Saturday, May 29, 2010

Problem Solving

HVAC/R Service is about practical problem solving. All the tools, technology, training, and literature are just there to help us identify and solve problems. The primary skill that any service tech needs is problem solving. The most important tool at your disposal is your mind. I am frequently asked why we make students do BTU calculations of ice turning to steam, series parallel ohms law problems, gas law calculations, or any host of other primarily mental exercises that nearly all HVAC/R students must suffer through. Usually, the students asking are doing the most suffering. Although I can justify all of the above as an endeavor to garner a deeper understanding of the principles which make HVAC/R systems work, I usually tell them that you can’t become a champion weight lifter by lifting marshmallows. Service techs are not paid to connect gauges or take voltage readings, they are paid to solve problems. Obviously techs need to be familiar with all the tools at their disposal, but we should never overlook the fact that their primary tool sits on their shoulders. I am afraid the current focus on standardized testing throughout our educational system has not prepared our students for practical problem solving. Rather, they are used to selecting the best solution from a very limited set of answers. My prescription? Lots of work that requires students to recognize and define the problem, systematically find the cause, and offer a solution. Assign work that requires students to provide written answers. Ask questions whose answers have not been explicitly stated, but require students to put two pieces of information together. If you get an answer that is way off base, try and ask leading questions to help the student work their way through a solution to the problem. The exact answer is not as important as the process. Encouraging students to use their minds to solve problems is crucial. The shop is a great place to work on problem solving because real life problems are never as simple as a, b, c or d. But don’t accept “the part is bad” as an answer. The student should be able to explain what the unit is doing wrong, what is the cause, how they determined the cause of the problem, and what their proposed solution is. Truth be told, I believe this approach could work in a lot of fields besides HVAC/R. The leaders in any field are always people who have recognized and defined problems and then devised solutions.

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