate Energy Technologies and Issues: Resource Guide for the Gifted Middle and High School Classroom. Manassas, VA: Gifted Education Press.
  6. Roman, H. T. (2009).  Energizing Your Gifted Students’ Creative Thinking & Imagination: Using Design Principles, Team Activities, and Invention Strategies-A Complete Lesson Guide for Upper Elementary and Middle School Levels. Manassas, VA: Gifted Education Press.
  7. Roman, H. T. (2010). Content and process, a balance for success in problem-solving. Gifted Education Press Newsletter, Vol. 19, No. 6.
  8. Straker, D. (1997). Rapid Problem Solving with Post-it Notes. De Capo Press.
  9. Watanabe, K. (2009). Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

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