the Problem problem

Well, I’ve spent more time at CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies, Overland Park, KS) and have noticed a few things.  The biggest thing I’ve realized is that the business world has much more to offer in terms of project based learning than I had imagined.


The business strands at CAPS have been very successful implementing a project based model – CAPS reaches out to businesses; the businesses provide the students with real world problems and real world clients; the students design and implement solutions to those problems, then present them to their clients; and all of this generally happens on a school friendly timeline.  The success seems to come from personal investment by the students and business community, and by the prior scoping of the work for the students.  They can jump right in knowing that they are trying to solve a problem that has been posed already by a particular client.  I personally have had a difficult time translating these ideas to research science in the classroom.


The biggest hurdle for research seems to be defining the problem in the first place.  Industry is VERY good at this, and businesses often have a very clear idea of what they need (e.g., a new web presence or streamlining of supply chains to cut costs).  Similarly, there are often successful examples from other businesses that are readily available or at least well publicized.  Science, for some reason, seems to make this more difficult.  Researchers doing novel and even continuing research can struggle mightily with asking questions that are small enough to answer, but still big enough to be interesting.  And even if those questions do happen to be answerable with the technology and resources currently available, they often do not cooperate with school schedules.  As with everything in science, there are different ways of approaching this problem problem.


In my mind there are two kinds of research labs.  For lack of better terms I will call these “centralized” and “distributed” labs.  “Centralized” labs have a specialized, overarching direction or program, and they tend to be very good at offering structure to incoming students by plugging in to ongoing research projects.  Students typically pick from a subset of partially defined questions, which they make their own, and successive student projects tend to build toward a particular goal.  In contrast, “distributed” labs have general areas of expertise, and current research is focused on progressing knowledge of those areas without being tied to a particular direction.  Student projects tend to be related but not necessarily bound to each other.  Often specific problems are not pre-defined, and these labs tend to be very good at letting students find their own questions.


For a secondary education setting, is either “centralized” or “distributed” research more effective?  Both?  Neither?


Is there any reason to believe that structure or freedom would be more important for this level of education?  Should we be handing research questions out to students when they walk in the class?  Should we have them come up with research questions based on a general field of interest?  How do we best help them to jump in fast enough to get things done fast enough to fit limited timelines?


What has worked (and not worked) in your experience?


About Robert C Everhart

GK-12 Fellow University of Kansas
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