As a 7th-grade science teacher, I love doing inquiry-based activities with my students. Some of these activities are typical examples of project work, which are a quick way for me to assess what students have learned. But if I have the time for my students to be creative and innovative, I extend a traditional project into a design thinking project.
How are they different?
A project is an individual or collaborative activity that is carefully planned to achieve a particular objective and has an alternative form of assessment. This is often a task where I provide explicit, detailed instructions. I list the required materials and may even give a closed, finite list of resources for limited research. Generally, I know the answers they will reach. I don’t necessarily want them to spend a lot of class time on it. I use projects as a quick, no-fuss way for the students to show me that they can look at the information I have given them and reproduce it in a prescribed visual format. On occasion, depending on time demands or curriculum requirements, this type of project is an effective way to assess content acquisition. However, sometimes I want to challenge my students to be creative and apply the facts they have learned to solve real-world problems. That is when I try to incorporate a design thinking activity.
The Typical Project: Construct an ROV
My students recently completed a Sea Perch project for which they constructed a small remotely operated vehicle (ROV) using a step-by-step instruction manual. They cut the PVC pipe that serves as the body of the ROV.
|They assembled the motors. They even soldered circuitry to make the remote control box that drives the ROV.||Once constructed, the ROV traveled through water. At the end of the project, students raced their ROVs through an obstacle course to determine which ROV had the fastest running time.||The students had a great time. They completed a cool project for our unit on ocean pollution.|
By doing this project, I know that they can build a ROV and race it through an obstacle course. But what if I want to challenge students to create a ROV that will be able to address a type of ocean pollutant? I could extend the ROV project into a design thinking activity.
Design thinking is a process of iterative steps that are used to solve a problem that is defined by others. The process involves the following steps:
- Empathize with your users—what are people experiencing?
- Define the problem—what is the main problem we want to solve?
- Ideate—come up with a variety of possible solutions to the problem.
- Prototype—create a workable model of the solution chosen.
- Test—try out the prototype for effectiveness and evaluate if revisions are needed.
When I assign my students a design thinking activity, I only tell them the problem to solve. I don’t tell them the result. I don’t give students step by step instructions as I do in a typical project. Instead, I ask them question…after question…after question to facilitate the research they conduct to find their own solution. Do they get frustrated? Absolutely! And that’s the point. I want students to grapple with the problem. If they find an “answer,” I ask if they have considered other possible solutions, especially those that are the complete opposite of the “answer” they like. As you can imagine, by this time, students are an amazing mixture of frustration, curiosity, and determination. This is when students are “in the zone” and alternative solutions start to flow.
Photo credit: Feedough
The Design Thinking Project: Solve Ocean Pollution
Previously, we had studied different types of pollution and their impacts on marine ecosystems, marine organisms, and even humans.
Empathize and Define the problem: I asked students how they could adapt their original ROV design to address any aspect of ocean pollution. Ideate: Students were not given instructions or materials. However, I encouraged them to engage governmental and private entities already working on the issue. One group is adapting their ROV motors to have more power, so that it can create a channel for plastic to flow through the bottom of the ROV as it collects microplastics in a net attached to the ROV frame. A second group is designing an attachment that will capture litter from local canals using a claw-type movement. The trash will be deposited in a net and properly disposed of upon the ROV’s return to shore. A third group is doing a hybrid of these ideas by joining multiple ROVs together to make one larger structure that can capture pollution from the water. All ideas are student-created. Prototypes: Using the design thinking process, they are making prototypes and doing simulations or demos of their solutions for our class. They must research to determine what materials are the most efficient, environmentally and economically. Testing: Once my students conduct trial runs of their adaptations, they will share the results with our administrators and solicit support to implement their designs on a larger scale from organizations involved in reducing ocean pollution. Students will of course spread awareness using appropriate social media protocols.
Projects vs Design Thinking
Projects and design thinking activities both serve a purpose in the classroom. When you want a quick, simple assessment of whether students have retained basic content, a project is great to use. Alternatively, if you want to assess how well your students can synthesize and transfer the skills and content in a unit to identify creative real-world solutions, a design thinking activity is more appropriate. Projects ask students to create with guardrails. When the guardrails are removed during design thinking activities, students are free to innovate and explore possibilities beyond the limits of their teacher’s imagination. However, as I’ve shown, you don’t have to create a design thinking project from scratch; you can extend a typical project by removing the guardrails so students can solve real-world problems.