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How to stop an out of control machine [video]

An out of control machine teaches us a few things about problem solving.
Written by Christie Nicholson, Contributor on

This video brilliantly shows one interesting failure of group dynamics. Watch as a group of concerned construction workers try to stop a dangerous out-of-control spinning machine (aka concrete buffer.) Sometimes high tech needs to start with psychology and strategy.

Inevitably all of us will face a technical challenge many times in our lives.

From Improbable Research comes some interesting information from the University of Minnesota’s physics department. Professors there found that undergraduate physics students usually attack problems by immediately applying algebra or some appropriate math. They continue to “plug and chug,” meaning input numbers into formulas, until they get a solution. They rarely use an overall conceptual knowledge of physics  to analyze a situation first and then form a plan before throwing every quick idea at the problem. Case in point: Watch the video to see what happens when three ideas get (literally) thrown onto the spinning machine in their attempt to stop it. Even once they do come to a possible solution, the undergraduate students rarely think about whether the answer actually makes sense.

The researchers at the University of Minnesota suggest a five-step problem solving strategy for groups. While this is specific to physics, I think it can be applied to most problems. Even the problem of an out-of-control machine.

A Physics-Specific Strategy

Each profession has its own specialized knowledge and patterns of thought. The knowledge and thought processes that you use in each of the steps will depend on the discipline in which you operate. Taking into account the specific nature of physics, we choose to label and interpret the five steps of the general problem solving strategy as follows:

Focus the Problem:
In this step you develop a qualitative description of the problem. First, visualize the events described in the problem using a sketch. Write down a simple statement of what you want to find out. Write down the physics ideas which might be useful in the problem and describe the approach you will use.

Describe the Physics:
In this step you use your qualitative understanding of the problem to prepare for the quantitative solution. First, simplify the problem situation by describing it with a diagram in terms of simple physical objects and essential physical quantities. Restate what you want to find by naming specific mathematical variables. Using the physics ideas assembled in step 1, write down equation which specify how these physical quantities are related according to the principles of physics or mathematics.

Plan the Solution:
In this step you translate the physics description into a set of equations which represent the problem mathematically by using the equations assembled in step 2. Write down an outline of how you will solve these equations to see if they will yield a solution, before you go through the effort of actually doing any mathematics.

Execute the Plan:
In this step you actually execute the solution you have planned. Combine the equations as planned to first determine an algebraic solution. Then plug in all of the known quantities into the algebraic solution to determine a numerical value for the desired unknown (target) quantity.