On April 22, a billion people around the world are expected to take part in Earth Day 2012 celebrations. Among the anticipated “billion acts of green” will be scores of events for students and schools, from gardening lessons to eco-fairs to solar cooking demonstrations.

Earth Day could be an ideal set-up to help students become better problem solvers — but only if we trust students to figure out which problems they want to tackle.

That’s advice from educator and entrepreneur Ewan McIntosh, who knows a thing or two about how to help students become better problem solvers and engaging them in project-based learning.

Last fall, he facilitated an event that drew 10,000 students from five continents to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. Students came together online for the ITU Telecom World Meta Conference. The youth event ran in parallel with a face-to-face gathering of global leaders from telecommunications and technology industries.

Students were challenged to design solutions to tough issues, such as improving access to clean drinking water or extending education to reach all the world’s children. Their proposals had to meet a few basic criteria. “We set out success of an idea in terms of being tangible, pragmatic, make-able,” McIntosh explained.

What did students dream up? Using the process of design thinking, they developed concepts such as wheelchairs with built-in cell phones to improve life for those with disabilities, a seed exchange to help villagers grow their way out of hunger, water purification built right into a riverbed, and smartphone apps to prevent food spoilage.

Before students could arrive at these ingenious solutions, they first had to fully understand the problems they were attempting to solve. (Read a summary of the event here.)


How to help students become better problem solvers is something McIntosh is passionate about.

In a provocative talk last year at TedxLondon, he outlined the pitfalls of leaving it to adults to define which problems should be solved. “Currently, the world’s education systems are crazy about problem-based learning, but they’re obsessed with the wrong bit of it,” he insists.

“While everyone looks at how we could help students become better problem solvers, we’re not thinking how we could create a generation of problem-finders.”

Design thinking provides a better framework for learning that emphasizes defining the problem at the outset. Before diving into solutions, students might first conduct focus groups, do user interviews, or conduct other research to fully understand an issue. That means they develop empathy along with ingenuity as they work through the iterative process of generating ideas, prototyping, testing, getting user feedback, and refining solutions.

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Suzie Boss (@suzieboss on Twitter) is a journalist and author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age.  She’s also a regular blogger on Edutopia.