Pilot - U1L03 - Exploring Problem Solving

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I taught this lesson to 6th graders in Phoenix, AZ. This lesson built really well off of the previous lessons on the problem-solving process. It took me three days to get through the entire lesson (about 40 minutes per day). I did the word search and birthday guests party together in one lesson, then took two days to do the road trip problem. Overall, the students were really engaged in this lesson. They liked the challenge of when I timed them doing the word search and birthday guests problem. I thought that having them complete the activity guide after doing each problem and reflecting on how they used each step of the problem-solving process was critical in order to really get them thinking explicitly about what they were doing through the process. I also had them reflect on how the word search and birthday guests problem differed from the road trip problem (more vs. less well-defined/open-ended, etc.). That led to an interesting discussion about how problems are not always precisely laid out and solutions require creativity.
I tried to closely follow the lesson plan as written, though next time, I would probably wait to show them the trip planning tool until after the groups had time to set out their criteria. It seemed like once I showed them the online tool, that was it! They just wanted to get right into ‘doing’ and it was hard to bring them back to establishing criteria.

Glad to hear the kids were so engaged with the challenges. That discussion about how well/poorly defined problems can be (and how that impacts our approach to problem solving) is exactly what we want kids to get out of this. Having spent two days on the road trip, do you feel like that was time well spent in terms of developing students’ problem solving skills, or was more of the time spent going through the process without necessarily getting a deeper understanding of problem solving?

I think it was probably more time spent on the task (exploring with the tool, figuring out which car would give them the best mileage) than actually the problem-solving process, but I was okay with that. I felt like the class needed a more robust task to work with (and something on the computer) and it was just perfect in terms of meeting students’ needs.

Would you suggest removing the link from the travel activity guide? Maybe posting it elsewhere after students have laid out their trip ideas?

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I think that would be a good idea to move it. It seems to me that setting out the criteria as a group is a critical stage in the lesson. Then the tool, then exploring and working with the tool to solve the problem according to the set-out criteria.

I teach a 7th grade computer course. I have to include typing in my instructional time every day so my time for CSD instruction is only about 30 minutes. I liked the way the three activities (word search, birthday guests, and the road trip) all build in their complexity. It does a nice job of utilizing the problem solving process at differing levels.
I had some difficulty with the length of the lesson. I am, however, working with less time than it requires so I’ve been trying to find a way to complete the lesson without taking an entire week. The students’ attention span doesn’t stick with it that long.
I like the idea of having students complete the word search and the birthday guests in the same day. The road trip activity is very motivating for students, but I think I struggled to instruct it well. In retrospect, I think I know I could have done better. Establishing the criteria was difficult for my students. It was almost too abstract for them. Once we started actually planning the trip, many of them spent way too much time selecting a vehicle for an ultimate blend of sensible gas mileage and coolness. I ended up giving them an average gas mileage to move them along. We will be sharing our routes on Monday. The TripMaker site was very difficult for the students to set up accounts with for some odd reason. If I could have completed this in a day, accounts would not have been necessary.
All in all, the lesson is sound. I would make some small tweaks to the order of instruction in the road trip (i.e. not introducing the map tool until they were ready to use it. It’s just too much fun and too hard to resist when it comes to setting the criteria for the trip.) I am seeing that I’m going to have to find more natural breaks in the instruction to make the lessons fit my time frame better.
I did make the road trip worksheet electronic and available through Google Classroom. This is where I housed the link to the trip maker along with an average gas mileage link.

Thanks for the really specific feedback and resources Elizabeth. This is really helpful feedback. It sounds like thinking about how to introduce the tool is an important component of the lesson. If you wanted to still include an open-ended problem next year do you think you’d run the road trip activity the same way, modify, or find a different problem altogether?

I’ve been thinking about how I might run the road trip differently next year. I think there are a few things that I might take out of the equation for them (mostly to speed up the process and help them focus on the problem solving process and not the vacation they’re planning.)

  • I would complete the section on criteria and goals together. This could be a class discussion and we could create a set of criteria and goals. Some of the criteria & goals would be required to include in their trips (gas mileage, # of days, and some of the places we’d like to see - maybe 3 out of the lot the class comes up with.)
  • By completing this section together, then students can skip the group planning (which was very difficult with the trip tool - which was a bit uncooperative for my classes. We had a ton of issues with it since we couldn’t complete the planning in 1 day, students had to create accounts. The accounts were not compatible with the permissions set by our district for some reason.) Students could then plan independently with a firmer time limit because the expectations in the criteria and goals would be clearer.
  • Students could then share their trips as written in the lesson and reflect more easily.
    What do you guys think of these changes?

@edavis I really like the reflection and ideas you shared. I think a class discussion sounds like it might be helpful for your students and I wonder if other teachers have done something similar?

6-7th grade classroom. Semester long class.

Students were able to complete crossword and seating chart with little trouble.

The road trip was more challenging. I spend a fair amount of time building context and understanding of a “road trip.” The concept was more difficult to grasp for students who are immigrants and/or in poverty. Even generally, my students needed help with understanding that road trips typically have more than one destination or “stops” along the way. This planning is great exposure for these students–I would not eliminate this activity–but next time will build in time to provide examples and context for what a road trip is.

I found this assignment, especially the reflection chart at the end and the review of the problem solving process, to be a great assessment of students’ understanding of the problem solving process. I used this as an “anchor grade” for our mastery gradebook.

For Lesson 3, the students had begun the word search the day before and a few of them had advanced to the Birthday Party problem. I prompted them to think about the Problem Solving Process before attempting and then today made sure they replied on the worksheets through the 4 steps.

U1L3 - Exploring Problem Solving
Between the word search, birthday party problem and the road trip - the students were engaged. A few of them took longer on the word search than expected, so I didn’t have them shared their Road Trip plans with another group, they just made screen shots and shared with me.
The word search was a good way to show that we problem solve everyday even in the smallest things. The birthday party was good because a lot of students though they can cruise right over it and got caught up, understanding how important the “Prepare” stage is. My students got into the Road Trip aspect - everyone walks to school (no bussing and I guess kids get rides when snowing/raining) but they were generally into cars. They enjoyed playing around with the Miles Per Gallon, then finding the car that would take them the furthest. We had students already thinking outside the box, saying they’d start in Vegas and gamble to earn money and extend the trip, to students that would take a road trip to their neighbors and then pocket the money - which was good to show what happens when a problem is loosely defined.
The only negative was the different places the students were in based on how quickly they solved the word search and birthday party, nothing to do, just surprised me and will have additional activities for students next time.
Only modification was not sharing the road trips in groups because students were in all different places. By the end everyone had a shell of a road trip and was able to look at the variables that go into the trip and how it could become a complex problem.

@bradleywellsashley Thanks for sharing! Sounds like a fun class. How many days did it take you to complete this?


This was “one day” but my one day is an 80 minute block (every other day). We started the day before, a few of the students did the word search - but certainly could’ve done it all in one day.


8th grade students -
After 2 snow days, power outages, and now flooding, school is returning to normal routine. With all the craziness it has taken over a week to get through Lesson 3. My students are finishing the Road Trip today hopefully. After discussing in my group hangout, and reading previous posts I gave the students all of the information they needed about their car, cost of gas, mileage, etc. I found that helped tremendously with their focus to the task at hand. We are still running into issues understanding the problem solving process.
Students are struggling with the table and explaining how their trip accounts for each criteria/goal. I did a sample trip with them today after my group discussions were ending in frustration for the students. This has helped even more. They are far more productive today than yesterday. Still having to spoon feed much of the material, but it’s getting a little easier with each lesson. Thinking critically and analysis are skills we definitely need to work on. I am also amazed by how quickly students will just give up when the going gets tough. I am very motivated to get them through this difficult stage and I cannot wait to see the superstars they will become as we make progress.

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Unit 1 - Lesson 3:

Slideshow for presentation

Tips and Modifications:

I broke the lesson into parts and did not want to introduce the trip building part until the end, nor have them see it. I continually stressed their focus on problem-solving strategies rather than the end product. Again having dual modalities - my oral instructions and a constant visual on the screens helps with focus to task.

Hard copies: I used paper handouts for both the Word Search and Birthday Guests. All the rest of student work was completed in Google Docs.

Road trip instructions revised

Modifications: As I worked through this lesson myself, I felt a bit encumbered with too many restrictions. I felt the gas price requirement was extraneous to students and they don’t get that part. Also a 7 day round trip was not balanced in my mind. (See handout above) Here’s how I taught it: I suggested from Seattle to LA might be within a 1500 mile radius. “I didn’t know but let’s guess”. I made a sample trip. Yes, it was only 1100 miles or so. I want to stay 4 nights going away and 4 nights coming home. If I hover on the road trip map, I can see increments. Maybe I’ll go 200 miles a night. Zoom in to that location and find a town that you could stay at and see some fun attraction there. See the other requirements I put on the trip.

Problem solving process notes - cut for ease of accessibility

Modifications: The activity guide handout is just too busy. I continue to cut and paste parts that they need to complete into small bits instead of them having to scroll and scroll to fill out the document. I really think electronic ‘cleaned-up’ versions of the activity guides would fit more with the ‘industry standard’ that we want students to adopt.

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Road trip instructions revised

Here is the slide deck I used for the lesson:

I did this lesson over a three period day, so that each of the activities was fully covered in a single class period. Originally I had thought about doing activities 1 and 2 in one day and activity 3 the next one, but I had trouble completing the road trip activity myself so I decided to spend a little additional time on the first two activities emphasizing the problem solving process and hoping that by day 3 students could anticipate what kind of questions I was going to ask them.


I decided that finishing the road trip was not as important as having to use the cycle of the problem solving process, so every 10 minutes I “changed the rules”

  1. Your 2 cousins who lives in Naples (108 miles West) want to go on the trip so you have to pick them up
  2. A family member will be visiting so the trip has to be only 4 days instead of 7
  3. You won a $100 card that can only be used for gas, the money you saved can be used for two activities on the Festival or Great Outdoors categories only.

I am planning on having the groups present their trips and the process they took to the class. I figured it would give groups who finish ahead of other groups something to prepare and work on. It seems like the entire road trip assignment including time to create a short presentation is taking two class periods, 2 hours.

Class 20 students, mostly low-income/poverty level, 25% iep or 504, 43 minute class periods every other day.
Lesson 3 went well with the first activity -word search. A few groups focused on how to solve it while others worked alone in their group. With activity 2, the students were more involved and enjoyed the seating chart with their group. As for the road trip, they took a while to begin or better yet, understand what they were supposed to do. I collected their sheets at the end of the period and noticed only a few items were completed. Also, it was clear that they had no idea what the criteria meant as well as what types of things we want to do meant. (Some said they want to go to Starbucks, McDonalds…) On Friday, I explained what the criteria is and what that means. I showed them my example and gave some suggestions they could use if they want. I also explained what things to do meant, but places to eat would be good to include also.
I will wrap this up on Tuesday since many of the students were absent on Friday due to illness, ISR or suspension. I plan to begin Lesson 4 on Tuesday and complete it on Thursday.