Problem-Finding Lesson One: People Need Problems

Materials needed:

Two or three gadgets (vegetable peeler, pencil sharpener, etc.)

 An assortment of catalogues

Picture of Chester Greenwood (optional but fun)


Have you ever heard anyone say, “Boy, I wish I had a problem?” What kind of a problem might someone want to have? We all know that there are some kinds of problems that no one wants to have, but there are other kinds of problems that can be important—and even fun. For the next few weeks we will be talking about why someone might look for an interesting problem and how they might do it.

Constructing Understanding

ChesterGreenwoodLet me start by telling you a story about a boy who found a problem and solved it. This problem started in a cold winter in Maine. A 15-year-old boy named Chester Greenwood had terrible trouble with his ears. Every time he went outside, even with his hat on, his ears were very cold. He tried wrapping a scarf around his head, but it was too uncomfortable. Finally, Chester made some loops out of wire and asked his grandmother to sew pieces of fur on one side and velvet on the other. Chester attached his fur-covered loops to a wire that went across his head. Chester Greenwood had invented the first earmuffs! In fact, Chester started an earmuff business and became a very successful inventor. [Show a picture of Chester and his earmuffs.] Another option for an introductory story is the inventions of Elijah McCoy. His story provides a fine example of an African American inventor—and the source of the phrase, “the real McCoy.”

What problem Chester (or Elijah) did find? Do you think anyone else had ever had that problem? Why do you think no one else solved the problem the way he did? Sometimes one of the most important things that problem finders do is keep their eyes and ears open—they pay attention to the problems around them.

Another problem was solved more recently. A first-grade girl named Suzanna Goodin hated one of her chores at home. She hated feeding the cat! Now, Suzanna liked her cat and she wanted the cat to have food. There was only one thing wrong. She hated washing the cat food spoon. Every time she fed the cat, the spoon ending up covered with squishy, smelly cat food. It was disgusting to wash. Luckily, Suzanna was a good problem finder, much like Chester Greenwood. Instead of just complaining about the smelly cat food, she thought, “Aha! This is a problem I can solve.” And she did. Suzanna invented an edible pet food spoon. The spoon is made of hard pet food, like a spoon-shaped dog biscuit. After you scoop the pet food out of the can, you can throw the spoon right in the bowl with the food. The cat or dog can eat it right up! For her invention, Suzanna won grand prize in that year’s Weekly Reader invention contest.

Here is another invention. [Hold up any convenient gadget. It may be a common object like a vegetable peeler or pencil sharpener, or something more unusual, like electric socks.] What kind of problem might have caused someone to invent this? Why do you think they might have decided to work on that problem? [Repeat with two or three inventions. Select from the discussion questions below as appropriate for your class. Of course, any of these inventions or stories can be exchanged for those more culturally appropriate or familiar to your students.]

Possible questions:

What made Chester or Suzanna a good problem finder?

Why do you think that some people notice problems and some don’t?

Why do you think some people complain about problems and some people try to figure out how to solve them?

What inventions can you think of that solved a problem? Why do you think someone might have chosen to work on that particular problem?

Applying Understanding

Let’s see if you can find examples of someone finding a problem and inventing something to solve it. Using these catalogs, find something that you think someone invented to solve a problem. Cut out the picture of the object you choose and paste it at the top of a piece of paper. Under the pic- ture, describe what problem this invention solves and why you think someone decided to work on it. [This activity may be completed individually or in pairs, as appropriate for your classroom.] An alternate activity would be to have students search websites on inventors and inventions, still looking for examples of problems and solutions.

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