10/20/2014 04:53 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

Problem Solving Skills Needed Now

I have been listening to talks given by prominent scientists including our current senior advisor to President Obama on science and technology issues, John Holdren. He was explaining the different ways scientists input advice into our federal government system. One avenue for advice is from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) which is "an advisory group of the nation's leading scientists and engineers who directly advise the President."

They have written several wonderful reports including the 2012 Undergraduate STEM Education Report. Here, the goal is to produce one million additional college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). PCAST found that retaining the students who start out majoring in the STEM fields would assist in this as fewer than 40 percent of the students who start as a STEM major actually graduate with one. A lot of the focus was on improving how science is taught by using more active learning techniques. What makes STEM graduates valuable to society is their ability to solve problems, in particular that include calculations.

In order for people to learn these techniques they have to have their brains actively engaged. Just as I can't learn how to play basketball by watching people play basketball, students can't learn how to solve problems by watching others solve problems or talk about solving problems. The prerequisites for this are having mathematical abilities. However, most don't develop math or computational abilities without practicing them and they don't see the use of mathematics to learn it in the first place. So there is a tough chicken and egg problem to getting competent problem solvers. At our university we've embraced these flipped classes where the students read the material before the course and then come to class to get more help in problem solving in our physics classes. A few of my friends who are high school teachers are also teaching classes using these methods so maybe in a few years those students will be ready to handle our college expectations. It is a tough slog as students adapt to using math in actual problems. Students need to want to learn with these techniques and can't be passively entertained by a lecture.

At the graduate level, we are trying to produce computationally adept students who can handle looking at large quantities of data and find patterns. There are many computationally intensive problems that are waiting to be tackled now. These problems exist in physics, engineering, biology, economics, and many other applications.

For instance, figuring out how to track Ebola virus origins and patterns involves analyzing numerical data and understanding complex algorithms. At our university, we have explored how to teach students better programming and statistical problem solving skills. The first step is teaching how to use the tools, but the real effort lies in understanding the outputs. We are still trying to figure this out. It is relatively easy to develop tools such as spell checkers to see that the basic elements are correct in a paper, it is harder to develop a grammar checker, and still harder to write a logically consistent paper where the points are well developed. Let's hope that both the students and the teachers are ready to tackle the issues with getting at real results from using mathematical tools to solve real world problems as the problems we are facing are becoming more and more complex.