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6 design thinking projects that inspire students to dig deeper

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on August 22, 2016
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“The goal of a designer is to listen, observe, understand, sympathize, empathize, synthesize and glean insights.”

This quote from Hillman Curtis perfectly captures many of the skills students increasingly need to succeed – in school and beyond. Is it any wonder that design thinking is taking education by storm? If we want our students to think critically, consider the needs of others and then develop solutions to solve real problems, design thinking offers a useful framework to make that happen.

Are you looking to give it a try this year? Here are 6 design thinking projects that take students through the 5 stages – empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test – and get them digging deeper.

1. Making marshmallow and toothpick bridges

We’ve probably all tried this one at some point – who doesn’t love building with marshmallows? But by incorporating a design thinking mindset, you can focus the activity and take learning further.

Before students start building, they should work together to come up with answers to the key questions they need to ask of the “client” (you). What needs must the bridge meet? Is it for pedestrian traffic or vehicles? Is the aim function or beauty? Seeing design through the lens of someone else builds empathy and helps create a clearer target.

Or instead place the focus on the end stages of the design thinking process. The Stanford d.school uses spaghetti, marshmallows, string and tape to teach how to prototype and test – while giving students a chance to practice several design thinking mindsets.

2. Building devices that move

This is another classic that’s perfect for a design thinking approach. When I did this with my fifth-graders, the focus was mostly on prototyping and testing. We’d push the desks to the side, put all batteries, wires, motors and other materials in a central place, and then let the kids bring their ideas to life. It was amazing how the hours flew by as the students worked together – usually with not a single one-off task. At the end we had a special sharing night and invited the parents to see all the cars, boats, Ferris wheels, garage door openers and other creations.

If I were back in the classroom, I’d do this project again in a heartbeat – with a design thinking twist. Rather than just have students design any object that moved, I’d pair them up and task them with designing something that their partner needed. They’d have to hear their partner’s concerns, define their needs and then draw up some proposals, soliciting feedback from others. It would add a whole new dimension to what already was a great learning experience.

3. Reimagining your classroom space

When I was teaching fifth- and sixth-grade, every once in a while my students and I would hit a bit of a slump. One of the ways I got us back into high gear was to rearrange the classroom. We’d talk about the kinds of spaces we needed and then brainstorm ideas. And then the students would get to work – moving desks, carving out new areas for small-group work, suggesting where the games and supplies should live. It was invigorating – for me, too.

I used this process to wake my students up – but with design thinking you can go deeper. One teacher started the school year with bare bulletin boards and no furniture and then took her students through the stages of design thinking to come up with a plan. Going deskless isn’t for everyone – but getting students involved in shaping their space certainly could be.

4. Developing an animal habitat

As a student teacher, I went on an extended field trip to the zoo. Most memorable was the hour of each day the students spent observing “their animal” – one they had researched before the week began. Conversation often turned to the enclosures and how well they met – or didn’t meet – the creature’s needs.

I was impressed by how careful observation led students to empathize with their animal and define needs. Without knowing it, they were already started down the road of design thinking. The next step could have been to ideate and prototype – come up with alternative habitats that they knew would serve them better.

We likely could have never gotten to the testing phase with this particular project – though the Museum of Science in Boston actually does let kids design houses for animals and then test them out! A more feasible alternative for people might be designing an enclosure for a classroom pet and then seeing how well the resident guinea pig or hamster likes it.

5. Determining rules to live by

Classroom rules design thinking project

Design thinking doesn’t have to be limited to physical structures and space. One of my favorite start-of-year activities was determining the rules we would live by for the rest of the year. We’d read Judith Viorst’s “If I were in charge of the world” and discuss the difference between rights and responsibilities. Ideas initially were very concrete. “Don’t hit.” “Don’t steal.” “Raise your hand in class.”

But as we talked about collective and individual needs, the discussion went deeper. Students began to grapple with different perspectives and determine what would make our classroom safe and healthy for everyone. To bring more design thinking to the process, I would set aside more time to “test” the rules we created and then revise them periodically throughout the year.

6. Designing for a younger buddy

Design thinking works best when the stakes are real – real problems, real needs, real people. So if you work with a buddy class of younger students, try involving them. It’s amazing how motivating it can be to design for someone who looks up to you – even for learners whose effort on most projects is uneven.

When my primary students’ older buddies made them anything, it was special. I remember one little guy who kept his “pet rock” from his buddy on his desk for months. Design thinking focuses these efforts and challenges older kids to truly understanding someone else’s interests and needs.

More ideas and inspiration

As teachers are becoming converts to the power of design thinking to engage and empower their students, more project ideas are being shared. Here are just a few:

What other project ideas do you have for a design thinking approach to teaching and learning?