The Problem Solving Snail

The wonder that is the problem solving snail was introduced to me as a joke a few years ago. I was working at a grant-funded museum tech outreach program and the lead teacher designed a brief survey for the students (5th grade girls) to take for assessment purposes. A lot of the questions asked the girls about STEM ideas, their attitudes towards science, etc. And one question showed the students an image of a the engineering design process, kind of like this great one (albeit sans labels) from The Works Museum:


The girls had to identify this image as an engineering design process –  something we’d discussed in class the previous week, when we’d talked about how engineers work and the steps we go through to solve problems. One of the ridiculous choices the lead teacher came up with for this survey question was the “problem solving snail” and the term stuck. The other teachers in the class and I ran with the term and it became a running joke.

But I think the problem solving snail might be more profound than we originally thought. I teach research skills now more than engineering lessons (I must say I’m sad about that on occasion!). And the research process really has a lot in common with this problem solving or design process used by engineers.

In fact, this research cycle image I made for a first-year research guide was largely inspired by problem solving and design process cycles I’d seen in my museum educator days.


Whether it’s science, engineering, inventing, humanities research, or whatever, the process of identifying and solving a problem is pretty similar. For me, there are two major lessons to take away from an engineering approach to problem solving. The first is the term problem solving itself. I really think that research, at the academic level especially but also for younger students, would do well to be explicitly cast as a way to solve problems. College students, in my experience, can often experience a disconnect between their assignments and the real world (insert academia joke of your choice here). Research, to students, can feel tedious (it often is) and difficult (yep). Casting it in terms of solving a problem can help ground the more abstract ideas of research in practicalities and “real” world concerns.

The other major takeaway I have from an engineering approach to problem solving is actually my friend, the problem solving snail. A snail is, of course, slow. It makes incremental process. You might worry it’s never going to get anywhere. And problem solving (and research) is exactly like this. Research is slow, it’s iterative, it might seem stagnant. But it can really get important things done, even though the process itself can feel cumbersome.

I think the problem solving snail might become my mascot for future lessons, whether I’m teaching younger kids about STEM or older kids about academic research. If you want to learn more about the problem solving and the design process, check out this great site from the PBS Kids Design Squad, where they walk you through each step of the design process and provide resources and activity ideas.

Scratching the Surface – Storytelling with Scratch

Scratch, for those who don’t know, is a learn-to-code program designed by the folks at MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten program (which is such a fantastic spirit to embrace). Scratch features a somewhat deranged looking cat and a less-deranged array of color coded blocks that kids can put together like puzzle pieces in order to do some rudimentary coding.

The manic-looking cat from Scratch


One thing I really love about Scratch, and there are many things to love, is that it uses natural language to help kids (and adults too) learn basic coding skills. Concepts like while loops and if statements are written out and color coded so that the programmer can make connections between what’s happening in their code and what they are seeing the rather manic looking cat (seriously, he has problems) do on the screen.

I volunteer at a local museum with a teen group and was showing them Scratch the other day. One of the girls in the group rather astutely asked what this was even good for and why bother to learn to code. Better people than me have expounded upon that topic and talked about the importance of computer literacy skills (see Hour of Code and their associated explanatory video content, for starters). And I regurgitated some of that for her benefit. But I also emphasized, librarian and educator that I am, that coding can be a powerful communication tool. Coding can be a way to create, build, and share ideas and that, to me, is the truly key and empowering thing about learning to use technology, whether or not that involved coding (and that’s also why I think librarians should be at the forefront of advocating for ways to close the digital divide in this country, though more on that later). Not everyone needs to be a coding ninja, but having an understanding of how technologies we use every day work is, I feel, important (see this well-written post on learning to code from DML Central for more).

Scratch, though it may be designed for kids and feature some rather silly looking animated characters, can actually act as a great digital storytelling device for kids and teens.

It can help them explore ways to use code to tell a story and the platform itself is flexible enough to act as a fun, if somewhat kitschy looking, storytelling platform. You can import backgrounds and images to use as characters, include thought bubbles and dialogue, make things move around the screen, add music, and add other visual effects (which actually look less silly than the hats Google Hangouts is doing in beta). And the great part with Scratch is that you can put up your story and freely remix other people’s programs, which helps to teach kids about the creative process as well as more traditional STEM topics like, well, coding.

Scratch is web-based and free and could work really well in libraries, museums, and schools as a way to teach basic coding and have some fun with telling stories on a digital platform. Have you used Scratch before? Share ideas and experiences below and check out the Scratch Educator community for ideas and inspiration.