The Benefits of Ill-Structured Problem Solving Through Making

October 24, 2012 by Karen P. Kaun, EdD, Maker Kids program founder

Maker Kids engages students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through actively engaging them in their own learning through creation.   Our program was introduced to elementary school children in the Bronx, three years ago, and we have worked with more than one thousand students and their teachers of every background. The design processes involved in making are iterative, messy and flexible and often involve ill-structured, problem solving to achieve a goal.  Ill-structured problems are characterized by their lack of a clear path to a solution.  They include unknown problem elements, multiple solutions, and multiple criteria for evaluating solutions that require learners to make judgments or take a stand on issues. This kind of problem solving makes learning more lasting and helps students to transfer what they learn in the classroom to real-world situations (Kapur & Kinzer, 2005).


One of our Maker Kids activities includes making propeller racers with students from scratch using materials such as rulers, balsa wood, Lego bricks, motors, propellers from toy planes, propellers from wooden ice cream spoons, wooden wheels, CDs, etc.  You name it.  There is no blueprint, just the basic challenge to make a car that can move across the floor with a propeller. The students begin with a sketch and then build out their designs.  It has been so interesting to see how they react to this kind of challenge.  Some dive in with gusto and stick with it, reiterating their design, until they have a car that works.  Others steal ideas and parts from other students.  Some give up and throw parts at other students.  At the end of the day, it is quite a mental exercise and even the most frustrated students will say they have had fun.

How do children learn from making through ill-structured problems? For one thing, they tend to argue about the best design solutions and this is a building block of content-knowledge acquisition (Weinberger & Fischer, 2006).  Collaborative debate helps students support their hypothesis with evidence and to make use of logic, using such devices as inductive or deductive reasoning, facts and statistics.   In middle school science classes, collaborative debate has been shown to help students consolidate their understanding of science concepts and increase the level of abstraction of their understanding (von Aufschnaiter et al 2007). It also allows them to acquire academic vocabulary such as “data”, “hypothesis”, “affirm,”, “convince,”, “disprove,” and “interpret,” which as pointed out by Snow (2010), is critical for science learning.

The New York State Education Department’s fourth grade science curriculum includes units on energy and circuitry that are tested on the fourth grade science test.  To deepen students’ knowledge of the subject matter, many of our fourth grade students were challenged to build a battery from a special conductive and insulator play dough, copper wires and nails and to complete a circuit with the dough to generate enough voltage to power a light emitting diode (LED).  Students worked in groups and videotaped each other, over several days, explaining how they were building the battery.  A goal of the videotaping was to create an informative “how to build a squishy battery video” that could be posted on the Maker Kids web site. Throughout the videotaping, students questioned each other about the processes involved in building the battery and defended their design choices.  For example, Ann questioned Sheila about her battery design and asked what would happen “if the battery doesn’t work,” that is to say what Sheila would do if her battery does not light up an LED.  Sheila responded that “most likely her battery will work” because she has observed through past experimentation that a longer battery will generate the 1.5 volts needed to light an LED.  However, when Ann asks Sheila the question again, Sheila responds if it doesn’t work, it will need to be re-made.

Brianna, who is listening to the exchange and has also made batteries from conductive squishy dough, challenges Sheila by quickly adding, “or test it with a volt meter” knowing that they may only need to increase the number of energy cells in the battery to get it to work.  Sheila realizes this is a good strategy and confirms it by re-iterating Brianna’s statement and adding that they would test it to see how many volts it has, meaning to see if the battery is generating the 1.5 volts that lit an LED in the past.  In this short interaction, the students are moving between progressively higher levels of cognitive activity from factual knowledge to procedural knowledge.  They are also using their depth of knowledge to formulate strategies that will help them to complete the task of powering the LED with the squishy battery.


Kapur, M. & Kinzer, C. (2006). Synchronous collaborative problem solving. The effect of problem type on interactional activity, inequity, and group performance in a synchronous computer-supported collaborative environment.  Manuscript submitted for publication.

Snow, C., et al. (2010). Academic language and the challenge of reading for learning about science. Science, 328 (23), 450-452.

Von Aufschnaiter, C., Erduran, S., Osborne, J., & Simon, S. (2007). Arguing to learn and learning to argue: Case studies of how students’ argumentation relates to their scientific knowledge. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

Weinberger, A. & Fischer, F. (2006). A framework to analyze argumentative knowledge construction in computer-supported collaborative learning.  Computers & Education, 46, 71-94.







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