The World Needs Problem Solvers

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Derek Jones

During a recent school program at King County's Brightwater Education Center I asked a classroom of students from Discovery Elementary, “What happens in a big rain storm at your school or in your neighborhood?”  Discussions at tables were especially lively considering that we were in the middle of one of the wettest winters on record.  As I circled the room to listen in on conversations, one student shared, “when there’s a storm, the football field floods and we can’t play football during recess.” Another student, after testing a stormwater model and looking at a sample of dirty runoff, observed that the water had carried away a lot of dirt. I asked her if she would like the water in Silver Lake, a popular swimming lake near their school, to look like the water in the cup. Her look of disgust was response enough…

In our Landforms Field Investigation at Brightwater, students work through the engineering design process to solve a stormwater runoff problem. This starts with defining the problems that stormwater causes by testing a model in the classroom and connecting it to their experiences in their own community. They then do field research to understand how and why engineers designed the hills, streams, and wetlands at Brightwater. Students collect data, make detailed observations, take soil samples, and measure stream speed.

All of this research is then used back in the lab to design solutions that solve the problems that they’ve identified. Students collaborate in engineering teams to meet our agreed-upon criteria for success, working within established design constraints. Engineers don’t have unlimited budgets, after all. On this day, with the students from Discovery Elementary, the class decided that success meant that we would collect less stormwater runoff and that our runoff would be cleaner. We didn’t want our local lake to be flooded and full of mud!

Why engineering? It’s important to acknowledge that engineering is a tricky word. It conjures up images of men in hard hats pouring over blueprints with an unfinished skyscraper looming over them. A quick Google image search confirms the stereotype. But there is a new push, driven in part by the soon-to-be-implemented Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which aims to broaden the idea of engineering beyond that pervasive imagery. The NGSS state that, “by asking questions and solving meaningful problems through engineering in local contexts…diverse students deepen their science knowledge, come to view science as relevant to their lives and future, and engage in science in socially relevant and transformative ways.” For the students at Discovery Elementary in particular, where 70% of the students are students of color, the inclusion of engineering in our programs is one tool to engage those who might feel disenfranchised or disengaged in a traditional science classroom.

Back in the lab at the end of our field day, the students work diligently to engineer their models using rocks, sticks, pools, cheesecloth, sponges, and shovels that represent the engineered features they observed in the field. After the first design, the results are mixed but the engagement is high. Voices bounce off of the walls and the excitement is palpable as students clamor to “purchase” items for their redesign. The students who earlier lamented the loss of their football field on a stormy day could now identify real-world solutions. “We could build a wetland!” one of them exclaims. I show them a picture of a school rain garden and wonder aloud if it’s something that they could do at their school to address the same issues we saw that day. 

Stewardship actions take many forms, but often require an application of science to design a solution to a real-world problem. The engineering design process gives our students the tools to apply science to design solutions, to take action to make their world a better place. The world needs problem solvers. At Brightwater, we’re doing our best to cultivate them.  

Our educational programs at the Brightwater Center are supported by the Verizon Foundation--thanks, Verizon, for helping inspire a new generation of engineers, scientists, and stewards! Learn more about our educational programs at the Brightwater Center.