Problem Solving and STEM

Throughout the course of the day, teachers ask students to solve lots of different problems. Some problems may be small, while others may require multiple steps. Sometimes problems can be solved independently, while others require some collaboration. Other problems may need a quick solution, while others may need time and consideration.

  • Solve the addition problem written on the board.
  • Decide what game you and your friends are going to play at recess.
  • Figure out which website will help you find the information you need.
  • Determine what time you need to wake up in the morning to make it to school on time.
  • Disagree with a friend? Solve the problem.

These represent everyday problems that students must navigate in school and at home, but our young learners can solve greater problems than these! Through our work in science, technology, engineering, and math, we can introduce complex to our students in ways that allow them to apply their knowledge in STEM subjects. Engaging students in meaningful problem-solving can expand beyond the STEM subjects into social studies, English language arts, and the related arts. What if we asked our students to devise solutions to local and global problems and come up with solutions that make a difference. How might we . . .

  • Get clean water to communities that don’t have any 
  • Build a playground that is inclusive of all abilities, interests, and ages?
  • Create a more effective procedure for getting families food when they are hungry?
  • Design something that will create a sense of community in our neighborhood?

Problem-solving not only engages students in developing communication and critical thinking skills, but it also promotes creativity and collaboration. When problems are relevant, it helps students to gain awareness for situations that exist all around them. We can promote this type of learning in our schools in different ways.

Problem Seeking

Reflect on your day from the time you woke up until the time you went to bed. Did you encounter any problems? Were there things within your day that may have gone wrong or might have gone better if different decisions were made by you or others? We can seek out problems through reflection and observation. We can generate lists with the problems we encounter during the school day. Students can keep a journal of problems that exist at home or in their neighborhoods.

Looking for problems helps our students in several ways. They gain more social awareness about the things around them. They begin noticing things that impact them and those in their world. They become more mindful about things that are working and more importantly, about things that are not working. This kind of problem-seeking often compels students into problem-solving as they work to design different solutions to both simple and complex problems around them.

Take Action

Students can take an action about solving these problems in ways that can connect to your classroom instruction. In STEM, these may be things that students sketch, design, or build in your classroom. They might also be things that students can work together to inform others about, amplifying their voice to make a difference in other ways. For some students, that might mean using technology to create a platform for awareness. All these examples are lesson components that can be a part of a project-based learning unit.

What can this look like in the classroom?

Students in a 2nd-grade class could not believe the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean, after watching a video that their teacher shared with them. They were so astonished by this, that they were compelled to take action!

Two students asked if they could create a public service announcement video to share on their school’s morning announcements. Another group wanted to create a drop-off bin where students, parents, and neighbors could put their plastic grocery bags. One group decided they would circumvent the problem and find ways to use plastic bags. They researched different ways to recycle plastic bags and turn them into something more useful. Two students created braided plastic bracelets and necklaces that they sold at lunchtime.

Another group of students asked to start it and an after school club, called the Problem Solvers. The students created a bulletin board outside of a classroom and asked others to post ideas for problems that they found in and around their school community. The “problem solvers club” would then take the ideas posted by their peers and begin to work together to generate possible solutions.

As students identified more and more problems, they also began to activate their creative thinking in finding ways to solve them. This prompted them to do research, contact various experts, and work collaboratively with one another, as well as their teachers to come up with ways to solve them.


Solve It

We ask our students to solve problems every day. Think about ways that they might be able to explore bigger questions and larger problems to solve. When students activate their STEM knowledge, they have the ability to solve problems that extend beyond themselves.



About the author:
Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at


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