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BANNER, Spring 2014: Design Thinking

Increasingly, Brookwood teachers and students are using a time-tested process that has been around for as long as engineers have been solving problems. The idea behind “Design Thinking” or “Design Engineering” – that a process of brainstorming, designing, testing, failing and redesigning leads to optimal solutions -- is simple. However, the benefits for students are profound.

Brookwood Science Coordinator and Grade 6 Science teacher Annie Johnson describes the Design Thinking process as a series of steps that engineering teams of all types use to solve problems.  While the order and names of the Design Thinking process steps can vary depending on the model being used, the strategy is the same: use critical thinking skills to solve a problem through repetitive design. Each iteration will lead to better ideas and, in the end, a more robust solution.

Over the past decade, as classrooms have evolved from content-driven to critical-thinking/skills-driven models, Design Thinking as a teaching method has taken off.  Accelerating in the past three to four years, the idea has been successfully implemented in schools and lesson plans around the world, says Annie.

“The teaching world has embraced design thinking because it allows teachers to access student creativity, fosters critical thinking, and encourages resilience, confidence and determination.  There is no predetermined outcome and students can truly investigate, explore, and fail; student learning is maximized and even accelerated when they solve problems using Design Thinking,” Annie says.

She adds, “Students are empowered with Design Thinking and see it as meaningful problem-solving.  They aren't just going through the motions. They are solving problems as engineers and scientists do in the real world, and for most projects there is a direct application or connection to a real-life local or global issue.”

Brookwood’s Science Department has, as Annie says, “fully embraced Design Engineering projects.” This innovative team (Ben Wildrick, Grades 1-4 science; Henry Oettinger, Grade 5 science and math teacher; C.J. Bell, Grade 7 science teacher, and Rich Lehrer, Grade 8 science teacher in addition to Annie, Grade 6) has created wide-ranging, age-appropriate projects featuring a design engineering approach. These include:

•    Grade 1: Create the best flying samara or maple seed that can stay aloft the longest and travel the furthest
•    Grade 2: "Design Mixtures" - Test and taste soda mixtures to ultimately make a drinkable product
•    Grade 3: Create/test/adjust their own glue formulas
•    Grade 4: Design, build, and test wind generator blades
•    Grade 5: Assemble a bee hive; Design a circuit that will light up a LED; Program a robot to perform certain tasks
•    Grade 6: Design, build, and test houses that can withstand simulated earthquakes; Design, build, and test thrust structures for simulated rocket launches
•    Grade 7: Design, build, and test plankton that will be "slow-sinking" so they can remain in the photic zone; Build-a-fish project in which students design their own fish keeping in mind the morphology needed to swim, live, and eat
•    Grade 8: Design, build, and test bottle rockets that can travel the furthest distance; Egg-drop challenge; Design a Cartesian diver that will stay suspended the longest in a column of water; Robohand project; Efficient Biomass Stove project

And of course there is the Spud Suit Design challenge!

Announced during an April School Meeting, the school-wide challenge invited students to, “design and outfit an astroTATER with a SPUDsuit that will protect him/her from small meteoroids traveling at high speeds.”

Design guidelines included: “Suit must fit snugly and be lightweight & flexible (so your TATERnaut can move freely); No adhesives (this includes glue or tape – yes that means no duct tape!); 1 layer of material is defined as one single layer of that particular material; Suit must consist of at least three different materials.”

Testing a design is, of course, essential to the design engineering process, and it was no different with the Spud Challenge.  The “small meteoroids traveling at high speeds” that each suit had to withstand was in fact an eight inch screwdriver held 1 meter or 39 inches above the potato. Students each dropped the screwdriver three times so the point collided with the astroTATER each time and a potato “with absolutely no nicks or scratches on its skin indicates success.”

Students were asked to submit their Spud Suit Challenge entries via video.

“We had fantastic participation!  We had about 50 total participants in the Spud Suit challenge, with students working alone, in pairs, or groups of three,” says Annie. “Most Lower School students (PreK through Grade 3) were paired with an older sibling or buddy, so there was fabulous collaboration across the community.  There were five sibling/cross-grade submissions.  We even had a faculty submission from Cathy Marrero, our resident functional fabric/uniform design engineer!”

With almost limitless application across divisions and subjects, Design Thinking is likely to be a growing presence in Brookwood’s classrooms. And the arrival of new technology will offer teachers and students countless opportunities. “There's tremendous enthusiasm and momentum behind Design Thinking.  And with our new 3D printers, there is going to be a increase in our students' abilities to fabricate their own designs.  It's very exciting,” she says.