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Design Thinking and STEM Education

January 27, 2017


The term “design thinking” may sound a bit artsy for people who believe problem solving only requires hard science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. According to the Fast Company staff, however, “The methodology commonly referred to as design thinking is a proven and repeatable problem-solving protocol that any business or profession can employ to achieve extraordinary results.”[1] I believe problem solving is one the most important skills we can teach our children. That’s why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools near where we live. I’m convinced design thinking will complement any STEM education curriculum — and design thinking has the added benefit of helping people become more innovative in their problem-solving activities. John Spencer (@spencerideas), an assistant professor at George Fox University, believes students should be innovative; but, he doesn’t believe today’s schools are structured to help them be creative. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “the system isn’t designed for innovation. For years, schools have been stuck in a one-size-fits-all factory model, where students passively consume content.”[2] He produced the following video to explain his position.





The Fast Company staff says there are four fundamental steps in design thinking. They are: 1) Defining the problem; 2) Creating and considering many options; 3) Refining selected directions (which includes experimentation); and 4) Picking the winner and executing. It takes little imagination to see how those steps complement the scientific method which is more often tied to STEM education. Spencer believes there are at least ten benefits students gain when they engage in design thinking. Students:


  1. Move from engaged to empowered. Design thinking honors student agency, because they are the ones asking the questions, doing the research, generating ideas, and creating the final product. When they own the creative process, they own their learning.
  2. Become problem-solvers. Real problem-solvers. The kind of problem-solvers who actually create the solutions. It’s not always easy. It can take time. Sometimes they get frustrated by all the mistakes. But by the end, they view themselves as problem-solvers — and this is the kind of self-concept that continues outside of school.
  3. Grow more empathetic. Design thinking begins with a place of humility. You aren’t just making something. You are making something that serves an audience. This requires deep empathy. It might be a service project or a product or something you are publishing. Each approach requires a different kind of empathy. If this happens in a culturally responsive way, students can also learn cultural humility.
  4. Remain curious. Design thinking begins with this sense of wonder and curiosity. It honors this natural desire to explore and to ask tons of questions. Too often, students internalize the idea that learning is all about answering questions. However, design thinking reminds us that learning begins with inquiry.
  5. Learn how to work collaboratively. Traditional school work requires students to be dependent on their teacher as the source of all information. Individualized learning shifts to independence. But design thinking teaches students to work interdependently, balancing the needs of the group with the need for personal expression.
  6. View themselves as makers. By sharing their product with the world, they participate in a global community of creativity. They can also share their creative journey in what Austin Kleon describes as “showing your work.” In the process, they are more likely to appreciate the creativity around them.
  7. Value the diversity of creative mindsets. Here students experience a bigger definition of creativity. In design thinking, students might be hacking a system, solving a problem, engineering a solution, tinkering, tweaking a process, testing ideas, gathering data or dreaming up new ideas. In the process, they learn to value the creative mindsets of everyone around them.
  8. Learn the power of creative constraint. For all the talk of “thinking outside the box,” this is a chance for students to learn how to “think inside the box,” working with specific limitations as they prototype. Here, they learn that limitations are often the very design features for their finished work.
  9. See the value of iterations. Too often, students are punished for getting the wrong answer. They are stuck in grading systems where they get an average on their scores. With design thinking, they have an entire phase devoted to refining their work. This doesn’t mean they don’t need to have any deadlines, but it does mean they have the time and the permission to keep working on a product until they are ready to send it to an authentic audience.
  10. Become creative risk-takers. Design thinking encourages students to engage in creative risk-taking at every stage. In the research phase, students can engage in divergent thinking, learning that every question matters. In the ideation phase, they get over the fear that their ideas might be “dumb” as they generate and combine ideas. In the creating and revising phases, they realize that the only true failure is giving in to fear of failure.


Those are all skills or characteristics students need to succeed in life — regardless of the career path they choose. Design thinking is being taught and used in some of our best universities, but Spencer wants to see it introduced at a much earlier age. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a former IBM executive, believes that design thinking may be the new liberal arts that complements the sciences.[3] He writes, “Design thinking is now being applied to abstract entities, such as systems and services, as well as to devise strategies, manage change and solve complex problems.” He goes on to quote Roger Martin, a former Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, who stated, “Learning how to think critically — how to imaginatively frame questions and consider multiple perspectives — has historically been associated with a liberal arts education.” Design thinking may sound like a liberal arts approach, but scientists, engineers, technicians, and mathematicians should all feel comfortable with its methodology.


Educator Jackie Gerstein (@jackiegerstein) adds this caveat about design teaching, “Design Thinking is a great skill for students to acquire as part of their education. But it is one process like the problem-solving model or the scientific method. As a step-by-step process, it becomes a type of box. Sometimes we need to go beyond that box; step outside of the box.”[4] Gerstein is correct that the design thinking should be considered a tool in a larger kit. Nevertheless, it’s a good tool.


[1] Staff, “Design Thinking… What is That?Fast Company, 20 March 2006.
[2] John Spencer, “10 Things That Happen When Students Engage in Design Thinking,” John Spencer Blog, 8 November 2016.
[3] Irving Wladawsky-Berger, “Is Design Thinking the New Liberal Arts?The Wall Street Journal, 4 November 2016.
[4] Jackie Gerstein, “Hacking the Classroom: Beyond Design Thinking,” User Generated Education, 11 March 2013.

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