Every Solution Needs a Problem

This is a blog post about a method of teaching science called ‘challenge-based learning’.


Most science content, which most teachers teach, is boring. This is a sad irony, as science is an inherently natural path for curiosity to travel along for exploring the wonders of the universe.


The problem is that most lessons begin like this:

  • Let’s study density, kids.

  • Let’s learn about the atom, kids

  • Let’s study direct and parallel electrical circuits, kids

  • Let’s study the conservation of mass, kids. It is the fundamental tenet in all of chemistry, kids

No wonder kids are bored. I was bored writing these sentences. And what are kids supposed to say? Ok. Yeah, let’s do that. No thank you. Let’s do something else. In reality, they are forced into a topic to which they may have no interest or any way to relate. The goal is to make it through the day, check the necessary checkboxes to advance, and just get by. Already, the point of learning is lost.


You see, there are 3 key criteria for good learning, which are missing

  • There was no choice

  • There was no time for a belief to set in that this will be doable and this will be fun

  • There was no understanding of how this relates to anything

But the problem is actually a lot worse. Most teachers and most curricula have to cover things like density, the atom, electrical circuits, and the conservation of mass. So it is not like the problem can be solved by pivoting to more interesting topics. These topics need to be covered. So the question is ‘how do you teach these topics?’ How do you essentially manufacture curiosity? They must be curious to be interested and to excel.




The Origin Experiment

In 2009, we decided to run an experiment at QuantumCamp. We advertised to parent groups about a 1-week camp on quantum physics for middle school kids. Ten 12-year-olds joined us on a quest to uncover the mystery of the atom.

And why not, the great scientists in history who uncovered the very nature of every atom in our universe adhered to a set of practices accessible to kindergarteners, 3rd graders, and 7th graders …or at least, so says the authors of NGSS. NGSS mandates all American kids excel at these science and engineering practices

And our curiosity was if kids were supported in these same practices, could they come to the same conclusions the great scientists in history came to. In other words, if the great scientists in history employed these science practices and came to the grand theory of the atom, our kids should be able to employ these same science practices, with support, and come to the same revolutionary conclusions. And thereby they will feel ownership over these ideas. It is their idea, not memorized ideas of scientists in the past.

Even if we answer this, the bigger question will still remain - how can schools make these grand quests normal for kids? How can the ceiling be lifted on what we expect from kids, not just to know, but what we expect them to be able to do? The years and years of research underlying the NGSS, say all of the practices professionals do, kids can do too. So why don’t kids do it, normally, in school, every day?


Let’s Talk Science

Upon seeing this brilliant display of different chemicals burning, what questions come to mind? Perhaps ‘why do different chemicals produce different colors?’

If this is the question you had, you are already on the same path early physicists were on to solve the mystery of the atom. This is precisely the phenomenon that was unexplained and which they attempted to solve, and which eventually led to the entire field of quantum physics. And like these scientists, you are now ready to dig deeper.


You are now ready to ask questions, develop models, plan and carry out investigations, collect data and interpret data, construct explanations and make arguments from evidence. You may even be willing to do some math! In other words, you are now ready to do standards-based science.

What is Going On Here?


You see, there is something going on here. You are seeing the problem. The mystery was brought to you … by the teacher. And this is what we educators must do. This is the key, 1st step in challenge-based learning.

Challenge-based learning in science requires a solid driving question arrived at by the students upon observing something striking or shocking! Kids must see the problem.

Incidentally, scientists who pondered about the difference in the chemicals which produced different colors of light in the mid-1800s was the driving question which eventually led to the quantum physics revolution of the early 1900s. It is the driving question that 12-year-olds arrived in 2009 in a lab. The same science standards of pursuing science are indeed accessible to both professionals and students! Our kids are off and running to solve the mystery of the atom.


From here the students are now ready to ask questions, develop models, plan and carry out investigations, collect data and interpret data, construct explanations and make arguments from evidence. They will even let you do math with them!


What Does the Research Say?

And this idea that you start with the problem, this is not our idea. This is not something invented at QuantumCamp. Researchers have explained the ultimate drivers of intrinsic motivation, which lead to the unfettered pursuit of knowledge.

  • You have to have a choice.

  • You have to feel like you can succeed.

  • You have to feel like it is important.

When you have these three things firing away, the sky's the limit, kids will master quantum physics. They must see a problem and:

  • Make a choice to pursue.

  • They must see that it is possible to solve it.

  • They must, at the very least, with their classmates want to do it together.

Admitting the Problem

Once you have the problem, accept the problem, admit you have a problem, you are ready to find solutions. You are now ready to ask questions, develop models, plan and carry out investigations, collect data and interpret data, construct explanations and make arguments from evidence. You may even be willing to do some math!

In science teaching, to talk about density, the atom, electrical circuits, and the conservation of mass, you can’t wait for kids to organically pose driving questions that will cover these grand topics (and hope to have the science equipment on the shelf). You have to build the context from which students will ask the question. You have to present the problem.


In reality, science teachers know they need to cover a number of topics each year. And there is very little chance students will organically formulate driving questions for each topic at the precise time the teacher needs to start each topic.


  • If you want to study the atom, you can’t wait for kids to light chemicals on fire

  • If you want to study density, you can’t wait for kids to randomly drop various objects in water, alcohol, and oil

  • If you want to study the conservation of mass, you can’t wait for kids to run experiments in open and closed systems.

Quantum Physics – Solved!

By the end of the 2009 camp, the kids were asking, “does this mean the electron can be here and here, but not here?”

  • In a summer camp called Quantum Physics. These young kids set out to uncover the nature of every atom in our universe. They saw the problem. They set a course to find a solution.

  • They knew they had to study light.

  • This led to experiments on waves.

  • They knew they had to learn about color.

  • They knew they had to learn about energy and heat

  • And out of these studies, they re-discovered the nature of every atom in our universe. And as 12-year-olds, this quirky, lurchy, lumpy behavior of atoms is now normal to them.

What is the scientific problem that paves the way for kids to discover key ideas the teacher is trying to convey? Find the challenge. Identify the challenge. Give it to the students. The students will solve it.

They can do the following: ask questions, develop models, plan and carry out investigations, collect data and interpret data, construct explanations and make arguments from evidence. You may even be willing to do some math!

They will employ these science practices to find a solution. Every solution needs a challenge. The teacher must find students’ challenges.

It all started with a problem. In challenge-based learning, every solution needs a problem.