The Problem Solving Snail

The wonder that is the problem solving snail was introduced to me as a joke a few years ago. I was working at a grant-funded museum tech outreach program and the lead teacher designed a brief survey for the students (5th grade girls) to take for assessment purposes. A lot of the questions asked the girls about STEM ideas, their attitudes towards science, etc. And one question showed the students an image of a the engineering design process, kind of like this great one (albeit sans labels) from The Works Museum:


The girls had to identify this image as an engineering design process –  something we’d discussed in class the previous week, when we’d talked about how engineers work and the steps we go through to solve problems. One of the ridiculous choices the lead teacher came up with for this survey question was the “problem solving snail” and the term stuck. The other teachers in the class and I ran with the term and it became a running joke.

But I think the problem solving snail might be more profound than we originally thought. I teach research skills now more than engineering lessons (I must say I’m sad about that on occasion!). And the research process really has a lot in common with this problem solving or design process used by engineers.

In fact, this research cycle image I made for a first-year research guide was largely inspired by problem solving and design process cycles I’d seen in my museum educator days.


Whether it’s science, engineering, inventing, humanities research, or whatever, the process of identifying and solving a problem is pretty similar. For me, there are two major lessons to take away from an engineering approach to problem solving. The first is the term problem solving itself. I really think that research, at the academic level especially but also for younger students, would do well to be explicitly cast as a way to solve problems. College students, in my experience, can often experience a disconnect between their assignments and the real world (insert academia joke of your choice here). Research, to students, can feel tedious (it often is) and difficult (yep). Casting it in terms of solving a problem can help ground the more abstract ideas of research in practicalities and “real” world concerns.

The other major takeaway I have from an engineering approach to problem solving is actually my friend, the problem solving snail. A snail is, of course, slow. It makes incremental process. You might worry it’s never going to get anywhere. And problem solving (and research) is exactly like this. Research is slow, it’s iterative, it might seem stagnant. But it can really get important things done, even though the process itself can feel cumbersome.

I think the problem solving snail might become my mascot for future lessons, whether I’m teaching younger kids about STEM or older kids about academic research. If you want to learn more about the problem solving and the design process, check out this great site from the PBS Kids Design Squad, where they walk you through each step of the design process and provide resources and activity ideas.