We Need Problem-based Science, More than Ever


by Christa Flores -

Innovation in Crisis 

What do General Electric, GM Motors and IBM have in common, besides being leading multinational corporations? They all had beginnings during one of our country's most difficult economic times (1). Hard times are just the sort of disruptive fodder humans seem to need to think outside the box of traditionally successful business endeavors. As a result, many small businesses and self-employment endeavors have been spurred from recessions and the great depression (2,3). Women and minorities, already marginalized during good times, are especially hit hard in times of economic downturn, forced to create small business to survive. These individuals are referred to as survivalist entrepreneurs, or those who find ways to make money as a self-employed person when no one else will hire them, Madam C.J. Walker being one of the most famous examples (4). Combine the resourcefulness of the survivalist entrepreneur with the maker movement and we have a powerful revenue of innovation brewing that we can not ignore. 

Makers Take the Stage

It is the year 2020 and we are headed into a recession once again, this time as a result of shuttering businesses all over the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Job loss is at an unprecedented high with the application of unemployment insurance jumping from the hundreds of thousands, to 3.3 million in just one week (5). It seems hard to see how this economic disruption will be good for our communities, and yet rapid innovators have already stepped up to the plate to prove that human creativity and compassion are inexhaustible in trying times. I live in Asheville North Carolina and the first signs of this quick pivoting came from an industry my town is well known for, the alcohol industry. H&H distillery, a family owned distillery began responding to the COVID-19 crisis by switching from “cultivated cocktails” to much needed hand sanitizer production. Their story is not unique, thankfully. 

IMAGE1: Susan Klimczak of the South End Technology Center in Boston, MA has prototyped the Olson mask pattern and tested it with real medical professionals. 

All over the world makerspaces have stepped up to design, create and test much needed PPE (personal protection equipment) for medical workers on the front lines. From face masks to DIY respirators, makers and hackers are rapidly innovating to meet the overwhelming needs coming from the medical fronts. Two such makers/maker educators are Susan Klimczak of the South End Technology Center and Joel Gordon of the Amazeum. Using CAD software, a laser cutter, and 3D printers, these makers sprung into action to begin prototyping PPE. Again, thankfully their story is not unique. Watch this video posted by the New York Times on March 24, 2020 highlighting a few more examples (6). 

Thanks to our current crisis, the maker movement and its readily available micro manufacturing capacity, has finally come to the forelight of our society. No longer just a hackers’ and hobbyists’ movement, the self-empowered makers movement has proven to be the kind of localised and creative well spring that we desperately need right now. All of this innovation taking place in makerspaces all over the world to serve immediate needs, is what I term Problem-based science (PbS) in action. Watching Problem-based science working in the real world, in real time, illustrates wonderfully why we need to be teaching PbS in schools. 

IMAGE 2: Joel Gordon of the Amazeum in Bentonville, AK adapts a face shield on CAD and partners with a local micro manufacturer to produce up to fifty shields at a time to supply to local medical professionals.

Problem-based Science for the Future

In Making Science; Reimagining STEM Education in Middle School and Beyond I describe a style of curriculum I tested while teaching science to middle school students, fulltime in a makerspace. Problem-based Science is an applied approach to gaining science literacy, and it works. Learners use real problems, small and large, real tools, real materials, and sufficient time to grow as creators of their own future. Addressing problems small and large is a form of applied technology, engineering, art, math, and science. Using this approach signals that every learner is valued as a polymath, willing and able to connect the dots of seemingly disparate ideas, to generate the best design solutions to real world problems. 

The PbS model is deeply founded on Jean Piaget’s constructivism and Seymour Papert’s constructionism. It is made possible only by easily accessible tools of the maker movement and the adoption of makerspaces in schools as vital learning spaces, on par with libraries. While many schools have a makerspace, not every school has the kind of integrated curriculum that truly teaches Problem-based learning. Many underfunded schools lack the tools and makerspaces all together, and this has to change. 

If not now, when? As educators we must use this unprecedented time to reflect on whether “business as usual” is serving our Pre-K-12 population, or how it may be holding back the much needed innovation our species needs right now. The forced shift to online learning during our social distancing mandates, has educators, administrators, parents and students all reflecting on the true value of content, versus community connection, and of course assessment. Assuming schools resume in the fall, what lessons can we employ immediately to ensure we are best serving the next generation? A generation being handed a buffet of seemingly insurmountable problems, such as the climate crisis and the threat of novel virus pandemics. 

In my opinion we can not go back to business as usual in the fall, not with any hope of preparing young people, our future innovators, with the tool literacy, mindsets and experience needed to solve real world problems they are sure to face. That is why we need to be teaching Problem-based learning in every course, in every curriculum, at every age. If the COVID-19 crisis teaches us anything, it teaches us that we no longer have the luxury of waiting for progressive education to be accepted into the mainstream of standardized learning, because waiting for the right moment to teach authentic problem solving, may cost lives. 



  1. Dahl, Darren. (May 10, 2010). Top Companies Started During A Recession. Huffington Post. Retrieved online on March 28, 2020 from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/top-companies-started-during-a-recession_n_923853

  2. Boyd, R. L. (2005). Race, gender, and survivalist entrepreneurship in large northern cities during the Great Depression. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 34(3), 331-339.

  3. Boyd, R. L. (2000, December). Race, labor market disadvantage, and survivalist entrepreneurship: Black women in the urban North during the Great Depression. In Sociological Forum (Vol. 15, No. 4, pp. 647-670). Kluwer Academic Publishers-Plenum Publishers.

  4. Sorvino, Chloe. (2014, July 11). Rooted In Recession: The Richest Families Whose Businesses Started During the Great Depression. Forbes. Retrieved online on March 28, 2020 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/chloesorvino/2014/07/11/rooted-in-recession-the-richest-families-whose-businesses-started-during-the-great-depression/#79a44cf27513

  5. Long, Heather and Fowers, Alyssa. (March 26, 2020). A record 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits as the coronavirus slams economy. Washington Post. Retrieved online on March 28, 2020 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/03/26/unemployment-claims-coronavirus-3-million/

  6. Haley Willis, Robin Stein, Natalie Reneau and Drew Jordan. (March 24, 2020) Coronavirus Has Hospitals in Desperate Need of Equipment. These Innovators Are Racing to Help. New York Times. Retrieved on March 28, 2020 from: https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000007046207/coronavirus-innovative-equipment.html?action=click&gtype=vhs&version=vhs-heading&module=vhs&region=title-area&cview=true&t=129