Summary ꙳ Objectives

▹ A math problem is fairly simple to solve; there is typically one demonstrably correct solution, with a well-established path to find it. Environmental problems are comparatively messy. Often, there are a variety of seemingly disparate facets that must be taken into account, and perspectives with which to view them. Coming up with solutions to these problems can often feel like a game of Whack-a-Mole; as soon as you solve one facet of the problem, another one springs up to fill its place. To someone versed in one specific perspective, often through having specialized in a certain academic discipline or career path, the problem might look deceptively simple.

As Abraham Maslow put it, "if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail". When you only know how to view an issue through one lens, you are rather limited in your ability to find a solution. However, when you understand how to view the same problem through multiple lenses, or can communicate with those with differing perspectives, your view becomes much more nuanced. This appreciation for the intricacies of such a complicated problem might be paralyzing at first, but ultimately proves to be empowering. When you and your collaborators can tackle a problem from a greater variety of angles, your solutions become much more sophisticated.

If we treat each lens through which we can view a problem as a separate tool in our toolbox, we have a much better chance at devising effective and resilient solutions for a greater variety of problems. This is what this lesson seeks to convey. Enjoy! ツ

ⓘ Intro to EwA Nature Circles

Type » Activity (ideal for a class size group)

Level » Explorer

When? » Anytime

Where? » Indoors - but outside is fine too! 

Time » ~ 1 hr+

Themes & Skills

Focus ⋆ Environment & Sustainability ⋆ Science Methods ⋆ Systems Thinking ⋆ Natural Processes/Cycles

  • Solve an open-ended problem by 'charretting' with a group.
  • Understand the relationship between a variety of tools and flexibility in problem-solving.
  • Apply this understanding to solving a more complex series of problems.
  • Articulate the value of a well-rounded education.


  • Colored pencils
  • Legos, Play-doh & beads
  • Construction paper
  • Paper clips



This activity is meant to explore a 'meta' side of problem-solving, showing the participants the value of expanding their problem-solving toolboxes.

For those interested in environmental issues, this is an excellent introduction to why it is important to consider problems from a variety of angles.

Two angles–based on the conceptualization of the world stemming from the perspectives of two separate disciplines–may lead to two very different ideas about how to tackle a problem, sometimes leaving little common ground between individuals working on an issue. Working through environmental problems require specialists who can also think across disciplines (e.g., engineering, science, anthropology, psychology), so as to better understand the perspectives contributed by others. True insights come when we can understand and adopt the perspectives of others in a focus group. The resulting solutions are innovative and were simply not achievable through working only within the scope of one’s own discipline.

This activity shows students why it is essential to learn how to think across disciplines, so that they can better develop a framework for understanding why they are being educated in a variety of subjects, and why they should seek to broaden their educations as much as possible. Each discipline–whose lens we learn to view a problem through–is a tool, and we cannot allow ourselves to get stuck wearing just one. Doing so renders us blind to the assumptions inherent within that particular discipline.


To demonstrate these ideas, the students will be divided into three groups.

Three-students groups are ideal; four works as well, but more than that tends to result in unequal participation.

Each group is given a set of Legos.

  • Group 1 is limited to just white 3x1 and 4x1 pieces.
  • Group 2 has white legos of all dimensions (other than 3x1 and 4x1).
  • Group 3 is allowed all color pieces.

Give the groups 15 minutes to make a building with their Legos. Let the groups know at the outset that they will have to come up with a story behind their structure: what it is meant to be, and how it can be used (abstractly, of course).

At the end of the 15 minutes, debrief them on the story behind their structure, what the experience of working in a group to decide what and how to build was like, and the challenges they faced, including those that stem from limitations in the tools available to them. Show the differences between the structures that arose from having different tools- i.e. different Legos. Each type of Lego represents a tool in one’s problem-solving toolbox. The groups with more tools have more options and flexibility in how they want to solve their problem of building something.

After you make this point comes the next phase. Point out that all groups had limited toolboxes, in that they only had Legos at their disposal.

Generate a conversation about what would be possible if they all had free reign of the Legos, as well as the other tools you’ll have brought for them to work with.

Their next assignment is to build a habitat. Stress that it can be a habitat for people (town, city, etc.), a habitat for other species, or some combination; it’s not an either/or! For instance, the play-doh can represent land/fields/farms etc., the paper represents water, the beads represent animals, and the paper clips represent plants/fungi. Do what works best for you. This time, allow at least 20 minutes designing; be ready to allow for more time if you can see the ideas really flowing.

Debrief again about each of the habitats, challenges faced, and the difference between the two demonstrations with respect to flexibility in being able to solve the problem. This is also a good time to point out the assumption we make of having to design around humans; considering how to accommodate other species in our designs is a tool in itself that we can develop.

Takeaways from our Circle Author

I originally wrote the curriculum for this class for high-schoolers interested in the conservation of the Alewife Reserve in Cambridge (MA), and surrounding municipalities. Later, as a teacher at Nature’s Classroom, I repurposed it for ages 9-13. Here are some takeaways I obtained through teaching it for anyone interested in leading a class or workshop on solving environmental problems.

I designed this class with the intention of allowing Groups 2 and 3 more flexibility than Group 1 in how they designed their structures in the first phase. This was to demonstrate how, with a greater variety of tools (i.e. perspectives) at one’s disposal, the more versatile we can be in solving a problem. Yet, I was consistently surprised at what my Group 1’s, although consigned to just white 3x1 and 4x1 pieces, managed to pull off when they had enough pieces to build something substantial. As I kept running this class, I asked my Group 1’s, some of whom I decided to give more pieces (still within their limited range), and some of whom fewer, what lessons they had taken away from the first phase of the class. To my surprise, given enough pieces, Group 1’s had an easier time deciding what to build, and executing their vision, than the Group 3’s. In hindsight, this makes sense; presented with a tremendous range of possible Legos to use, some groups might have become paralyzed with indecision, or disagreed, about the best course of action. When options are more limited, a solution might present itself more quickly, even if it is more narrow-minded.

As the teacher, you have a couple of options on the lesson you would like to convey with your Group 1. You can choose to limit Group 1 to this narrow range of pieces, and give them a small number. When I did this, my intended lesson came through; Group 1 reported that they had struggled to accomplish much with the tools they were given. Alternatively, you can choose to give Group 1 a number of Legos comparable to that allocated to the other groups. When I did this, the lesson conveyed was that the tools given might actually be enough to design a solution, and to do so faster than if a wider variety had been offered. This is the approach that I preferred for the older groups, as it lets you raise the question: “Is the solution you arrive at the fastest necessarily the best, the most well-thought-out, or the most versatile?” Comparing Group 1’s structure to Group 3’s would drive this home- even if Group 3 had struggled initially to find a direction, their story behind their structure was more fully-developed than either of the others.

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