A while ago I came across a webinar on EdWeb about design thinking in the classroom (check it out - it's free and you get continuing ed credits). I was instantly hooked on the concept; bringing design thinking into my curriculum. I had done a lot of "making" with my students and my own children, but I was missing some critical pieces, one of which was to connect making experiences with real-world problems. The general idea is that learners develop skills and content by observing and identifying problems before them. They then solve these real-world problems by designing and creating solutions.
I am an experiential educator, so every action my students take is a step toward learning experiences that are entirely child-led (look back at some posts from my student-directed learning series for specific details - link in archives). Therefore, I created a "Maker Tool Kit" that combines the principles of self-led design thinking, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. This tool kit is designed to walk learners through a maker project while giving them the freedom to lead the experience. Learners identify a problem and brainstorm innovative solutions. They design and build a prototype, test it, tweak it, and use the refined final outcome to make a positive impact on the community.
So, how to add design thinking to your curriculum? Start by purchasing my maker tool kit . Simply distribute the resource to your students and watch them thrive! This resource has all of the materials to help gradually move students toward self-directed making experiences.
If you and/or your students are new to design thinking as a learning tool, or student-directed learning for that matter, consider starting students off with a specific problem to solve. You present the problem, your students do the rest. Once learners become more comfortable with the process, you can begin to ask them to identify problems around a theme, such as "fall" or "morning routine". If you have the flexibility, students can eventually take the reigns entirely, identifying problems on their own, free from your influence.
OR you can all dive in head first. One of the best things about design thinking, and making in general, is that failure is not only an option, but is encouraged. Let them learn through experience!
How to Add Design Thinking to Your Curriculum
Use the following example, along with my Maker Tool Kit, to help facilitate the experience:
1. Observe and Empathize - In this phase, learners identify a problem and "empathize" with those impacted by the problem. You might present students with a specific problem, or they observe a problem on their own. Either way, this step is intended to help learners better understand the problem by communicating with those directly impacted.
Ex: A student notices decorative pumpkins splattered across roads and sidewalks in her neighborhood.
Check out this free problem identification resource. The purpose is to help beginners observe and identify problems to solve. This is a skill that takes practice and time to develop.
2. Define the Problem - At this point students have discussed the problem with a variety of people, so can hone in on the specifics. They state the problem.
Ex: Squirrels are taking decorative pumpkins from neighbors' doorsteps and eating them.
3. Ideate - This is my favorite part! Students begin to throw out product ideas to solve the problem. They "think outside the box"; they stray from the obvious. Innovative final products are also an important component of project-based learning.
Ex: 1) Create a barrier, 2) Develop a nontoxic, but annoying substance to paint on the pumpkins, 3) Design and create a pumpkin holder or stand that makes it difficult for squirrels to access the pumpkin, etc.
4. Prototype - At this point students draft a design and create their prototype. They go through a series of challenges and obstacles in the design and making phase, work through the issues, and make modifications.
Ex: The student designs a decorative wire pumpkin holder that prevents squirrels from taking off with pumpkins.
5. Test - Now that students have created a prototype, they can test their initial design on a relevant audience. They gather feedback from their test group and refine their product based on suggestions until it effectively solves the problem.
Ex: The student might gather from the test group that their pumpkin holder solves the problem but isn't attractive. They make recommendations and the student makes adjustments.
I highly recommend encouraging students to observe and identify problems on their own, but understand reasons for making a gradual transition to authentic student-directed learning. Some students might feel overwhelmed by this and need a little more scaffolding. I see this often, which is why I have maker project resources in my store that provide specifics and the problem or challenge is outlined for students. You may also be confined to specific topics and/or standards. That is fine. "Making" helps learners visualize abstract concepts.
Consider giving learners a theme to start with. Check out some of the "fall" themed maker project ideas below! Write the problem on the board, distribute the Maker Tool Kit, and watch magic happen!
Fall Inspired Maker Education Activities
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.