Why Design Thinking?

Soliciting user feedback.

Soliciting user feedback.

There are various approaches to learning in a Makerspace.  In the GCAA Makerspace we primarily use Design Thinking, a human-centered framework where products and processes are designed entirely around & for an end-user.  

We use design thinking for four reasons:

1) It’s a simple process that takes lots of practice to master (like learning an instrument or the other various arts pathways at our school).

2) It’s applicable to solving “bugs” that students encounter on a daily basis.  “How might we design a way to reduce tardies?”

3) It’s relevant to any profession: educationcomputer programming, business, medicine, etc.  Most any real-world problem can likely be solved with a design thinking approach.

4) Given the “human-centered” approach, students learn about themselves and others in an authentic way.

When visitors tour the makerspace, they often initially perceive our work to be building balsa bridges, simple machines, and Rube Goldberg devices.  While there is definitely a value to non-human centered engineering projects, we’ve shifted away from them.  I found that the competitive nature of engineering challenges tends to be discouraging to some students and the iterative nature of design thinking.  I’m often reminded of the Marshmallow Challenge – how motivated would participants be to build another tower after working 18 minutes on that first one?  I’ve found that students are way more motivated to build, re-build, re-empathize, and re-ideate when there is an actual human user of their product.

For many engineering challenges the “empathy” portion of design thinking could be switched to to “research.”  Rather than observing, interviewing, or immersing oneself in the shoes of a user, students could collect and condense background information on the problem.  If you do this, be cautious about students who get “stuck” in the research phase.  Remember the marshmallow challenge and how a bias toward action tends to result in the best product!  Prototype <-> Test!  After the research phase, students could define the challenge, ideate solutions, prototype, test, and iterate. 

Alternatively, most engineering challenges (as they’re presented in curriculum documents) could be shifted to a human-centered design challenge.  In fact, I used design thinking to work through how one might do that.

Empathy:  A teacher wants to set up a catapult contest, but acknowledges that it doesn’t necessarily align with Design Thinking.

Define:  How might we turn a catapult launch into a Design Thinking challenge?


-Students could design catapult related games for users to play.

-Students could design a user-friendly manual for operation of their catapults.

-The challenge could be “get your ball to the target in the most interesting way” with users voting & providing feedback.


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