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- Problem Solving in STEM
Solving problems is a key component of many science, math, and engineering classes. If a goal of a class is for students to emerge with the ability to solve new kinds of problems or to use new problem-solving techniques, then students need numerous opportunities to develop the skills necessary to approach and answer different types of problems. Problem solving during section or class allows students to develop their confidence in these skills under your guidance, better preparing them to succeed on their homework and exams. This page offers advice about strategies for facilitating problem solving during class.
How do I decide which problems to cover in section or class?
In-class problem solving should reinforce the major concepts from the class and provide the opportunity for theoretical concepts to become more concrete. If students have a problem set for homework, then in-class problem solving should prepare students for the types of problems that they will see on their homework. You may wish to include some simpler problems both in the interest of time and to help students gain confidence, but it is ideal if the complexity of at least some of the in-class problems mirrors the level of difficulty of the homework. You may also want to ask your students ahead of time which skills or concepts they find confusing, and include some problems that are directly targeted to their concerns.
You have given your students a problem to solve in class. What are some strategies to work through it?
- Try to give your students a chance to grapple with the problems as much as possible. Offering them the chance to do the problem themselves allows them to learn from their mistakes in the presence of your expertise as their teacher. (If time is limited, they may not be able to get all the way through multi-step problems, in which case it can help to prioritize giving them a chance to tackle the most challenging steps.)
- When you do want to teach by solving the problem yourself at the board, talk through the logic of how you choose to apply certain approaches to solve certain problems. This way you can externalize the type of thinking you hope your students internalize when they solve similar problems themselves.
- Start by setting up the problem on the board (e.g you might write down key variables and equations; draw a figure illustrating the question). Ask students to start solving the problem, either independently or in small groups. As they are working on the problem, walk around to hear what they are saying and see what they are writing down. If several students seem stuck, it might be a good to collect the whole class again to clarify any confusion. After students have made progress, bring the everyone back together and have students guide you as to what to write on the board.
- It can help to first ask students to work on the problem by themselves for a minute, and then get into small groups to work on the problem collaboratively.
- If you have ample board space, have students work in small groups at the board while solving the problem. That way you can monitor their progress by standing back and watching what they put up on the board.
- If you have several problems you would like to have the students practice, but not enough time for everyone to do all of them, you can assign different groups of students to work on different – but related - problems.
When do you want students to work in groups to solve problems?
- Don’t ask students to work in groups for straightforward problems that most students could solve independently in a short amount of time.
- Do have students work in groups for thought-provoking problems, where students will benefit from meaningful collaboration.
- Even in cases where you plan to have students work in groups, it can be useful to give students some time to work on their own before collaborating with others. This ensures that every student engages with the problem and is ready to contribute to a discussion.
What are some benefits of having students work in groups?
- Students bring different strengths, different knowledge, and different ideas for how to solve a problem; collaboration can help students work through problems that are more challenging than they might be able to tackle on their own.
- In working in a group, students might consider multiple ways to approach a problem, thus enriching their repertoire of strategies.
- Students who think they understand the material will gain a deeper understanding by explaining concepts to their peers.
What are some strategies for helping students to form groups?
- Instruct students to work with the person (or people) sitting next to them.
- Count off. (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4; all the 1’s find each other and form a group, etc)
- Hand out playing cards; students need to find the person with the same number card. (There are many variants to this. For example, you can print pictures of images that go together [rain and umbrella]; each person gets a card and needs to find their partner[s].)
- Based on what you know about the students, assign groups in advance. List the groups on the board.
- Note: Always have students take the time to introduce themselves to each other in a new group.
What should you do while your students are working on problems?
- Walk around and talk to students. Observing their work gives you a sense of what people understand and what they are struggling with. Answer students’ questions, and ask them questions that lead in a productive direction if they are stuck.
- If you discover that many people have the same question—or that someone has a misunderstanding that others might have—you might stop everyone and discuss a key idea with the entire class.
After students work on a problem during class, what are strategies to have them share their answers and their thinking?
- Ask for volunteers to share answers. Depending on the nature of the problem, student might provide answers verbally or by writing on the board. As a variant, for questions where a variety of answers are relevant, ask for at least three volunteers before anyone shares their ideas.
- Use online polling software for students to respond to a multiple-choice question anonymously.
- If students are working in groups, assign reporters ahead of time. For example, the person with the next birthday could be responsible for sharing their group’s work with the class.
- Cold call. To reduce student anxiety about cold calling, it can help to identify students who seem to have the correct answer as you were walking around the class and checking in on their progress solving the assigned problem. You may even want to warn the student ahead of time: "This is a great answer! Do you mind if I call on you when we come back together as a class?"
- Have students write an answer on a notecard that they turn in to you. If your goal is to understand whether students in general solved a problem correctly, the notecards could be submitted anonymously; if you wish to assess individual students’ work, you would want to ask students to put their names on their notecard.
- Use a jigsaw strategy, where you rearrange groups such that each new group is comprised of people who came from different initial groups and had solved different problems. Students now are responsible for teaching the other students in their new group how to solve their problem.
- Have a representative from each group explain their problem to the class.
- Have a representative from each group draw or write the answer on the board.
What happens if a student gives a wrong answer?
- Ask for their reasoning so that you can understand where they went wrong.
- Ask if anyone else has other ideas. You can also ask this sometimes when an answer is right.
- Cultivate an environment where it’s okay to be wrong. Emphasize that you are all learning together, and that you learn through making mistakes.
- Do make sure that you clarify what the correct answer is before moving on.
- Once the correct answer is given, go through some answer-checking techniques that can distinguish between correct and incorrect answers. This can help prepare students to verify their future work.
How can you make your classroom inclusive?
- The goal is that everyone is thinking, talking, and sharing their ideas, and that everyone feels valued and respected. Use a variety of teaching strategies (independent work and group work; allow students to talk to each other before they talk to the class). Create an environment where it is normal to struggle and make mistakes.
- See Kimberly Tanner’s article on strategies to promoste student engagement and cultivate classroom equity.
A few final notes…
- Make sure that you have worked all of the problems and also thought about alternative approaches to solving them.
- Board work matters. You should have a plan beforehand of what you will write on the board, where, when, what needs to be added, and what can be erased when. If students are going to write their answers on the board, you need to also have a plan for making sure that everyone gets to the correct answer. Students will copy what is on the board and use it as their notes for later study, so correct and logical information must be written there.
For more information...
Tipsheet: Problem Solving in STEM Sections
Tanner, K. D. (2013). Structure matters: twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity . CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(3), 322-331.
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The Science of Problem-Solving
It turns out practices that might seem a little odd—like talking to yourself—can be pretty effective
- By Ulrich Boser on April 11, 2017
For Gurpreet Dhaliwal, just about every decision is a potential opportunity for effective problem solving. What route should he take into the office? Should Dhaliwal write his research paper today or next week? "We all do problem solving all day long," Dhaliwal told me.
An emergency medicine physician, Dhaliwal is one of the leaders in a field known as clinical reasoning , a type of applied problem solving. In recent years, Dhaliwal has mapped out a better way to solve thorny issues, and he believes that his problem solving approach can be applied to just about any field from knitting to chemistry.
For most of us, problem solving is one of those everyday activities that we do without much thought. But it turns out that many common approaches like brainstorming don’t have much research behind them. In contrast, practices that might seem a little odd—like talking to yourself —can be pretty effective.
I came across the new research on problem solving as part of my reporting on a book on the science of learning, and it was mathematician George Polya who first established the field, detailing a four-step approach to cracking enduring riddles.
For Polya, the first phase of problem solving is “understanding.” In this phase, people should look to find the core idea behind a problem. “You have to understand the problem,” Polya argued. “What is the unknown? What are the data?”
The second phase is “devising a plan,” in which people map out how they’d address the problem. “Find the connection between the data and the unknown,” Polya counseled.
The third phase of problem solving is “carrying out the plan.” This is a matter of doing—and vetting: “Can you prove that it is correct?”
The final phase for Polya is “looking back.” Or learning from the solution: People should "consolidate their knowledge.”
While Dhaliwal broadly follows this four-step method, he stresses that procedures are not enough. While a focused method is helpful, thorny issues don’t always fit nicely into categories.
This idea is clear in medicine. After all, symptoms rarely match up perfectly with an illness. Dizziness can be the signal of something serious—or a symptom of a lack of sleep. “What is tricky is to figure out what’s signal and what’s noise,” Dhaliwal told me.
In this regard, Dhaliwal argues that what’s at the heart of effective problem solving is making a robust connection between the problem and the solution. "Problem solving is part craft and part science, " Dhaliwal says, a type of "matching exercise. "
To get a sense of Dhaliwal’s approach, I once watched him solve a perplexing case. It was at a medical conference, and Dhaliwal stood at a dais as a fellow doctor explained the case: Basically, a man came into ER one day—let’s call him Andreas—and he spat up blood, could not breath very well, and had a slight fever.
At the start of the process, Dhaliwal recommends developing a one-sentence description of the problem. "It’s like a good Google search,” he said. “You want a concise summary,” and in this case, it was: Sixty-eight-year-old man with hemoptysis, or coughing up blood.
Dhaliwal also makes a few early generalizations, and he thought that Andreas might have a lung infection or an autoimmune problem. There wasn’t enough data to offer any sort of reliable conclusion, though, and really Dhaliwal was just gathering information.
Then came an x-ray, an HIV test, and as each bit of evidence rolled in, Dhaliwal detailed various scenarios, assembling the data in different ways. “To diagnosis, sometimes we are trying to lump, and sometimes trying to split,” he said.
Dhaliwal’s eyes flashed, for instance, when it became apparent that Andreas had worked in a fertilizer factory. It meant that Andreas was exposed to noxious chemicals, and for a while, it seemed like a toxic substance was at the root of Andreas’s illness.
Dhaliwal had a few strong pieces of evidence that supported the theory including some odd-looking red blood cells. But Dhaliwal wasn't comfortable with the level of proof. “I'm like an attorney presenting in a court of law,” Dhaliwal told me. “I want evidence.”
As the case progressed, Dhaliwal came across a new detail, and there was a growth in the heart. This shifted the diagnosis, knocking out the toxic chemical angle because it doesn't spark tumors.
Eventually, Dhaliwal uncovered a robust pattern, diagnosing Andreas with a cardiac angiosarcoma, or heart cancer. The pattern best explained the problem. “Diagnosing often comes down the ability to pull things together,” he said.
Dhaliwal doesn’t always get the right answer. But at the same time, it was clear that a more focused approach to problem solving can make a clear difference. If we’re more aware of how we approach an issue, we are better able to resolve the issue.
This idea explains why people who talk to themselves are more effective at problem solving. Self-queries—like is there enough evidence? —help us think through an issue.
As for Dhaliwal, he had yet another problem to solve after his diagnosis of Andreas: Should he take an Uber to the airport? Or should he grab a cab? After a little thought, Dhaliwal decided on an Uber. It was likely to be cheaper and equally comfortable. In other words, it was the solution that best matched the problem.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
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Wind energy has a massive waste problem. new technologies may be a step closer to solving it.
Wind turbines are built to last. Their tall bodies are topped with long fiberglass blades, some more than half a football field in length, made to withstand the harshest, windiest conditions .
But this sturdiness brings a big problem: What to do with these blades when they reach the end of their lives.
While about 90% of turbines are easily recyclable, their blades are not. They are made from fiberglass bound together with epoxy resin, a material so strong it is incredibly difficult and expensive to break down. Most blades end their lives in landfill or are incinerated.
It’s a problem that’s vexed the wind energy industry and provided fodder for those who seek to discredit wind power.
But in February, Danish wind company Vestas said it had cracked the problem.
It announced a “breakthrough solution” that would allow wind turbine blades to be recycled without needing to change their design or materials.
The company said the “newly discovered chemical technology” breaks down old blades in a liquid to produce high quality materials, which can eventually be used to make new blades, as well as components in other industries.
Claire Barlow, a sustainability and materials engineer at Cambridge University, told CNN that if this kind of technology can be scaled up, it “could be a game changer.”
A new method for a big problem
In 2019, an image from Casper Regional Landfill in Wyoming showing piles of long, white blades waiting to be buried went viral, prompting criticism of the environmental credentials of wind power.
Wind energy has been growing at a fast pace . It is the world’s leading renewable energy technology behind hydropower, and plays a vital role in helping countries move away from fossil fuel energy, which pumps out planet-heating pollution.
But as the first generation of wind turbines start to reach the end of their service lives , while others are replaced early to make way for newer technology – including longer turbine blades that can sweep more wind and generate more energy – the question of what to do with their huge blades becomes more pressing.
The future of wind energy in the US is floating turbines as tall as 30 Rock
Blade waste is projected to reach 2.2 million tons in the US by 2050. Globally, the figure could be around 43 million tons by 2050.
There are few easy ways to deal with it.
Current options are not only wasteful but have environmental drawbacks. Incineration brings pollution and, while wind companies say there is no toxicity issue with landfilling blades, Barlow said that’s not yet totally clear.
“That’s not as benign as you might think,” she said.
Turbine blade materials make recycling hard and costly. The epoxy resins used to make turbine blades are called “thermosets.”
“If you heat them up, they don’t change their properties until they just burn,” Barlow said. “You can’t just scrunch them up and recycle the material into something easily reusable.”
That’s why Vestas hopes its new technology could hold real promise.
“This has been the key sustainability challenge in the industry. And so we’re of course very excited to have found a solution,” Lisa Ekstrand, the head of sustainability at Vestas, told CNN.
'The sound of money': Wind energy is booming in deep-red Republican states
The process, which the company has been working on in partnership with Aarhus University, the Danish Technological Institute and US-based epoxy company Olin, uses a liquid chemical solution to break down the blade into epoxy fragments and fibers. The epoxy resin is then sent to Olin which can process it into “virgin-grade” epoxy, Ekstrand said.
The process uses inexpensive, non-toxic chemicals that are readily available in large quantities, she added. “We expect this to be a low energy consuming, low CO2-emitting technology.”
The company remains tight-lipped on further details, including the chemicals involved and how many times the process can be repeated.
Ekstrand said they are filing patents and the plan is eventually to license it to other companies.
So far, Vestas has tested the technology in a lab but is now building a pilot facility to test it on a bigger scale for two years, after which it hopes to commercialize it.
Gummy bears from turbine blades
Vestas is far from the first to try to tackle this knotty problem. Companies and scientists have been working on different approaches for years, although many potential solutions are nascent or remain small scale.
One approach is to grind blades up and use the material in other industries. The downsides are that the enormous blades are tricky to transport and crush. “Because the material isn’t worth very much, it’s not really worthwhile doing it,” Barlow said.
But some companies say they’re making it work.
Veolia, a resource management company headquartered in France, turns old blades into an ingredient for cement production.
It shreds, sorts and blends blade materials before sending them to cement kilns. Using this blend reduces the planet-heating pollution produced in cement manufacturing by 27%, according to Veolia. The program has processed 2,600 blades so far.
Carbon Rivers, a Tennessee-based company, has worked with the US Department of Energy to help scale up its “pyrolysis” technology – a form of chemical recycling that uses very high heat in an oxygen-free environment.
What's killing whales off the Northeast coast? It's not wind farm projects, experts say
The company’s process produces glass fibers, which can then be used in new wind turbine blades, as well as in the automotive and shipping industries, it says. It also produces oil that can be used in energy production, David Morgan, chief strategy officer at Carbon Rivers, told CNN.
The technology allows them “to fully and completely upcycle wind turbine blades” in a process that is “net positive energy,” Morgan added.
Carbon Rivers has so far upcycled 41 blades weighing 268 tons and is building recycling facilities and with the aim of scaling up to more than 5,800 blades a day.
Other efforts focus on changing the materials used to make turbines, to create a new generation of blades that are easier to recycle.
In 2022, researchers at the University of Michigan announced they had made a new resin for blades by combining glass fibers with a plant derived polymer and a synthetic one, which could be recycled into ingredients for products, including new turbine blades, laptop covers, power tools – and even gummy bear candies .
'Beginning of the end' for fossil fuels: Global wind and solar reached record levels in 2022, study finds
“We recovered food-grade potassium lactate and used it to make gummy bear candies, which I ate,” John Dorgan, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, said in a statement.
For those concerned about eating an old turbine, Dorgan said: “A carbon atom derived from a plant, like corn or grass, is no different from a carbon atom that came from a fossil fuel. It’s all part of the global carbon cycle, and we’ve shown that we can go from biomass in the field to durable plastic materials and back to foodstuffs.”
Of course, this won’t help with the blades being decommissioned now.
The reason Vestas’ discovery could be so compelling, said Barlow, is that it’s promising a process to recover reusable materials from current turbine blades, without using noxious chemicals and huge amounts of energy. “That’s a real winner,” she said.
Now the company has to scale up.
“There will be all sorts of problems which they haven’t conceived of. So it may be slow, but this is a good starter for ten,” Barlow said.
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House made with recycled nappies solves two problems at once, researchers say
Would you live in a house made with recycled nappies?
Researchers have taken on the twin challenges of nappy waste and housing affordability, and they've even got a house to show for their efforts.
- Researchers substituted sand in the mortar mix with used nappies after cleaning, drying and shredding them
- As much as 40 per cent of the mortar mix could be substituted with the nappies
- Aggregate and cement are already being substituted in some concretes in Australia
While it might sound a bit on the nose, it turns out nappies can be added to concrete mortar as a partial replacement for sand, according to research published today in Scientific Reports .
PhD student Siswanti Zuraida recognised that used nappies were a huge source of waste that went to landfill or worse, especially in regions lacking recycling infrastructure.
"The recycling process that is available [for nappies] is limited to developed countries because [the technology] is hard to apply and expensive," said Ms Zuraida of the University of Kitakyushu in Japan.
"So it is important to propose a low-cost recycling treatment for diapers in developing countries."
Ms Zuraida also saw the need for cheaper building materials and decided to test whether she could tackle two problems at once.
"Replacement of a part of the sand [in mortar] is an alternative way to reduce the cost of materials," she said.
"It also [means that we see] diaper waste as something valuable, since until now the waste is ending up in incineration or landfill."
Before we go any further, we need to clear something up: yes, the nappies were cleaned before use, according to Ms Zuraida.
"The step is to remove the faeces with water. For urine it only needs to be soaked in a solution of water that contains chemical additives. Then [it was] dried up and shredded."
Putting it to the test
While the idea of adding nappies to concrete wasn't entirely new, Ms Zuraida said her project was the first to put it to the test in housing.
The researchers' aim was to build a low-cost dwelling that complied with Indonesian building standards.
"Those [earlier studies] encouraged me to apply their findings on a macro scale, which is to build the actual housing by using the diapers as part of the building components."
Ms Zuraida and her colleagues first tested what is called the compressive strength of concrete — the integrity when different ratios of nappy were submitted for sand.
Sand is added to cement along with an aggregate such as rocks, and water to make concrete. Sand's role in the mix is to increase density of the mortar, prevent shrinkage, increase volume (more economical), and to increase the surface area coming into contact with the binding agent (cement).
Though ratios change depending on the application, a typical concrete mix is around 60 – 80 per cent sand and gravel.
The researchers found the compressive strength of the concrete declined as more nappy was substituted, meaning different ratios were needed depending on the use of the mix.
Overall, they found they could use 1.73m 3 of reclaimed nappies in their building, which had a floor area of 36m 2 .
Structural and load-bearing components had a maximum capacity of 10 per cent nappy, and non-structural components could take up to 40 per cent nappy.
The found the nappy ratio would need to be reduced in structural columns if more floors were added to the building.
Could we use it in Australia?
Rackel San Nicolas, who researches sustainable construction materials at the University of Melbourne, said there are a lot of regulations in Australia that would stop nappies being used in concrete here on any commercial scale.
However, Dr San Nicolas says, we are already substituting aggregates, and cement itself, for waste products in a bid to make concrete more environmentally friendly.
The manufacture of cement involves converting calcium carbonate to lime, releasing CO2 in the process.
Substituting cement for fly ash, which is a by-product of burning coal, helps cut down on CO2 emissions, according to Dr San Nicolas, who was not involved with the study.
"At the moment on the market, we've got easily up to 50 to 60 per cent [substitution] of cement," she said.
"We are testing and trying to [prove] more applications where we can use no cement at all, where it's only fly ash — cement-free concrete basically."
Old concrete itself can be crushed up and reused as an aggregate too.
And there are other applications where waste products are being used in place of virgin materials, from old tyres in playgrounds to glass in slabs, walls, and road base.
But Dr San Nicolas doesn't see nappies becoming part of Australia's concrete mix anytime soon.
"I know nappies are a very big waste problem, but I would never use it in concrete, that's for sure," she said.
"I just cannot imagine how it would be used."
Adult diapers are a bigger waste problem than nappies in australia. a new trial could help change that.
'I am down to the dollar each fortnight': Why free nappies can be life-changing
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Real-World STEM Problems
by Anne Jolly · Published 12/16/2012 · Updated 10/27/2021
A MiddleWeb Blog
Links checked and updated January 2019. See Anne’s recent posts for more real-world STEM.
STEM teachers pose problems and combine problem solving with project-based learning across disciplines. They work together with students on activities to develop students’ critical thinking, communication, assessment, and inquiry skills.
That’s an impressive job description; however, one source describes the teacher preparation system for STEM teachers as “chaotic, incoherent, and uncoordinated, filled with ‘excellent programs, terrible programs, and many in between.’” That’s not surprising, since the STEM acronym has only been around for a few years. But it certainly needs to improve.
What Good STEM Lessons Do
While things seem a bit muddled on the STEM teacher preparation front, we do know some things about STEM curriculum. We know, for example, that a good STEM lesson accomplishes these things:
- Helps students apply math and science through authentic, hands-on learning
- Includes the use of (or creation of) technology
- Involves students in using an engineering design process
- Engages students in working in collaborative teams
- Appeals equally to girls and boys
- Reinforces relevant math and science standards
- Addresses a real-world problem
Providing students with real-world problems and asking them to brainstorm solutions will bring their higher order thinking skills into play. But for me, identifying real-world problems that students can solve is one of the hardest parts of creating STEM lessons.
They have to be problems that students can reasonably grapple with. And those all-important problems may need to synchronize with a specific set of math and/or science standards from the school system’s pacing guide. Hopefully you don’t have that constraint, but realistically you probably do.
Sites for Real-World Problems
I’ve located some sites that help me come up with real-world problems, and I’m always on the look-out for more. I’m going to share several sites I’ve identified, and I hope that you’ll share some as well. I invite you to click on these sites and mull over the possibilities.
In the Greening STEM section on this site you’ll find ideas for relevant problems. Most environmental topics can fit under standards for either life or physical science, so these may provide you with some real “kid-catchers,” or ideas that snag students’ interest.
Topics include areas such as:
• Oil spills • Water pollution • Air quality • Endangered species • Environmental Health
Another favorite site of mine is the Design Squad Nation . They have some real-world problems there that I find intriguing. For example student teams might invent these:
• Band Instrument • Electric Gamebox • Confetti Launcher • Solar Water Heater • Speedy Shelter
How cool are those ideas? As a middle school science teacher, I found STEM to be a natural fit for most of the topics I taught. Math, however, seems to be a different matter.
The Problem with Math
One issue I hear repeatedly is that math teachers find it difficult to identify real-world problems and implement STEM projects in math classes. (Note that these math teachers are not able to work collaboratively with science teachers to develop/implement lessons, and must therefore “go-it-alone.”) However, the math teachers who mentioned this are looking determinedly for ways to implement STEM lessons.
The Common Core Standards state: “Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.” This adds urgency to the search for real-world problems that bring in appropriate math standards.
Math standards addressed by the lessons on this site include these and more:
• Fractions, decimals, percents • Ratios and proportions • Estimating and predicting • Rates and unit rate • Modeling problems with graphs, tables, and equations • Comparing, graphing, and interpreting data • Scale factors • Geometry and measurement • Probability • Proportional reasoning
Another site that links math to real problems is Middle School Math and Science . Students solve problems involving train races, global sun temperature, amount of water usage, and so on. Most of these are Internet-based, so you may want to design some of them as hands-on projects for students. (UPDATE: This Ohio State University site is now an archive, but you’ll still find plenty of useful resources.)
No list of real-world problem ideas would be complete without mentioning the Teach Engineering lessons. As you peruse these, read the summary of the lessons rather than relying on the titles. Look for projects that include hands-on ideas, such as those involving microbes, rocket-powered boats, solid fuel reactants, the fisheries bycatch problem , and so on. Notice that many of the lessons have hands-on “Associated Activities.” These generally hands-on investigations bring the “E” in STEM to your students.
I hope these sites will be of value to you, and will assist you in brainstorming ideas for real-world problems. Feel free to share comments or sites of your own. We’re inventing a new specialty and need all the help we can get and share!
For even more STEM lesson ideas, read Anne’s 2018 posts:
How to Make or Find Good STEM Lessons and Design Squad Global’s Super STEM Resources
and her 2020 post:
Need a Real World STEM Project? Try Plastics Pollution
You’ll also find teaching ideas at Anne’s STEM by Design website
Click & use code MWEB1 for 20% off!
Tags: STEM curriculum STEM real-world problems STEM teacher preparation teaching STEM
Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and was recognized as an Alabama Teacher of the Year during her long career as a middle grades science teacher. From 2007-2014 Anne was part of an NSF-funded team that developed middle grades STEM curriculum modules and teacher PD. In 2020-2021 Anne teamed with Flight Works Alabama to develop a workforce-friendly middle school curriculum and is now working on an elementary version. Her book STEM By Design: Strategies & Activities for Grades 4-8 is published by Routledge/MiddleWeb.
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Hello Anne. As a new STEM coordinator, I have to give a STEM presentation to principals for my charter schools. Can you suggest and lessons, books. power points,etc. that would be advantageous? Fondly, Linda Schwerer Pinellas Academy of Math & Science
Hi, Linda – I have a couple of ideas . . . If you contact Susan Pruet – Director if Engaging Youth through Engineering (you can google it) she will send you a copy of a free STEM launcher. It’s a lesson intended to demonstrate the STEM process. You could lead your principals through it if you think they really need a better understanding of the difference in STEM and science experimentation. You could also distribute it to your schools for teachers to use as a launcher into the STEM way of thinking. It has PowerPoint slides with it.
An online document that you might like to look at is “STEM Teachers in Professional Learning Communities: From Good Teachers to Great Teaching.” You can google this document online as well as a National Academies Press document titled “Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”
I’m not sure if you’re trying to introduce these principals to the idea of STEM and convince them that they need to do this, or if you’re trying to show your principals how to do this. Those are two separate presentations – at least.
Good luck with your preparation! You have a lot of research to back up the need for STEM!
Thank you so much Anne! I will get to work! Your advice is very helpful!
I realize this comment is 3 years old, but I came across it just now. I would like to know if Susan Pruet is still available to get that free STEM launcher you mentioned – a lesson intended to demo the STEM process. I would love this.
Harry – thanks for asking. This is still a popular post at MiddleWeb! Anne Jolly’s January 2017 blog post shares the Launcher activity: Launch the New Year with STEM Mini-Lessons!
Thank you! Much appreciated from a fellow Alabaman. (correct use of that word? :) )
I love the STEM idea. But, as a 7th grade math teacher, I don’t see a place in STEM programs to ensure that students understand the basic math skills required by educational standards. For many kids, it takes a long time to understand and be able to apply math concepts. With STEM programming focusing on the project-based approach, where does mastering basic skills fit in?
Mastering math skills and applying them through STEM isn’t actually an either-or situation. If kids see reasons for what they are learning, they tend to learn more deeply and quickly because they are actually engaged in the content. I’ve worked with STEM courses that made use of math that the kids had already learned. I’ve also worked with STEM projects that taught the math kids needed in order to solve the problem. Both were effective. The real purpose of STEM is to ensure that math and science students learn their content more deeply. If that isn’t working, then we’ll need to keep adjusting until we get there. Thanks for asking!
Hi Ann, I am a third grade teacher and currently co-chair a curriculum committee to develop a summer program for Kindergarten through 3rd grade. I am having trouble finding age appropriate STEM lessons for kindergarten through 3rd grade. Do you have ideas or suggestiosn as to where I can start? Thank you.
Hi, Mary! So glad you’re working on developing a summer program. I know someone who’s been there, done that, and I’m going to put you in touch with her. Her name is Susan Pruet and her email is [email protected] . Please shoot her an email and she’ll be happy to tell you about what materials, etc. she uses.
I’d also take a look at the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum from the Boston Museum of Science. Those are quite thorough and good.
Hi Ann I am a seventh grade science teacher and we are in the early stages of implementing STEMS at our school site.Can this program incorporate all content areas, history, language arts, math and science all in the science classroom? This is not my understanding of how it should be taught. I understand the math and science but to include what the history and language art teacher is teaching doesnt seem to work. I am hoping you can clarify this for me.
Hi, Darren. Wow. You’re gonna be sorry you asked me this . . . my answer won’t be short!
For me personally, STEM includes an indepth, integrated focus on science and math, and on using the engineering design process to solve real-world problems. Technology may be used to help with the solution, or teams of kids may create technology as part of the solution. (Anything made by humans to meet a want or need is designated as technology). This in-depth focus on science and math through STEM has come about as the result of a 21st Century workforce with an increasing need in STEM fields and a lack of STEM-prepared workers. The math and science deficits are sending our industries abroad to find workers qualified for our 21st century workforce.
Now to your question. I see a place for art in the STEM product design – it could be used to make the product teams produce more appealing and desirable – although that may be for the art teacher to work with if it’s going to involve knowing art design principles.
Likewise, you have to use some form of language arts in the communication process (communication is part of the engineering design process); however, it’s used naturally as teams work together to solve the engineering (STEM) challenge and to publicize their solutions. It’s not used try to accomplish specific language arts objectives.
History might be incorporated if you need to set some sort of context for the engineering challenge. But I can’t visualize incorporating specific history objectives during a STEM challenge unless they happen to be a natural fit. And unless you need a historical context for the challenge.
Doing a “force fit” with other subjects doesn’t make much sense to me. Not to mention – class time is already at a premium. STEM work, with its inquiry-based approach, already requires more time than a traditional science (or math) class.
The fact that all subjects are not taught directly in an engineering challenge doesn’t lessen the value of those other subjects. Again – it goes back to the need we’re attempting to meet by going deeper in math and science content through an engineering process.
So for me, in a STEM project students focus on using science and math to solve real world challenges, and they use the engineering design process to bring structure and process to doing that. Language arts and history are always appropriate to the extent that (and if) they add value to the STEM challenge. They shouldn’t be add-ons just for the sake of adding them on.
Remember, however, that there is an intense focus on the science and mathematics objectives in a solid STEM program. And this works best when these two subjects are integrated and the math and science teachers work together on teaching STEM projects.
Now, aren’t you sorry you asked? Seriously – remember this is MY opinion and STEM has other looks as well. I’d advise you to listen openly to the need for including other subjects as explained by your principal or other decision-maker. Then – rather than pushing back – in a positive manner explain how these subjects could fit naturally during the course of the STEM projects. Also explain what you expect to accomplish for your students through STEM and note the limited time you already have. Let me know how it goes. :-)
I am looking for STEM lessons that I can incorporate in my middle school Math Enrichment program which is for advanced math students in grades 6-8 and meets for approximately 10 weeks during the school year. I have been given the charge of creating a Math/STEM enrichment program/curriculum and am looking for resources to help. Currently, our school is implementing STEM curriculum/projects in the Science classrooms, but I need to find more of a mathematical slant. Thanks for your help…..I am so glad I found this website!
Math is one of the under-resourced areas in terms of lessons that apply real, grade-level math. I’ve seen so many lessons that ask students to “find the average” (my math teachers say it should be “find the median”), and then the writer feels that math has been sufficiently covered. NOT! Some areas of math that I’ve seen successfully developed into STEM lessons include applying what middle school students have learned about flow rate, unit rate, scaling and proportion, and statistics, to name a few.
Susan Pruet – a real math guru – will be writing a post for this blog in August. She’s going to address how math teachers can be STEM teachers, and will give some examples.
Some of the better math lessons I’ve found and adapted are from the Design Squad. This one – making cardboard furniture ( http://pbskids.org/designsquad/build/paper-table/ )- uses geometry. Try browsing around there for ideas. The Design Squad site also has links to other sites as well.
I’m SO glad that you, a math teacher, are taking on this task. Applying math will eliminate forever kids asking “Why should I learn this?”
Keep us posted, and stay in touch.
Thanks for your reply. I will be looking for the post in August and I will look at the Design Squad site as well. I too feel that Math takes a back seat to Science when STEM programs are created and implemented. I hope to change that! I will keep in touch and again, I appreciate your reply and support!!
You are providing amazing resources – thank you! I am starting a STEM program for all 6th, 7th and 8th grade students in our middle school. They will have STEM on three consecutive days (3 – 45 minute blocks) for 12 weeks. This will be a very exciting introductory year for us! My challenge is to design the curriculum this summer, though. I am searching for any type of “canned” curriculum to purchase as a start and then to develop from there. Can you provide any suggestions? Thanks so much!
I, too, have been given the charge of STEM curriculum writing for grades 6-8 in mathematics during the summer. If I find anything useful, I could let you know. It is a daunting task!!
Hi Sharon, Yes that would be excellent, and I will do the same! Nancy
I found a great resource for STEM projects on TeachersPayTeachers.com It is: 21st Century Math Projects. The emphasis is on Math, but STEM oriented. Check it out!
I checked it out, too, Sharon . . . I can’t see to what extent it mirrors STEM lessons, but it certainly seems to do so from what I read. And I love the fact that it’s written from a math perspective. Thanks for pointing out this resource!
Wow. What a feat to accomplish over the summer, Nancy!
Several “For purchase” STEM packages are out there, but I can’t recommend any in particular because I don’t know enough about them. You want your STEM program to integrate math, science, and technology, and to follow an engineering design process. (It’s the engineering piece that many would-be STEM curricula leave out.)
I’ll put out the feelers and see if any show up on the horizon. Check my Twitter feed at @ajollygal – I may get some responses there.
Thanks so much, Anne! I am a bit overwhelmed at the moment, but simultaneously excited about bringing STEM to our school! I appreciate any help or guidance – I will check twitter as well.
I am a parent of a 3rd grader who has been given the task of doing a stem project, and I have no idea how to help her, or what I am looking to do. I do not understand what this curriculum is. Can you please explain to me what I’m supposed to be doing with her
STEM curriculum helps kids apply the science and math they learn in a real world situations. Parents can help a lot with the STEM skills kids need. Here are some posts that contain information I wrote mostly for parents. See if these can give you the information you’re looking for. http://www.middleweb.com/3569/10-stem-tips-for-parents/ http://www.middleweb.com/15579/ideas-activities-stem-summer-slide/ http://www.middleweb.com/22787/reinvent-summer-learning-make-it-up/
Thanks for your question, and for looking for ways to help your daughter in STEM!
please suggest me some hands on activity on maths for 10-15 yrs of age
I am a technology teacher for grades 3-5. I am looking for STEM problems my students can do on the computer. Any ideas?
Thanks for the information on applying STEM. I am actually a spatial ecologist that is teaching gr7-9 mathematics at a small school in South Africa. I feel that we came up with a brilliant idea of how to combine Math and STEM (for those Math teachers that were uncertain). I combined our focus on insects (biology) for the term with all the data chapters (collect, organise, summarise, interpret and report). The learners were tasked with creating a question that we wanted to answer regarding insects and using the data cycle/scientific method (above) to develop a plan how to answer this question. The learners decided to do a survey of insects at the school. They set up a plan of how to collect the insects, did so and then analysed the data and reported their findings. They had to include a section on possible errors/bias in their data. I admit that this is one of the easier sections in math to incorporate into a STEM-type approach but I provide it as an example. The kids loved it!
Thank you so much, Marie! Integrating math and science fits naturally in your example. I appreciate your sharing your idea here, and I wonder if you’d allow me to share it on my website – http://www.stem-by-design.com/ .
You are more than welcome to share it. I think often we are unaware of how what we are doing can be related to STEM/is STEM! (Pls leave my e-mail address anonymous). Thank you Marie
Hello, I work in the scholastic department of a wastewater treatment plant. We provide hands on STEM outreach to schools and community. We are preparing for our second year STEM camp for high school students. Last year we partnered with a local university and focused on microbiology and chemistry. This year we are looking for some additional engaging ideas to incorporate into our 5 day camp. Are there any recommendations that you can provide? Thank you
Hi Ron, I am going to be teaching a Medical Microbiology class this fall. I would love to know how you focused on microbiology and what lessons you may have used. The University of Texas has potential to help us. What university department did you work with? Thanks for any help you can give me.
Hi Ann I am a STEM instructor, using lego materials as hands on instruction materials,how do I make my class more interesting and innovative. I need ideas on how to make my class a real world problem solving session,please your kind recommendations. Thank you
Try this idea . . . your kids should have a real reason for building whatever it is they make with the Legos (or any other materials). Suppose they are studying the human body in science. They could use the Legos to construct a prototype of something to solve a problem – perhaps a model of a miniature artificial arm or leg that would help a disabled person, If the kids have a reason for making something and the freedom to come up with their own designs, this often stimulates interest and innovation.
I am looking or some STEAM projects for 4-5th graders to work on in relation to Earth Day. Does anyone have any suggestions? We are just starting to implement these into our classes at school which ranges from Prek-8 so suggestions for any grade level are welcome and I will pass them on.
Thank you for all of your valuable STEM resources! I’ve enjoyed reading/researching through your site!
I am new to teaching a middle school 9-week STEM class for 6th graders. As of right now, my curriculum/materials consist of a canned STEM program that has zero depth.
I’ve been tasked with overhauling the class – developing a true STEM curriculum. Do you know of any middle school models I could research?
I’d appreciate any help.
Hi, Sarah, Take a look at this STEM launcher on my website at http://www.stem-by-design.com/use-mini-lessons-to-launch-stem-projects/ . It will help your kids get engaged with the “E” in STEM. It’s written for use in math+science classes, but it would be simple to modify and use with your kids. I have two more launchers I can send you if you like this one.
Another idea – look around the website while you’re there. There are plenty free resources and tools (click on the tabs at the top) and you are welcome to use (and modify) any of them.
If you want to check out my book – it has suggestions for developing STEM lessons. If you have a chance to develop STEM projects that carry over from one time the kids meet until the next, that’s the best look. If you only see them once a week or so, then that’s a bit more of an issue. If you want to email me we can probably “chat” more over email than here. [email protected]
Thanks for being a STEM person!
Thank you, Anne! I appreciate your suggestions and resources. When you get a chance, I’d love to take a look at the other launchers.
Hello! I am a 11 year old kid going to Somerset Academy. I am doing a STEM project like all of else as well. I am working with two other friends on this project. In our project there is some different things we must do. Most of all we need to make a product that solves an everyday problem. Our group created and idea with ice cream. Our product name is Drip Catch. It is basically a plastic cup for our ice cream cones whenever it melts. The Ice cram will just fall into the cup looking thing. But….. it does not really work. So I am asking for an idea that is a product that solves everyday problems.
I also forgot to mention I am in 5th grade. Please help me. You only need to give me an easy/ OK difficulty stem project. But.. it must be a product we created and it HAS to solve a problem.
What a neat assignment! I like the Drip Catch idea – I wish it had worked. Can you redesign it so that it will work? I think its a great start.
Let me tell you where you can find some good ideas for STEM projects. Go to the Design Squad at http://pbskids.org/designsquad/projects/ . At the top of the page, click on “Design” or click on “Build.” There are some pretty good ideas there.
I read of a group of kids who designed Popsicles with vitamins in them. Here are some other problems kids tackled. http://read.bi/2DoiBSY Just scroll down to see them.
Have you ever noticed that kids on crutches have a problem carrying things around? Is there some sort of carrier that can be added to crutches so that kids can carry things?
Keep your eyes open. Look for a problem you can help in your community or at your school.
Good luck to you and your friends. I hope you’ll come back and post what you finally decided to do. I bet it will be neat!
Thank you very much! I looked at the links you provided and got some new ideas. But.. my friends and I decided to keep doing the Drip Catch idea! But thx for your help! Bye have a great day/
Thanks, Jaden! Let me know how the Drip Catch works. I thought it sounded like a useful and original idea.
Tom is the STEM fair and we finished! It looks amazing. We made the drip catch with a plastic container and cut it into a circle and a hole inside. SO ready for tom!! Thank you so much.
HI Anne I am in the process of starting a STEM Summer Academy for 6-8 graders, looking for projects in STEM that will motivate the students
Take a look at “Engineering Is Elementary” (EIE) Curriculum Units. You can find them at( http://www.eie.org/eie-curriculum/curriculum-units .) While they are designed for up to 5th grade, they are easily adaptable for older students. Also check out “Engineering Adventures” at https://www.eie.org/engineering-adventures/curriculum-units .
“Engineering Everywhere” (www.eie.org/engineering-everywhere) is a free Middle School curriculum you may like. It’s designed for youth in afterschool and camp programs.
Another place I go for just fun activity ideas is the Design Squad (pbskids.org/designsquad/projects/)
I hope those give you some good ideas!
Thank you I will keep you posted on how it turns out ; any ideas for projects
What a great resource! I am currently teaching in a small school of 22 P-6 students and have been asked to complete a 1-1.5 hour Maths Problem Solving Session with a STEM focus each week with all of the children. Can you please put me in touch with some resources/activities that are hands on and suitable for multi age/abilities?
Hi, Karlene. One resource that seems popular is the Student Teaming Guide, and it’s a free download on my book website (www.stem-by-design.com). To get it, click the tab at the top of the webpage titled Student Teaming Tips. Scroll to the bottom, and download it and share it.
You may enjoy looking around the website as well. You’ll find plenty of free tools, tips, and teaching ideas there. You’ll also find a free STEM Launcher (a mini-lesson called Stop, Drop, Don’t Pop) to introduce engineering to your students. ( http://bit.ly/2Cvb2cw ) Scroll toward the bottom of the page and you will see 3 pdfs you can download, use, and share.
In my MiddleWeb blog I write about all sorts of topics from lesson design to including girls in STEM. You may wish to look at some of those resources as well. In fact, I’ve just posted another launcher there – the ‘Bama Bears – to help kick off STEM (the engineering component) for 2018.
I also came across another good muliti-grade level resource that I think you’ll like. Take a look at this site: http://bit.ly/2IaNeda
I hope some of these help! Thanks for your work with STEM.
I forgot to include the link to my MW blog – it’s https://www.middleweb.com/category/stem-by-design/
I’m involved in our school’s pilot STEAM classes and found the resources in your post helpful. I’ve used TeachEngineering quite often to help me get ideas.
About the problem with maths, we’ve had the same concern but what we’re aiming to do in our next project is getting the students to collect data themselves than using made-up ones. We think that the authenticity of these activities will increase students’ level of motivation.
Great idea, Ms B! Authenticity is, indeed, the key.
Also consider checking out some of the big math grade-level concepts and targeting one or more of those specific concepts for a STEM challenge. We did that with flow rate. We did an environmental STEM project that dealt with water erosion (that was an authentic problem for our school.) The kids used flow rate to measure and calculate the effectiveness of their barriers. Then they redesigned them and got much better results. And . . . they finally saw a practical use for learning how to calculate flow rate!
I am the middle school science teacher at a Christian school and is desirous of coordinating and developing a STEM curriculum. I have heard a lot about STEM but want to have a clear focus on how to start this first in the middle school then to the rest of the student body.
Hi, Edmund, What an exciting adventure – starting to implement STEM in the elementary school. That’s certainly the right way to do it. Start with this article on building a foundation with elementary STEM: https://www.middleweb.com/26244/building-a-foundation-with-elementary-stem/ . If you haven’t checked out my latest book, STEM by Design , it’s published by Routledge/MiddleWeb. Among other things, this book shares practical tips, principles, and strategies for implementing STEM in Grades 4-8. Those principles can be applied at earlier grades as well. You may enjoy looking around the book website as well at https://www.STEM-by-Design.com . You’ll find plenty of free tools, tips, and teaching ideas there. You’ll also find a free STEM Launcher (mini-lesson called Stop, Drop, Don’t Pop) to introduce engineering to your students. I’ve posted another launcher – the ‘Bama Bears – on my MiddleWeb blog site. You can modify both of these to help kick off STEM (the engineering component) for this fall.
hii, i’am education student , and i want to work on stem activity based on problem solving for grade 4 to 6 math student , but i don’t have any idea what should i doo :(
One place to start is looking at issues in your community. Also checking news geared towards kids (news depth, TFK, and National Geographic. Then get creative around the engineering design process.
You might also check out Design Squad Global, Dana. There are a lot of super STEM activities for all grade levels on that site. Good luck with your STEM activities.
Hi Anne, I don’t teach but I was wondering if you could give me ideas for STEM ideas for some of my peers. It is a school project so I’ve got to knock it out of the ballpark. Appreciate it. Thanks. Please get back to me before 2/20/19. Thanks again.
A couple of suggestions that will help you find ideas: Go to Design Squad Global Lesson Plans. ( https://to.pbs.org/2XcjPXBd/ ). They have some amazing ideas there.
You might try this MiddleWeb blog post I wrote. ( http://bit.ly/2BK3qmS )
And look at Science Buddies. They have a lot of good resources there. (Note: The Science Buddies site requires a free account to access all the details. Just takes a minute.)
I hope those suggestions will be of some help!
Selam, Türkiye’de ilkokul öğretmeniyim. Bio ekonomi ile ilgili STEM projesi geliştirmek istiyorum.Fikirlerinizi almak benim için muhteşem olacaktır.Teşekkür ederim.
Selam, Candan. Thanks for teaching STEM to elementary students.To find ideas for bio economy projects, please go to this link: https://www.middleweb.com/39326/how-elementary-stem-can-meet-the-future/ . At the end of this article you will find links to six sites that have good lessons you may be able to use. I hope this helps, and please continue your good work.
Hello Anne, Such a wonderful site! So I am interested in researching teacher’s beliefs about integrated STEM education and if it can improve science and math skills for my dissertation. I am planning to explore authentic tasks in both science and math. What do you think about this idea? How can I explore this topic in greater depth? Can you recommend me some readings? Should I use the same authentic activities for both math and science or can I use scientific inquiry in science and models in math? Hoping to hear your thoughts.
Also, I forgot to mention that I would be focusing on primary schools so if you can suggest me some readings.
[…] By Anne JollySummary by MiddleWeb Smartbrief"Providing STEM students with real-world challenges fuels their curiosity & investigative interests, writes science educator Anne Jolly. But where do teachers find problems worthy of investigation? In a new post at MiddleWeb's STEM Imagineering blog, Jolly makes the case for real-world problem solving and points to Internet resources that can help teachers find suitable challenges in science, math and engineering." […]
[…] head over heels in a STEM project—before the familiar acronym had even burst onto the scene. See Real World STEM Problems for some suggestions for projects students might focus […]
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The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists
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"Science, I had come to learn, is as political, competitive, and fierce a career as you can find, full of the temptation to find easy paths." — Paul Kalanithi, neurosurgeon and writer (1977–2015)
Science is in big trouble. Or so we’re told.
In the past several years, many scientists have become afflicted with a serious case of doubt — doubt in the very institution of science.
Explore the biggest challenges facing science, and how we can fix them:
- Academia has a huge money problem
- Too many studies are poorly designed
- Replicating results is crucial — and rare
- Peer review is broken
- Too much science is locked behind paywalls
- Science is poorly communicated
- Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful
- Science is not doomed
As reporters covering medicine, psychology, climate change, and other areas of research, we wanted to understand this epidemic of doubt. So we sent scientists a survey asking this simple question: If you could change one thing about how science works today, what would it be and why?
We heard back from 270 scientists all over the world, including graduate students, senior professors, laboratory heads, and Fields Medalists . They told us that, in a variety of ways, their careers are being hijacked by perverse incentives. The result is bad science.
The scientific process, in its ideal form, is elegant: Ask a question, set up an objective test, and get an answer. Repeat. Science is rarely practiced to that ideal. But Copernicus believed in that ideal. So did the rocket scientists behind the moon landing.
But nowadays, our respondents told us, the process is riddled with conflict. Scientists say they’re forced to prioritize self-preservation over pursuing the best questions and uncovering meaningful truths.
"I feel torn between asking questions that I know will lead to statistical significance and asking questions that matter," says Kathryn Bradshaw, a 27-year-old graduate student of counseling at the University of North Dakota.
Today, scientists' success often isn't measured by the quality of their questions or the rigor of their methods. It's instead measured by how much grant money they win, the number of studies they publish, and how they spin their findings to appeal to the public.
Scientists often learn more from studies that fail. But failed studies can mean career death. So instead, they’re incentivized to generate positive results they can publish. And the phrase "publish or perish" hangs over nearly every decision. It’s a nagging whisper, like a Jedi’s path to the dark side.
"Over time the most successful people will be those who can best exploit the system," Paul Smaldino, a cognitive science professor at University of California Merced, says.
To Smaldino, the selection pressures in science have favored less-than-ideal research: "As long as things like publication quantity, and publishing flashy results in fancy journals are incentivized, and people who can do that are rewarded … they’ll be successful, and pass on their successful methods to others."
Many scientists have had enough. They want to break this cycle of perverse incentives and rewards. They are going through a period of introspection, hopeful that the end result will yield stronger scientific institutions . In our survey and interviews, they offered a wide variety of ideas for improving the scientific process and bringing it closer to its ideal form.
Before we jump in, some caveats to keep in mind: Our survey was not a scientific poll. For one, the respondents disproportionately hailed from the biomedical and social sciences and English-speaking communities.
Many of the responses did, however, vividly illustrate the challenges and perverse incentives that scientists across fields face. And they are a valuable starting point for a deeper look at dysfunction in science today.
The place to begin is right where the perverse incentives first start to creep in: the money.
(1) Academia has a huge money problem
To do most any kind of research, scientists need money: to run studies, to subsidize lab equipment, to pay their assistants and even their own salaries. Our respondents told us that getting — and sustaining — that funding is a perennial obstacle.
Their gripe isn’t just with the quantity, which, in many fields, is shrinking. It’s the way money is handed out that puts pressure on labs to publish a lot of papers, breeds conflicts of interest, and encourages scientists to overhype their work.
In the United States, academic researchers in the sciences generally cannot rely on university funding alone to pay for their salaries, assistants, and lab costs. Instead, they have to seek outside grants. "In many cases the expectations were and often still are that faculty should cover at least 75 percent of the salary on grants," writes John Chatham, a professor of medicine studying cardiovascular disease at University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Grants also usually expire after three or so years, which pushes scientists away from long-term projects. Yet as John Pooley, a neurobiology postdoc at the University of Bristol, points out, the biggest discoveries usually take decades to uncover and are unlikely to occur under short-term funding schemes.
Outside grants are also in increasingly short supply. In the US, the largest source of funding is the federal government, and that pool of money has been plateauing for years, while young scientists enter the workforce at a faster rate than older scientists retire.
Take the National Institutes of Health, a major funding source. Its budget rose at a fast clip through the 1990s, stalled in the 2000s, and then dipped with sequestration budget cuts in 2013. All the while, rising costs for conducting science meant that each NIH dollar purchased less and less. Last year, Congress approved the biggest NIH spending hike in a decade . But it won’t erase the shortfall.
The consequences are striking: In 2000, more than 30 percent of NIH grant applications got approved. Today, it’s closer to 17 percent. "It's because of what's happened in the last 12 years that young scientists in particular are feeling such a squeeze," NIH Director Francis Collins said at the Milken Global Conference in May.
Truly novel research takes longer to produce, and it doesn’t always pay off. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper found that, on the whole, truly unconventional papers tend to be less consistently cited in the literature. So scientists and funders increasingly shy away from them, preferring short-turnaround, safer papers. But everyone suffers from that: the NBER report found that novel papers also occasionally lead to big hits that inspire high-impact, follow-up studies.
"I think because you have to publish to keep your job and keep funding agencies happy, there are a lot of (mediocre) scientific papers out there ... with not much new science presented," writes Kaitlyn Suski, a chemistry and atmospheric science postdoc at Colorado State University.
Another worry: When independent, government, or university funding sources dry up, scientists may feel compelled to turn to industry or interest groups eager to generate studies to support their agendas.
Finally, all of this grant writing is a huge time suck, taking resources away from the actual scientific work. Tyler Josephson, an engineering graduate student at the University of Delaware, writes that many professors he knows spend 50 percent of their time writing grant proposals. "Imagine," he asks, "what they could do with more time to devote to teaching and research?"
It’s easy to see how these problems in funding kick off a vicious cycle. To be more competitive for grants, scientists have to have published work. To have published work, they need positive (i.e., statistically significant ) results. That puts pressure on scientists to pick "safe" topics that will yield a publishable conclusion — or, worse, may bias their research toward significant results.
"When funding and pay structures are stacked against academic scientists," writes Alison Bernstein, a neuroscience postdoc at Emory University, "these problems are all exacerbated."
Fixes for science's funding woes
Right now there are arguably too many researchers chasing too few grants. Or, as a 2014 piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put it: "The current system is in perpetual disequilibrium, because it will inevitably generate an ever-increasing supply of scientists vying for a finite set of research resources and employment opportunities."
"As it stands, too much of the research funding is going to too few of the researchers," writes Gordon Pennycook, a PhD candidate in cognitive psychology at the University of Waterloo. "This creates a culture that rewards fast, sexy (and probably wrong) results."
One straightforward way to ameliorate these problems would be for governments to simply increase the amount of money available for science. (Or, more controversially, decrease the number of PhDs, but we’ll get to that later.) If Congress boosted funding for the NIH and National Science Foundation, that would take some of the competitive pressure off researchers.
But that only goes so far. Funding will always be finite, and researchers will never get blank checks to fund the risky science projects of their dreams. So other reforms will also prove necessary.
One suggestion: Bring more stability and predictability into the funding process. "The NIH and NSF budgets are subject to changing congressional whims that make it impossible for agencies (and researchers) to make long term plans and commitments," M. Paul Murphy, a neurobiology professor at the University of Kentucky, writes. "The obvious solution is to simply make [scientific funding] a stable program, with an annual rate of increase tied in some manner to inflation."
Another idea would be to change how grants are awarded: Foundations and agencies could fund specific people and labs for a period of time rather than individual project proposals. (The Howard Hughes Medical Institute already does this.) A system like this would give scientists greater freedom to take risks with their work.
Alternatively, researchers in the journal mBio recently called for a lottery-style system. Proposals would be measured on their merits, but then a computer would randomly choose which get funded.
"Although we recognize that some scientists will cringe at the thought of allocating funds by lottery," the authors of the mBio piece write, "the available evidence suggests that the system is already in essence a lottery without the benefits of being random." Pure randomness would at least reduce some of the perverse incentives at play in jockeying for money.
There are also some ideas out there to minimize conflicts of interest from industry funding. Recently, in PLOS Medicine , Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis suggested that pharmaceutical companies ought to pool the money they use to fund drug research, to be allocated to scientists who then have no exchange with industry during study design and execution. This way, scientists could still get funding for work crucial for drug approvals — but without the pressures that can skew results.
These solutions are by no means complete, and they may not make sense for every scientific discipline. The daily incentives facing biomedical scientists to bring new drugs to market are different from the incentives facing geologists trying to map out new rock layers. But based on our survey, funding appears to be at the root of many of the problems facing scientists, and it’s one that deserves more careful discussion.
(2) Too many studies are poorly designed. Blame bad incentives.
Scientists are ultimately judged by the research they publish. And the pressure to publish pushes scientists to come up with splashy results, of the sort that get them into prestigious journals. "Exciting, novel results are more publishable than other kinds," says Brian Nosek , who co-founded the Center for Open Science at the University of Virginia.
The problem here is that truly groundbreaking findings simply don’t occur very often, which means scientists face pressure to game their studies so they turn out to be a little more "revolutionary." (Caveat: Many of the respondents who focused on this particular issue hailed from the biomedical and social sciences.)
Some of this bias can creep into decisions that are made early on: choosing whether or not to randomize participants, including a control group for comparison, or controlling for certain confounding factors but not others. (Read more on study design particulars here .)
Many of our survey respondents noted that perverse incentives can also push scientists to cut corners in how they analyze their data.
"I have incredible amounts of stress that maybe once I finish analyzing the data, it will not look significant enough for me to defend," writes Jess Kautz, a PhD student at the University of Arizona. "And if I get back mediocre results, there's going to be incredible pressure to present it as a good result so they can get me out the door. At this moment, with all this in my mind, it is making me wonder whether I could give an intellectually honest assessment of my own work."
Increasingly, meta-researchers (who conduct research on research) are realizing that scientists often do find little ways to hype up their own results — and they’re not always doing it consciously. Among the most famous examples is a technique called "p-hacking," in which researchers test their data against many hypotheses and only report those that have statistically significant results.
In a recent study , which tracked the misuse of p-values in biomedical journals, meta-researchers found "an epidemic" of statistical significance: 96 percent of the papers that included a p-value in their abstracts boasted statistically significant results.
That seems awfully suspicious. It suggests the biomedical community has been chasing statistical significance, potentially giving dubious results the appearance of validity through techniques like p-hacking — or simply suppressing important results that don't look significant enough. Fewer studies share effect sizes (which arguably gives a better indication of how meaningful a result might be) or discuss measures of uncertainty.
"The current system has done too much to reward results," says Joseph Hilgard, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. "This causes a conflict of interest: The scientist is in charge of evaluating the hypothesis, but the scientist also desperately wants the hypothesis to be true."
The consequences are staggering. An estimated $200 billion — or the equivalent of 85 percent of global spending on research — is routinely wasted on poorly designed and redundant studies, according to meta-researchers who have analyzed inefficiencies in research. We know that as much as 30 percent of the most influential original medical research papers later turn out to be wrong or exaggerated.
Fixes for poor study design
Our respondents suggested that the two key ways to encourage stronger study design — and discourage positive results chasing — would involve rethinking the rewards system and building more transparency into the research process.
"I would make rewards based on the rigor of the research methods, rather than the outcome of the research," writes Simine Vazire, a journal editor and a social psychology professor at UC Davis. "Grants, publications, jobs, awards, and even media coverage should be based more on how good the study design and methods were, rather than whether the result was significant or surprising."
Likewise, Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers argues that researchers should get recognition for advancing science broadly through informal idea sharing — rather than only getting credit for what they publish.
"We’ve gotten used to working away in private and then producing a sort of polished document in the form of a journal article," Gowers said. "This tends to hide a lot of the thought process that went into making the discoveries. I'd like attitudes to change so people focus less on the race to be first to prove a particular theorem, or in science to make a particular discovery, and more on other ways of contributing to the furthering of the subject."
When it comes to published results, meanwhile, many of our respondents wanted to see more journals put a greater emphasis on rigorous methods and processes rather than splashy results.
"I think the one thing that would have the biggest impact is removing publication bias: judging papers by the quality of questions, quality of method, and soundness of analyses, but not on the results themselves," writes Michael Inzlicht , a University of Toronto psychology and neuroscience professor.
Some journals are already embracing this sort of research. PLOS One , for example, makes a point of accepting negative studies (in which a scientist conducts a careful experiment and finds nothing) for publication, as does the aptly named Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine .
More transparency would also help, writes Daniel Simons, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. Here’s one example: ClinicalTrials.gov , a site run by the NIH, allows researchers to register their study design and methods ahead of time and then publicly record their progress. That makes it more difficult for scientists to hide experiments that didn’t produce the results they wanted. (The site now holds information for more than 180,000 studies in 180 countries.)
Similarly, the AllTrials campaign is pushing for every clinical trial (past, present, and future) around the world to be registered, with the full methods and results reported. Some drug companies and universities have created portals that allow researchers to access raw data from their trials.
The key is for this sort of transparency to become the norm rather than a laudable outlier.
(3) Replicating results is crucial. But scientists rarely do it.
Replication is another foundational concept in science. Researchers take an older study that they want to test and then try to reproduce it to see if the findings hold up.
Testing, validating, retesting — it's all part of a slow and grinding process to arrive at some semblance of scientific truth. But this doesn't happen as often as it should, our respondents said. Scientists face few incentives to engage in the slog of replication. And even when they attempt to replicate a study, they often find they can’t do so . Increasingly it’s being called a "crisis of irreproducibility."
The stats bear this out: A 2015 study looked at 83 highly cited studies that claimed to feature effective psychiatric treatments. Only 16 had ever been successfully replicated. Another 16 were contradicted by follow-up attempts, and 11 were found to have substantially smaller effects the second time around. Meanwhile, nearly half of the studies (40) had never been subject to replication at all.
More recently, a landmark study published in the journal Science demonstrated that only a fraction of recent findings in top psychology journals could be replicated. This is happening in other fields too, says Ivan Oransky, one of the founders of the blog Retraction Watch , which tracks scientific retractions.
As for the underlying causes, our survey respondents pointed to a couple of problems. First, scientists have very few incentives to even try replication. Jon-Patrick Allem, a social scientist at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, noted that funding agencies prefer to support projects that find new information instead of confirming old results.
Journals are also reluctant to publish replication studies unless "they contradict earlier findings or conclusions," Allem writes. The result is to discourage scientists from checking each other's work. "Novel information trumps stronger evidence, which sets the parameters for working scientists."
The second problem is that many studies can be difficult to replicate. Sometimes their methods are too opaque. Sometimes the original studies had too few participants to produce a replicable answer. And sometimes, as we saw in the previous section, the study is simply poorly designed or outright wrong.
Again, this goes back to incentives: When researchers have to publish frequently and chase positive results, there’s less time to conduct high-quality studies with well-articulated methods.
Fixes for underreplication
Scientists need more carrots to entice them to pursue replication in the first place. As it stands, researchers are encouraged to publish new and positive results and to allow negative results to linger in their laptops or file drawers.
This has plagued science with a problem called "publication bias" — not all studies that are conducted actually get published in journals, and the ones that do tend to have positive and dramatic conclusions.
If institutions started to reward tenure positions or make hires based on the quality of a researcher’s body of work, instead of quantity, this might encourage more replication and discourage positive results chasing.
"The key that needs to change is performance review," writes Christopher Wynder, a former assistant professor at McMaster University. "It affects reproducibility because there is little value in confirming another lab's results and trying to publish the findings."
The next step would be to make replication of studies easier. This could include more robust sharing of methods in published research papers. "It would be great to have stronger norms about being more detailed with the methods," says University of Virginia’s Brian Nosek.
He also suggested more regularly adding supplements at the end of papers that get into the procedural nitty-gritty, to help anyone wanting to repeat an experiment. "If I can rapidly get up to speed, I have a much better chance of approximating the results," he said.
Nosek has detailed other potential fixes that might help with replication — all part of his work at the Center for Open Science .
A greater degree of transparency and data sharing would enable replications, said Stanford’s John Ioannidis. Too often, anyone trying to replicate a study must chase down the original investigators for details about how the experiment was conducted.
"It is better to do this in an organized fashion with buy-in from all leading investigators in a scientific discipline," he explained, "rather than have to try to find the investigator in each case and ask him or her in detective-work fashion about details, data, and methods that are otherwise unavailable."
Researchers could also make use of new tools , such as open source software that tracks every version of a data set, so that they can share their data more easily and have transparency built into their workflow.
Some of our respondents suggested that scientists engage in replication prior to publication. "Before you put an exploratory idea out in the literature and have people take the time to read it, you owe it to the field to try to replicate your own findings," says John Sakaluk, a social psychologist at the University of Victoria.
For example, he has argued, psychologists could conduct small experiments with a handful of participants to form ideas and generate hypotheses. But they would then need to conduct bigger experiments, with more participants, to replicate and confirm those hypotheses before releasing them into the world. "In doing so," Sakaluk says, "the rest of us can have more confidence that this is something we might want to [incorporate] into our own research."
(4) Peer review is broken
Peer review is meant to weed out junk science before it reaches publication. Yet over and over again in our survey, respondents told us this process fails. It was one of the parts of the scientific machinery to elicit the most rage among the researchers we heard from.
Normally, peer review works like this: A researcher submits an article for publication in a journal. If the journal accepts the article for review, it's sent off to peers in the same field for constructive criticism and eventual publication — or rejection. (The level of anonymity varies; some journals have double-blind reviews, while others have moved to triple-blind review, where the authors, editors, and reviewers don’t know who one another are.)
It sounds like a reasonable system. But numerous studies and systematic reviews have shown that peer review doesn’t reliably prevent poor-quality science from being published.
The process frequently fails to detect fraud or other problems with manuscripts, which isn't all that surprising when you consider researchers aren't paid or otherwise rewarded for the time they spend reviewing manuscripts. They do it out of a sense of duty — to contribute to their area of research and help advance science.
But this means it's not always easy to find the best people to peer-review manuscripts in their field, that harried researchers delay doing the work (leading to publication delays of up to two years), and that when they finally do sit down to peer-review an article they might be rushed and miss errors in studies.
"The issue is that most referees simply don't review papers carefully enough, which results in the publishing of incorrect papers, papers with gaps, and simply unreadable papers," says Joel Fish, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "This ends up being a large problem for younger researchers to enter the field, since that means they have to ask around to figure out which papers are solid and which are not."
That's not to mention the problem of peer review bullying. Since the default in the process is that editors and peer reviewers know who the authors are (but authors don’t know who the reviews are), biases against researchers or institutions can creep in, opening the opportunity for rude, rushed, and otherwise unhelpful comments. (Just check out the popular #SixWordPeerReview hashtag on Twitter).
These issues were not lost on our survey respondents, who said peer review amounts to a broken system, which punishes scientists and diminishes the quality of publications. They want to not only overhaul the peer review process but also change how it's conceptualized.
Fixes for peer review
On the question of editorial bias and transparency, our respondents were surprisingly divided. Several suggested that all journals should move toward double-blinded peer review, whereby reviewers can't see the names or affiliations of the person they're reviewing and publication authors don't know who reviewed them. The main goal here was to reduce bias.
"We know that scientists make biased decisions based on unconscious stereotyping," writes Pacific Northwest National Lab postdoc Timothy Duignan. "So rather than judging a paper by the gender, ethnicity, country, or institutional status of an author — which I believe happens a lot at the moment — it should be judged by its quality independent of those things."
Yet others thought that more transparency, rather than less, was the answer: "While we correctly advocate for the highest level of transparency in publishing, we still have most reviews that are blinded, and I cannot know who is reviewing me," writes Lamberto Manzoli, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Chieti, in Italy. "Too many times we see very low quality reviews, and we cannot understand whether it is a problem of scarce knowledge or conflict of interest."
Perhaps there is a middle ground. For example, e Life , a new open access journal that is rapidly rising in impact factor, runs a collaborative peer review process. Editors and peer reviewers work together on each submission to create a consolidated list of comments about a paper. The author can then reply to what the group saw as the most important issues, rather than facing the biases and whims of individual reviewers. (Oddly, this process is faster — eLife takes less time to accept papers than Nature or Cell.)
Still, those are mostly incremental fixes. Other respondents argued that we might need to radically rethink the entire process of peer review from the ground up.
"The current peer review process embraces a concept that a paper is final," says Nosek. "The review process is [a form of] certification, and that a paper is done." But science doesn't work that way. Science is an evolving process, and truth is provisional. So, Nosek said, science must "move away from the embrace of definitiveness of publication."
Some respondents wanted to think of peer review as more of a continuous process, in which studies are repeatedly and transparently updated and republished as new feedback changes them — much like Wikipedia entries. This would require some sort of expert crowdsourcing.
"The scientific publishing field — particularly in the biological sciences — acts like there is no internet," says Lakshmi Jayashankar, a senior scientific reviewer with the federal government. "The paper peer review takes forever, and this hurts the scientists who are trying to put their results quickly into the public domain."
One possible model already exists in mathematics and physics, where there is a long tradition of "pre-printing" articles. Studies are posted on an open website called arXiv.org , often before being peer-reviewed and published in journals. There, the articles are sorted and commented on by a community of moderators, providing another chance to filter problems before they make it to peer review.
"Posting preprints would allow scientific crowdsourcing to increase the number of errors that are caught, since traditional peer-reviewers cannot be expected to be experts in every sub-discipline," writes Scott Hartman, a paleobiology PhD student at the University of Wisconsin.
And even after an article is published, researchers think the peer review process shouldn't stop. They want to see more "post-publication" peer review on the web, so that academics can critique and comment on articles after they've been published. Sites like PubPeer and F1000Research have already popped up to facilitate that kind of post-publication feedback.
"We do this a couple of times a year at conferences," writes Becky Clarkson, a geriatric medicine researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. "We could do this every day on the internet."
The bottom line is that traditional peer review has never worked as well as we imagine it to — and it’s ripe for serious disruption.
(5) Too much science is locked behind paywalls
After a study has been funded, conducted, and peer-reviewed, there's still the question of getting it out so that others can read and understand its results.
Over and over, our respondents expressed dissatisfaction with how scientific research gets disseminated. Too much is locked away in paywalled journals, difficult and costly to access, they said. Some respondents also criticized the publication process itself for being too slow, bogging down the pace of research.
On the access question, a number of scientists argued that academic research should be free for all to read. They chafed against the current model, in which for-profit publishers put journals behind pricey paywalls.
A single article in Science will set you back $30; a year-long subscription to Cell will cost $279. Elsevier publishes 2,000 journals that can cost up to $10,000 or $20,000 a year for a subscription.
Many US institutions pay those journal fees for their employees, but not all scientists (or other curious readers) are so lucky. In a recent issue of Science , journalist John Bohannon described the plight of a PhD candidate at a top university in Iran. He calculated that the student would have to spend $1,000 a week just to read the papers he needed.
As Michael Eisen, a biologist at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the Public Library of Science (or PLOS ) , put it , scientific journals are trying to hold on to the profits of the print era in the age of the internet. Subscription prices have continued to climb, as a handful of big publishers (like Elsevier) have bought up more and more journals, creating mini knowledge fiefdoms.
"Large, publicly owned publishing companies make huge profits off of scientists by publishing our science and then selling it back to the university libraries at a massive profit (which primarily benefits stockholders)," Corina Logan, an animal behavior researcher at the University of Cambridge, noted. "It is not in the best interest of the society, the scientists, the public, or the research." (In 2014, Elsevier reported a profit margin of nearly 40 percent and revenues close to $3 billion.)
"It seems wrong to me that taxpayers pay for research at government labs and universities but do not usually have access to the results of these studies, since they are behind paywalls of peer-reviewed journals," added Melinda Simon, a postdoc microfluidics researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Fixes for closed science
Many of our respondents urged their peers to publish in open access journals (along the lines of PeerJ or PLOS Biology ). But there’s an inherent tension here. Career advancement can often depend on publishing in the most prestigious journals, like Science or Nature , which still have paywalls.
There's also the question of how best to finance a wholesale transition to open access. After all, journals can never be entirely free. Someone has to pay for the editorial staff, maintaining the website, and so on. Right now, open access journals typically charge fees to those submitting papers, putting the burden on scientists who are already struggling for funding.
One radical step would be to abolish for-profit publishers altogether and move toward a nonprofit model. "For journals I could imagine that scientific associations run those themselves," suggested Johannes Breuer, a postdoctoral researcher in media psychology at the University of Cologne. "If they go for online only, the costs for web hosting, copy-editing, and advertising (if needed) can be easily paid out of membership fees."
As a model, Cambridge’s Tim Gowers has launched an online mathematics journal called Discrete Analysis . The nonprofit venture is owned and published by a team of scholars, it has no publisher middlemen, and access will be completely free for all.
Until wholesale reform happens, however, many scientists are going a much simpler route: illegally pirating papers.
Bohannon reported that millions of researchers around the world now use Sci-Hub , a site set up by Alexandra Elbakyan, a Russia-based neuroscientist, that illegally hosts more than 50 million academic papers. "As a devout pirate," Elbakyan told us, "I think that copyright should be abolished."
One respondent had an even more radical suggestion: that we abolish the existing peer-reviewed journal system altogether and simply publish everything online as soon as it’s done.
"Research should be made available online immediately, and be judged by peers online rather than having to go through the whole formatting, submitting, reviewing, rewriting, reformatting, resubmitting, etc etc etc that can takes years," writes Bruno Dagnino, formerly of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. "One format, one platform. Judge by the whole community, with no delays."
A few scientists have been taking steps in this direction. Rachel Harding, a genetic researcher at the University of Toronto, has set up a website called Lab Scribbles , where she publishes her lab notes on the structure of huntingtin proteins in real time, posting data as well as summaries of her breakthroughs and failures. The idea is to help share information with other researchers working on similar issues, so that labs can avoid needless overlap and learn from each other's mistakes.
Not everyone might agree with approaches this radical; critics worry that too much sharing might encourage scientific free riding. Still, the common theme in our survey was transparency. Science is currently too opaque, research too difficult to share. That needs to change.
(6) Science is poorly communicated to the public
"If I could change one thing about science, I would change the way it is communicated to the public by scientists, by journalists, and by celebrities," writes Clare Malone, a postdoctoral researcher in a cancer genetics lab at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
She wasn't alone. Quite a few respondents in our survey expressed frustration at how science gets relayed to the public. They were distressed by the fact that so many laypeople hold on to completely unscientific ideas or have a crude view of how science works.
They have a point. Science journalism is often full of exaggerated, conflicting, or outright misleading claims. If you ever want to see a perfect example of this, check out "Kill or Cure," a site where Paul Battley meticulously documents all the times the Daily Mail reported that various items — from antacids to yogurt — either cause cancer, prevent cancer, or sometimes do both.
Sometimes bad stories are peddled by university press shops. In 2015, the University of Maryland issued a press release claiming that a single brand of chocolate milk could improve concussion recovery. It was an absurd case of science hype.
Indeed, one review in BMJ found that one-third of university press releases contained either exaggerated claims of causation (when the study itself only suggested correlation), unwarranted implications about animal studies for people, or unfounded health advice.
But not everyone blamed the media and publicists alone. Other respondents pointed out that scientists themselves often oversell their work, even if it's preliminary, because funding is competitive and everyone wants to portray their work as big and important and game-changing.
"You have this toxic dynamic where journalists and scientists enable each other in a way that massively inflates the certainty and generality of how scientific findings are communicated and the promises that are made to the public," writes Daniel Molden, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University. "When these findings prove to be less certain and the promises are not realized, this just further erodes the respect that scientists get and further fuels scientists desire for appreciation."
Fixes for better science communication
Opinions differed on how to improve this sorry state of affairs — some pointed to the media, some to press offices, others to scientists themselves.
Plenty of our respondents wished that more science journalists would move away from hyping single studies. Instead, they said, reporters ought to put new research findings in context, and pay more attention to the rigor of a study's methodology than to the splashiness of the end results.
"On a given subject, there are often dozens of studies that examine the issue," writes Brian Stacy of the US Department of Agriculture. "It is very rare for a single study to conclusively resolve an important research question, but many times the results of a study are reported as if they do."
But it’s not just reporters who will need to shape up. The "toxic dynamic" of journalists, academic press offices, and scientists enabling one another to hype research can be tough to change, and many of our respondents pointed out that there were no easy fixes — though recognition was an important first step.
Some suggested the creation of credible referees that could rigorously distill the strengths and weaknesses of research. (Some variations of this are starting to pop up: The Genetic Expert News Service solicits outside experts to weigh in on big new studies in genetics and biotechnology.) Other respondents suggested that making research free to all might help tamp down media misrepresentations.
Still other respondents noted that scientists themselves should spend more time learning how to communicate with the public — a skill that tends to be under-rewarded in the current system.
"Being able to explain your work to a non-scientific audience is just as important as publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, in my opinion, but currently the incentive structure has no place for engaging the public," writes Crystal Steltenpohl, a graduate assistant at DePaul University.
Reducing the perverse incentives around scientific research itself could also help reduce overhype. "If we reward research based on how noteworthy the results are, this will create pressure to exaggerate the results (through exploiting flexibility in data analysis, misrepresenting results, or outright fraud)," writes UC Davis's Simine Vazire. "We should reward research based on how rigorous the methods and design are."
Or perhaps we should focus on improving science literacy. Jeremy Johnson, a project coordinator at the Broad Institute, argued that bolstering science education could help ameliorate a lot of these problems. "Science literacy should be a top priority for our educational policy," he said, "not an elective."
(7) Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful
When we asked researchers what they’d fix about science, many talked about the scientific process itself, about study design or peer review. These responses often came from tenured scientists who loved their jobs but wanted to make the broader scientific project even better.
But on the flip side, we heard from a number of researchers — many of them graduate students or postdocs — who were genuinely passionate about research but found the day-to-day experience of being a scientist grueling and unrewarding. Their comments deserve a section of their own.
Today, many tenured scientists and research labs depend on small armies of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to perform their experiments and conduct data analysis.
These grad students and postdocs are often the primary authors on many studies. In a number of fields, such as the biomedical sciences, a postdoc position is a prerequisite before a researcher can get a faculty-level position at a university.
This entire system sits at the heart of modern-day science. (A new card game called Lab Wars pokes fun at these dynamics.)
But these low-level research jobs can be a grind. Postdocs typically work long hours and are relatively low-paid for their level of education — salaries are frequently pegged to stipends set by NIH National Research Service Award grants, which start at $43,692 and rise to $47,268 in year three.
Postdocs tend to be hired on for one to three years at a time, and in many institutions they are considered contractors, limiting their workplace protections. We heard repeatedly about extremely long hours and limited family leave benefits.
"Oftentimes this is problematic for individuals in their late 20s and early to mid-30s who have PhDs and who may be starting families while also balancing a demanding job that pays poorly," wrote one postdoc, who asked for anonymity.
This lack of flexibility tends to disproportionately affect women — especially women planning to have families — which helps contribute to gender inequalities in research. ( A 2012 paper found that female job applicants in academia are judged more harshly and are offered less money than males.) "There is very little support for female scientists and early-career scientists," noted another postdoc.
"There is very little long-term financial security in today's climate, very little assurance where the next paycheck will come from," wrote William Kenkel, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroendocrinology at Indiana University. "Since receiving my PhD in 2012, I left Chicago and moved to Boston for a post-doc, then in 2015 I left Boston for a second post-doc in Indiana. In a year or two, I will move again for a faculty job, and that's if I'm lucky. Imagine trying to build a life like that."
This strain can also adversely affect the research that young scientists do. "Contracts are too short term," noted another researcher. "It discourages rigorous research as it is difficult to obtain enough results for a paper (and hence progress) in two to three years. The constant stress drives otherwise talented and intelligent people out of science also."
Because universities produce so many PhDs but have way fewer faculty jobs available, many of these postdoc researchers have limited career prospects. Some of them end up staying stuck in postdoc positions for five or 10 years or more.
"In the biomedical sciences," wrote the first postdoc quoted above, "each available faculty position receives applications from hundreds or thousands of applicants, putting immense pressure on postdocs to publish frequently and in high impact journals to be competitive enough to attain those positions."
Many young researchers pointed out that PhD programs do fairly little to train people for careers outside of academia. "Too many [PhD] students are graduating for a limited number of professor positions with minimal training for careers outside of academic research," noted Don Gibson, a PhD candidate studying plant genetics at UC Davis.
Laura Weingartner, a graduate researcher in evolutionary ecology at Indiana University, agreed: "Few universities (specifically the faculty advisors) know how to train students for anything other than academia, which leaves many students hopeless when, inevitably, there are no jobs in academia for them."
Add it up and it's not surprising that we heard plenty of comments about anxiety and depression among both graduate students and postdocs. "There is a high level of depression among PhD students," writes Gibson. "Long hours, limited career prospects, and low wages contribute to this emotion."
A 2015 study at the University of California Berkeley found that 47 percent of PhD students surveyed could be considered depressed. The reasons for this are complex and can't be solved overnight. Pursuing academic research is already an arduous, anxiety-ridden task that's bound to take a toll on mental health.
But as Jennifer Walker explored recently at Quartz, many PhD students also feel isolated and unsupported, exacerbating those issues.
Fixes to keep young scientists in science
We heard plenty of concrete suggestions. Graduate schools could offer more generous family leave policies and child care for graduate students. They could also increase the number of female applicants they accept in order to balance out the gender disparity.
But some respondents also noted that workplace issues for grad students and postdocs were inseparable from some of the fundamental issues facing science that we discussed earlier. The fact that university faculty and research labs face immense pressure to publish — but have limited funding — makes it highly attractive to rely on low-paid postdocs.
"There is little incentive for universities to create jobs for their graduates or to cap the number of PhDs that are produced," writes Weingartner. "Young researchers are highly trained but relatively inexpensive sources of labor for faculty."
Some respondents also pointed to the mismatch between the number of PhDs produced each year and the number of academic jobs available.
A recent feature by Julie Gould in Nature explored a number of ideas for revamping the PhD system. One idea is to split the PhD into two programs: one for vocational careers and one for academic careers. The former would better train and equip graduates to find jobs outside academia.
This is hardly an exhaustive list. The core point underlying all these suggestions, however, was that universities and research labs need to do a better job of supporting the next generation of researchers. Indeed, that's arguably just as important as addressing problems with the scientific process itself. Young scientists, after all, are by definition the future of science.
Weingartner concluded with a sentiment we saw all too frequently: "Many creative, hard-working, and/or underrepresented scientists are edged out of science because of these issues. Not every student or university will have all of these unfortunate experiences, but they’re pretty common. There are a lot of young, disillusioned scientists out there now who are expecting to leave research."
Science needs to correct its greatest weaknesses
Science is not doomed.
For better or worse, it still works. Look no further than the novel vaccines to prevent Ebola, the discovery of gravitational waves , or new treatments for stubborn diseases. And it’s getting better in many ways. See the work of meta -researchers who study and evaluate research — a field that has gained prominence over the past 20 years.
More from this feature
We asked hundreds of scientists what they’d change about science. Here are 33 of our favorite responses.
But science is conducted by fallible humans, and it hasn’t been human-proofed to protect against all our foibles. The scientific revolution began just 500 years ago. Only over the past 100 has science become professionalized. There is still room to figure out how best to remove biases and align incentives.
To that end, here are some broad suggestions:
One: Science has to acknowledge and address its money problem. Science is enormously valuable and deserves ample funding. But the way incentives are set up can distort research.
Right now, small studies with bold results that can be quickly turned around and published in journals are disproportionately rewarded. By contrast, there are fewer incentives to conduct research that tackles important questions with robustly designed studies over long periods of time. Solving this won’t be easy, but it is at the root of many of the issues discussed above.
Two: Science needs to celebrate and reward failure. Accepting that we can learn more from dead ends in research and studies that failed would alleviate the "publish or perish" cycle. It would make scientists more confident in designing robust tests and not just convenient ones, in sharing their data and explaining their failed tests to peers, and in using those null results to form the basis of a career (instead of chasing those all-too-rare breakthroughs).
Three: Science has to be more transparent. Scientists need to publish the methods and findings more fully, and share their raw data in ways that are easily accessible and digestible for those who may want to reanalyze or replicate their findings.
There will always be waste and mediocre research, but as Stanford’s Ioannidis explains in a recent paper , a lack of transparency creates excess waste and diminishes the usefulness of too much research.
Again and again, we also heard from researchers, particularly in social sciences, who felt that their cognitive biases in their own work, influenced by pressures to publish and advance their careers, caused science to go off the rails. If more human-proofing and de-biasing were built into the process — through stronger peer review, cleaner and more consistent funding, and more transparency and data sharing — some of these biases could be mitigated.
These fixes will take time, grinding along incrementally — much like the scientific process itself. But the gains humans have made so far using even imperfect scientific methods would have been unimaginable 500 years ago. The gains from improving the process could prove just as staggering, if not more so.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Noah Grand's title. At the time of the survey he was a lecturer in sociology at UCLA, not a professor.
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STEM Projects That Tackle Real-World Problems
STEM learning is largely about designing creative solutions for real-world problems. When students learn within the context of authentic, problem-based STEM design, they can more clearly see the genuine impact of their learning. That kind of authenticity builds engagement, taking students from groans of “When will I ever use this?” to a genuine connection between skills and application.
Using STEM to promote critical thinking and innovation
“Educational outcomes in traditional settings focus on how many answers a student knows. We want students to learn how to develop a critical stance with their work: inquiring, editing, thinking flexibly, and learning from another person’s perspective,” says Arthur L. Costa in his book Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind . “The critical attribute of intelligent human beings is not only having information but also knowing how to act on it.”
Invention and problem-solving aren’t just for laboratory thinkers hunkered down away from the classroom. Students from elementary to high school can wonder, design, and invent a real product that solves real problems. “ Problem-solving involves finding answers to questions and solutions for undesired effects. STEM lessons revolve around the engineering design process (EDP) — an organized, open-ended approach to investigation that promotes creativity, invention, and prototype design, along with testing and analysis,” says Ann Jolly in her book STEM by Design . “These iterative steps will involve your students in asking critical questions about the problem, and guide them through creating and testing actual prototypes to solve that problem.”
STEM projects that use real-world problems
Here are some engaging projects that get your students thinking about how to solve real-world problems.
Preventing soil erosion
In this project, meant for sixth – 12th grade, students learn to build a seawall to protest a coastline from erosion, calculating wave energy to determine the best materials for the job. See the project.
Growing food during a flood
A natural disaster that often devastates communities, floods can make it difficult to grow food. In this project, students explore “a problem faced by farmers in Bangladesh and how to grow food even when the land floods.” See the project .
Solving a city’s design needs
Get your middle or high school students involved in some urban planning. Students can identify a city’s issues, relating to things like transportation, the environment, or overcrowding — and design solutions. See the project here or this Lego version for younger learners.
Creating clean water
Too many areas of the world — including cities in our own country — do not have access to clean water. In this STEM project, teens will learn how to build and test their own water filtration systems. See the project here .
Improving the lives of those with disabilities
How can someone with crutches or a wheelchair carry what they need? Through some crafty designs! This project encourages middle school students to think creatively and to participate in civic engagement. See the project here .
Cleaning up an oil spill
We’ve all seen images of beaches and wildlife covered in oil after a disastrous spill. This project gets elementary to middle school students designing and testing oil spill clean-up kits. See the project here .
Building earthquake-resistant structures
With the ever-increasing amount of devastating earthquakes around the world, this project solves some major problems. Elementary students can learn to create earthquake resistant structures in their classroom. See the project here .
Constructing solar ovens
In remote places or impoverished areas, it’s possible to make solar ovens to safely cook food. In this project, elementary students construct solar ovens to learn all about how they work and their environmental and societal impact. See the project here .
Stopping apple oxidization
Stop those apples from turning brown with this oxidation-based project. Perfect for younger learners, students can predict, label, count, and experiment! See the project here .
Advancing as a STEAM educator
The push for STEM has evolved into the STEAM movement, adding the arts for further enrichment and engagement. There are so many ways to embed STEM or STEAM lessons in your curriculum, but doing it well requires foundational knowledge and professional development. Imagine what type of impact you could have on your students and your community if you were supported by a theoretical framework, a variety of strategies, and a wealth of ideas and resources.
You may also like to read
- Teaching STEM: Challenging Students to Think Through Tough Problems
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- What is the Washington State STEM Lighthouse Program?
- Characteristics of a Great STEAM Program
- Building a Partnership Between Your School and a STEAM Organization
- The Art of Inquiry in STEAM Education
- Math Teaching Resources
- STEAM Education Teaching Resources
- Cultivating Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity:...
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By: MIT xPRO on August 5th, 2020 2 Minute Read
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Here are the Most Common Problems Being Solved by Machine Learning
Although machine learning offers important new capabilities for solving today’s complex problems, more organizations may be tempted to apply machine learning techniques as a one-size-fits all solution.
To use machine learning effectively, engineers and scientists need a clear understanding of the most common issues that machine learning can solve. In a recent MIT xPRO Machine Learning whitepaper titled " Applications For Machine Learning In Engineering and the Physical Sciences,” Professor Youssef Marzouk and fellow MIT colleagues outlined the potentials and limitations of machine learning in STEM.
Here are some common challenges that can be solved by machine learning:
Accelerate processing and increase efficiency Machine learning can wrap around existing science and engineering models to create fast and accurate surrogates, identify key patterns in model outputs, and help further tune and refine the models. All this helps more quickly and accurately predict outcomes at new inputs and design conditions.
Quantify and manage risk. Machine learning can be used to model the probability of different outcomes in a process that cannot easily be predicted due to randomness or noise. This is especially valuable for situations where reliability and safety are paramount.
Compensate for missing data. Gaps in a data set can severely limit accurate learning, inference, and prediction. Models trained by machine learning improve with more relevant data. When used correctly, machine learning can also help synthesize missing data that round out incomplete datasets.
Make more accurate predictions or conclusions from your data . You can streamline your data-to-prediction pipeline by tuning how your machine learning model’s parameters will be updated and learning during training. Building better models of your data will also improve the accuracy of subsequent predictions.
Solve complex classification and prediction problems. Predicting how an organism’s genome will be expressed or what the climate will be like in fifty years are examples of highly complex problems. Many modern machine learning problems take thousands or even millions of data samples (or far more) across many dimensions to build expressive and powerful predictors, often pushing far beyond traditional statistical methods.
Create new designs. There is often a disconnect between what designers envision and how products are made. It’s costly and time-consuming to simulate every variation of a long list of design variables. Machine learning can identify key variables, automatically generate good options, and help designers identify which best fits their requirements.
Increase yields. Manufacturers aim to overcome inconsistency in equipment performance and predict maintenance by applying machine learning to flag defects and quality issues before products ship to customers, improve efficiency on the production line, and increase yields by optimizing the use of manufacturing resources.
Machine learning is undoubtedly hitting its stride, as engineers and physical scientists leverage the competitive advantage of big data across industries — from aerospace, to construction, to pharmaceuticals, transportation, and energy. But it has never been more important to understand the physics-based models, computational science, and engineering paradigms upon which machine learning solutions are built.
The list above details the most common problems that organizations can solve with machine learning. For more specific applications across engineering and the physical sciences, download MIT xPRO’s free Machine Learning whitepaper .
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Can science and technology really help solve global problems? A UN forum debates vital question
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Science and technology offer part of the solution to climate change, inequality and other global issues, a United Nations official said on Tuesday, spotlighting the enormous potential these fields hold for achieving humanity’s common goal, of a poverty and hunger-free world by 2030.
“New advances in science and technology hold immense promises for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development ,” said UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Liu Zhenmin, in his opening remarks to a session of the intergovernmental body overseeing the UN’s development work.
The 2018 Integration Segment of the Economic and Social Council ( ECOSOC ), being held from Tuesday to Thursday at UN Headquarters, brings together key stakeholders to review policies that support an integrated approach to achieving sustainable development and poverty eradication - with a focus this year on increasing resilience.
“To truly leverage the benefits of science and technology for sustainable development, we need to prioritize solutions that are pro-poor and equitable,” Mr. Liu said. “Only in this way can we ensure that no one is left behind.”
He stated that a rapidly warming planet was one of the greatest threats today, but a wide array of technological measures for climate change adaptation and mitigation can help the transition from carbon-intensive growth, towards more sustainable and resilient development.
Technologies can also help provide jobs to disadvantaged groups in society, and can help make cities smarter and more sustainable, by facilitating new transport systems and improving the management of natural resources.
To truly leverage the benefits of science and technology for sustainable development, we need to prioritize solutions that are pro-poor and equitable – Liu Zhenmin, head of DESA
Threatened by unsustainable consumption and production patterns, the ocean is also suffering, he added. Numerous technologies have been shown to help mitigate and address these effects, such as innovations in sustainable fishing; enhanced surveillance of ocean acidification, and environmentally-sensitive forms of pollution prevention and clean-up, he added.
To make new technology and innovation work in support of communities, any efforts must be driven on a local level, and be inclusive.
Taking integrated approaches and working to break down barriers is of utmost urgency, too, as crises and shocks are increasingly complex and span the economic, social and environmental spheres.
“And, finally, we need to build capacities and institutions for anticipating risk, and for planning and strategic foresight to effectively leverage technologies,” Mr. Liu said.
Also addressing the opening segment was Marc Pecsteen, Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council, who said that technology and innovation have been identified as “two key enablers, whose appropriate, efficient, equitable and sustainable use can support our efforts to build and maintain resilient societies.”
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Title: can transformers learn to solve problems recursively.
Abstract: Neural networks have in recent years shown promise for helping software engineers write programs and even formally verify them. While semantic information plays a crucial part in these processes, it remains unclear to what degree popular neural architectures like transformers are capable of modeling that information. This paper examines the behavior of neural networks learning algorithms relevant to programs and formal verification proofs through the lens of mechanistic interpretability, focusing in particular on structural recursion. Structural recursion is at the heart of tasks on which symbolic tools currently outperform neural models, like inferring semantic relations between datatypes and emulating program behavior. We evaluate the ability of transformer models to learn to emulate the behavior of structurally recursive functions from input-output examples. Our evaluation includes empirical and conceptual analyses of the limitations and capabilities of transformer models in approximating these functions, as well as reconstructions of the ``shortcut" algorithms the model learns. By reconstructing these algorithms, we are able to correctly predict 91 percent of failure cases for one of the approximated functions. Our work provides a new foundation for understanding the behavior of neural networks that fail to solve the very tasks they are trained for.
- Download a PDF of the paper titled Can Transformers Learn to Solve Problems Recursively?, by Shizhuo Dylan Zhang and 4 other authors PDF
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In the Greening STEM section on this site you'll find ideas for relevant problems. Most environmental topics can fit under standards for either life or physical science, so these may provide you with some real "kid-catchers," or ideas that snag students' interest. Topics include areas such as: • Oil spills. • Water pollution.
Especially in biology, where immense amounts of work have been carried out during the last century, the most essential problems remain unsolved — the origin of life, the problems of heredity and development, the structure and chemical composition of the cell, and so on.
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Here are some engaging projects that get your students thinking about how to solve real-world problems. Preventing soil erosion In this project, meant for sixth - 12th grade, students learn to build a seawall to protest a coastline from erosion, calculating wave energy to determine the best materials for the job.
Here are some common challenges that can be solved by machine learning: Accelerate processing and increase efficiency Machine learning can wrap around existing science and engineering models to create fast and accurate surrogates, identify key patterns in model outputs, and help further tune and refine the models.
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Science and technology offer part of the solution to climate change, inequality and other global issues, a United Nations official said on Tuesday, spotlighting the enormous potential these fields hold for achieving humanity's common goal, of a poverty and hunger-free world by 2030.
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Neural networks have in recent years shown promise for helping software engineers write programs and even formally verify them. While semantic information plays a crucial part in these processes, it remains unclear to what degree popular neural architectures like transformers are capable of modeling that information. This paper examines the behavior of neural networks learning algorithms ...