Huston, we have a problem…

Problem based learning was first used to prepare medical students for their profession. It uses group work, and student directed leaning to tackle real life challenges. The benefits have been reported to include better recall of information, ability adapt information, and higher motivation (Hung et al. 2008).

A prime example of a great problem solving in real life is the Apollo 13 oxygen tank failure. The resulting rise in carbon dioxide levels threatened the astronauts life.  The researchers had to figure out the fix using materials available to the spaceship crew. The fix using duct-tape, moon rock bags, covers of manuals, and tubing worked in the end (Atkinson, 2010). Failure was not acceptable. Failure would have resulted in death of the astronauts.

“You can’t give her that!’ she screamed. ‘It’s not safe!’
IT’S A SWORD, said the Hogfather. THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.
‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.
IT’S EDUCATIONAL.
‘What if she cuts herself?’
THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.”
Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (1996)

Fear of failure in problem based learning can be high. The students will be stressed about grading and group dynamics. And faculty will fret about too little content covered. There are things to be said about having the room to fail as a student. The environment of a class room should be a place where students can safely try their wings on problem solving. The failures and mistakes should not carry huge penalties. As long as students learned from the mistakes made, the goal of a class has been reached.

That is how I learned to trouble shoot my scientific experiments. The undergraduate laboratory course experiments with notoriously nonfunctional equipment, required me to think what caused my experiments to go wrong. Was it the 50-year-old detection system? Or the reagents used? Or was it my own mistake? Having to support my trouble shooting with the scientific principles behind every step of the experiment, made me a better scientist.

There needs to be a level of trust by faculty that students will solve the problems given to them. Students also need to trust the faculty not to give them problems that are beyond their maturity level as learners. Mistakes provide valuable learning opportunities, if there is trust on both sides. And nothing prepared me better for real life work than encountering those errors during my education.

 

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