The title of the post comes from Camp Roger. Camp's have a lot of hard problems to solve. There probably is not a lot of math in the problems, but sometimes there is. I sent a link to the post entitled Pleasantly Frustrating by Joe Bower to my camp director. The post, and its title reminded me that the hardest things are worth taking the time to do right. In view of my change to allowing WolframAlpha into my physics class has made problem solving just plain frustrating to many students. So where is the balance between solving real problems, complicated, multiple step problems and just being frustrating students? What is a pleasantly frustrating physics problem? In my change of the course to look at a real problem, energy in Nicaragua, I have tried to solve the pleasant part by making the problem really real, hoping that the focus on the small steps would come from a bigger purpose. I must not be holding that purpose in front of them correctly yet, because at least the mathematical problem solving is still mainly frustrating. This is something to continue to work on.
For about a year and a half now I have been using WolframAlpha (WA) in class. Students may use it for any assignment or assessment. This changes the problems that you assign. Drastically. Many easy problems can be simply cut and past into WA and solved. So what becomes important is assigning problems that get at the real skills we would like students to have from problems. Problems that they have to break apart and digest and put together the simple things that WA can solver for them. This is not unlike what I do when I solve problems in my own work. What I did not know until now was how little of that kind of problem solving I used to teach. I assign many fewer problems that are much harder and require a ton more thinking. Since this is not what I am used to many of my old methods of teaching problem solving are not working as well. Here is the punch line: WA is making me think that I need to have my students talk more about the problems they are solving. This technology is making me see a need for my students to be more social. I should have read Frank's post more closely. There are so many complaints out there that technology makes us less social, but I think in the end it frees us to be more social. But it is hard work getting there.