Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018

Grand Challenge 2:

Problem-finding and Problem-solving: How can we help students find and solve problems they care about concerning the Earth, in an information-rich society (big data, emerging technologies, access to a wide-variety of tools, rich multimedia)?


Historically the problems that students tackle in science classes, including geoscience classes, have been assigned by the teacher and rather constrained in scope. But many of the problems geoscience students will confront in the future are complex, messy, ill-defined, and require working across disparate knowledge, methods, and data sources. Such work has been coined "convergent" science, as solutions for problems must be converged on from different directions. We are at a time where technology can leverage the power of undergraduates so that they can make real contributions to solving authentic, messy problems, rather than being constrained to well-bounded classroom problems. Information technology has changed, and will continue to change, the kinds and quantities of resources that are available for problem solving. Students need to learn to navigate this rapidly changing space, identifying and harnessing resources (e.g. tools, data, models, experts, collaborators) that can be brought to bear on their problem. We anticipate that young people who learn to identify and solve convergent science problems as students will carry that skill-set and habit of mind into their personal, civic and professional adult lives (Figure 3).

The current state of knowledge on problem-finding and problem-solving comes from many fields of study that can inform future geoscience education research:

  • There is existing research on the process of diffusions of innovation and on technology adoption (Rogers, 2003). Both of these identify awareness, perceived usefulness, and initial training as key early phases in the process of technology adoption. However, there is little research on how to enable these early phases in the sciences in general and the geosciences in specific.
  • There is existing research on computational thinking and data analysis skills, mostly within computer science education (Elliot et al., 2016; Fox & Hendler, 2014; Hey, Tansley, & Tolle, 2009). Yet, there is very little research on this topic in geoscience, beyond identification of general categories of skills needed (Nativi et al., 2015). The Geoscience Employer's Workshop Document identifies a set of existing technologies with which students need to be familiar; this list will change continually in the future but general types of technologies (e.g., GIS as oppsed to the more specific software ArcGIS) may be an appropriate anchoring for tailoring research foci.
  • There is a body of literature on problem-based learning, including in medicine, business, engineering, and to a lesser extent in geosciences (Holder, Scherer, & Herbert, 2017; Pennington et al., 2016). Much of this literature comprises "curriculum & instruction" style papers rather than discipline-based educational research. Given the messy and heterogeneous nature of problems and problem-solving, it is hard for researchers to produce generalizable knowledge on problem-based learning, findings that can be extended beyond the immediate context of a study site.
  • There is a body of literature on the science of team science and cognition in groups (National Research Council, 2015; Pennington, 2016; Pennington, et al., 2013). This has mostly been developed through case studies of teams in different contexts – mostly within large organizations, medical teams, and community organizations. There is some emerging research on how learning occurs in teams (Borrego & Cutler, 2010; Bosque-Pérez et al., 2016; Roschelle & Teasley, 1995), and how activities can be designed in geoscience classrooms to develop these capabilities (Pennington et al., 2016).

Recommended Research Strategies

  1. Research the problem-finding process; the techniques by which vague, open-ended problems are turned into solvable problems, and how these can be taught. Problem identification in convergent science requires the ability to co-create a shared conceptualization of the problem to be solved based on what each participant can contribute. There are an infinite number of ways to frame research on ill-defined problems; solutions depend on the expertise at hand. The challenge is to learn enough about the different contributing perspectives to determine how they can be collectively leveraged. Moreover, to make serious headway on a substantial problem, the problem and proposed solution has to be one that is of high importance to the solver or solving team; otherwise, they won't have the motivation to push onward through the inevitable challenges and setbacks. Finding a problem that is both solvable and of passionate personal interest is doubly hard. We need evidence on how skilled problem-solvers do this, models for how learning occurs in these situations, and pedagogical approaches to help students learn to do the same. Employers, including those involved in the Future of Geoscience Education Employers Workshop, articulate the importance of learning to work on problems with no clear answers and manage the uncertainty associated with solving these types of problems.
  2. Research the process by which geoscience students learn and adopt new methods and technologies. As technology advances, new tools are available that generate ever larger datasets. Such datasets are potentially valuable to help solve complex problems, but the most effective strategies for learning how to manage and extract solutions from large datasets are not clear. Skills are needed to: (a) skillfully collect, integrate and analyze data that are increasingly generated automatically by advanced sensors and/or simulation models; (b) understand advanced methods and technologies for conducting data-intensive science; and (c) timely identify and learn technologies that are relevant to the problem and are emerging at an increasingly rapid pace. Likewise, new technologies could be used to process data in new ways or to advance learning, but more research is needed on how to most effectively use such technologies, especially when technological developments constantly evolve. In addition, employers, including those involved in the Future of Geoscience Education Employers Workshop, articulate the importance of the ability to use data to solve problems.
  3. Collaborate with experts on team science (from cognitive or learning science) to research effective strategies to teach collaboration and teamwork in undergraduate geoscience education. Convergent science requires the ability to collaborate effectively across disciplines and/or with external stakeholders, especially with experts from social sciences, engineering, and computer science. Employers, including those involved in the Future of Geoscience Education Employers Workshop, consistently emphasize the importance of ability to work in teams, including interdisciplinary teams. Although many classes incorporate team projects, most provide little training to students on how to work effectively in a team. There are few relevant models of teamwork training for geoscience faculty to follow, and most do not have the knowledge and expertise to construct their own models. Although there exists decades of research on teamwork in other contexts, there is little GER research on how what is known about teamwork can be applied in geoscience contexts.