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Solving life’s VEXING problems 

By Susan Hayes 

Federal Programs Coordinator 

Hartselle City Schools  

 In its telling of the Apollo 13 almost-disaster, the Apollo 13 movie features a memorable moment where engineers sit in a room with everything that can be found on the spaceship emptied from a cardboard box onto a table.  The leader then holds up those assorted spaceship pieces challenging his team with, “We’ve got to find a way to make this fit into a hole for this using nothing but that.” 

 Teachers who watch Apollo 13 are generally focused on one thing: How do those engineers think through the solution of a problem such as the one they face in the movie – and in real life? And what kinds of things can I, a Hartselle City Schools teacher, do to nurture that kind of thinking?   

 That is what STEM learning is all about. It’s not about activities; it’s about creative problem solving with the tools that are available and within the parameters that exist.  And though it channels through science, technology, engineering and math; the brain does not recognize that problem-solving is content-specific. In other words, when a brain learns to solve problems, it can take the process to all types of problems in all types of situations. 

 And so, when the Barkley Bridge Elementary School Vex Robotics Team won the Build Award from among 519 competing teams and were then invited to compete globally at Vex World, the real win for sponsor Kim Jared was not in the invitation, but rather in the satisfaction that the seven member team had answered the call to creatively solve a problem within given parameters. 

 Accomplishing this with individual effort is worth applause, but accomplishing this as a team is particularly notable.  First, it requires finding several strong thinkers with valuable ideas, and it then requires them to submit those ideas.  But then it requires those thinkers to dismiss some ideas in favor of others. Robotics builds require planning, building, testing, modifying, testing, modifying, testing, modifying and then letting go. 

 And so Barkley Bridge’s boasts of being a Cognia STEM Certified school and a Project Lead the Way school are positive, and its boast of an award-winning robotics team is impressive, but the real value is in the problem-solving capacity of the brains on the team; and in the problem-solving capacities of the student brains that had nothing to do with the team but benefitted from the same or very similar STEM instruction. 

 BBES teacher and award-winning-vex-team-coach Kim Jared summarizes the benefits of STEM education best when she says, “STEM education equips our students with the ability to critically think and problem-solve in a collaborative way. This will allow them to succeed in whatever career path they choose.” 

If NASA’s flight director Gene Kranz were to comment, he may refer to it as Hartselle City Schools’ finest hour. 

 

 

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