Authentic Design Challenges in Project-Based Learning: Fostering Innovators

“It always takes more than one idea to succeed.” — Trey, Second Grader at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (Atlanta, GA)

Since the Buck Institute for Education changed their Project Design matrix to include “Challenging Problem or Question,” instead of just “Driving Question,” the interconnections between Project- Based Learning (PBL) and Design Thinking (DT) have become more salient for many educators. In particular, using authentic design challenges and Design Thinking strategies in a PBL context opens the door for more innovative, creative products from students, engaging the best elements of kinesthetic learning with the central PBL tenets of choice and public product.

Several teachers in World Leadership School’s Virtual Teacher Institute are building the perfect marriage between the two strategies. The bottom line? If students have a chance to design and redesign using Design Thinking, their Project-Based Learning products will be necessarily innovative, their creativity will grow, and we may well be fostering the next generation of inventors who can solve at least a few of the world’s pressing problems.

At Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (MVPS) in Atlanta, Georgia, the 2nd grade teacher team redeveloped an existing “Invention Convention” unit into a true PBL with a design focus. After voicing concerns that parents were getting too involved in students’ inventions, since all work was happening at home, we decided to do a second product that would be developed entirely in small groups at school. While the individual inventions would benefit people in general, the new strand would benefit the MVPS community. Using DT strategies like empathy interviews, students gathered information from adults about needs in their building, and they worked together to design solutions to those needs. The addition of empathy interviews during a PBL experience can go a long way in improving what students produce and how engaged they are throughout the project — plus they help to humanize topics being explored, an important goal in global education.

2nd grader from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School presenting at the “Invention Convention.”

The teachers embedded a new economics strand to the project by having students work with a limited budget, even having them “buy” their supplies with play money in class, so that they’d better understand the difficult financial choices inventors have to make. Teachers also developed more critique and revision cycles into the project, with more attention to documenting the process through design journals, so that students would learn about the importance of taking risks and working toward mastery. They found that the in-class work improved how independently students worked on their inventions at home, as they had a sense of process from their work in class and knew better how to handle the work at home with less help from parents.

Students’ reflections made it clear that deep learning took place along the way, and not only about inventions. 2nd grader Carter remarked, “One reason I enjoyed the invention unit is because I learned about people who changed the world.” Several students noted the importance of trial and error — and of resiliency when things still don’t work after many attempts. According to 2nd grader Kendall, “I learned that it’s not easy building inventions because you work hard to get it right and it still doesn’t work.” Most important, perhaps, was the new collaborative product developed in class. 2nd grader Charlotte noted, “I like to see people collaborating and working together. Working together gets things done faster. I bet in your job you will have to work with other people.” And 2nd grader Trey recognized the true power of collaboration when he told his teachers, “It always takes more than one idea to succeed.” For more on this project — and a list of students’ individual inventions — see this article on the MVPS website.

2nd grader from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School presenting at the “Invention Convention.”

Also at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, three high school teachers developed a trans-disciplinary Project-Based Learning experience across three courses with almost no shared students, a feat in and of itself. Focusing on process more than product, Robin Mathews (Algebra II; mostly 10th graders), T.J. Edwards (Technology, Engineering & Design; mostly 9th-10th graders), and Zach Strother (AP Physics; mostly 11th-12th graders) crafted a design challenge around redesigning the bicycle. Students in T.J.’s course began the project with an entry event in which they disassembled and then reassembled a bicycle. They ran empathy interviews with several bicycle commuters in their community, a Design Thinking strategy employed to help identify the needs of the user before beginning to prototype new designs. Based on the feedback from these interviews, T.J.’s students went on to develop initial design briefs, which were passed to Zach’s AP Physics students to ensure that the design adaptations would improve the bike’s performance. AP Physics students made further alterations to ensure that physics issues were being addressed, and then passed their designs on to Robin’s Algebra II course, where students used their mathematics skills to ensure that the designs would function in real terms. Designs were passed back and forth between AP Physics and Algebra II several times, and finally went back to Technology, Engineering & Design for final prototyping.

This teacher trio learned a great deal about trans-disciplinary work, and now they are developing a template to help their colleagues identify intersections and develop similar “pass-off” projects that allow students to cross disciplinary lines in meaningful ways. We are also working to improve their bicycle project for next year, including a possible shift to wheelchair redesign in an effort to give the project more social importance. Additionally, we are adding a final build day that includes all three classes working together on the final designs because, as T.J. points out in his blog, product matters more to students’ sense of purpose and engagement than we realized initially. Check out Zach’s film below, with students’ reflections on the project.

At Town School for Boys in San Francisco, California, students in Chris Ceci-McGillis’s 5th grade Science class are hard at work building attachments for prosthetic hands which address specific needs expressed by children using prosthetics. Facilitated by eNABLE (http://enablingthefuture.org/), this contest is inspiring Chris’s students to be innovative in response to authentic needs, like a child who wants an attachment for his prosthetic which will make it easier for him to grip and manipulate the handlebars on his BMX bicycle.

5th grade Town School for Boys students work together to build attachments for prosthetic hands in their Science Class.

Chris’s students had the opportunity to Skype with a founder from eNABLE, who helped them understand the organization and answered questions that were coming up as the boys worked on their designs. Students also had the opportunity to Skype with Jonathan Reveal’s students at Ensworth School (Nashville, Tennessee), who have been building hands for a specific sport since February (See Jonathan’s blog to learn more). Chris’s students offered feedback on the 7th graders’ designs in a late phase of the work (Jonathan and Chris intend to Skype again in April, so that Chris’s students can receive feedback from Jonathan’s). These live experiences have increased engagement for both classrooms, and Chris has been thrilled by the level of engagement from her students, likely created by the combination of authentic needs and the opportunity to create solutions of their own design. Students are using video logs to track their progress, and are looking forward to sharing their attachments with the eNABLE community soon.

5th grade Town School for Boys students Skype with a founder from eNABLE.

At Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee, 7th grade Science teacher Jonathan Reveal wrapped up the prosthetics project he shared recently in his blog for WLS. Jonathan recognized how much power student choice really has, as his students worked in affinity teams to build prosthetics for use in specific sports. Working through challenges such as how the hand and wrist need to move to manipulate a hockey stick, students used Ensworth’s athletic coaches as experts on the muscle, tissue, and bone functions they were trying to recreate. As the result of a powerful inquiry session on materials with an Ensworth building maintenance engineer, students knew exactly what they needed to buy during their trip to the hardware store, a highlight for many students. They also enjoyed presenting for and being admired by Chris’s 5th graders more than a little.

7th grade Science students from Ensworth School worked in affinity teams to build prosthetic hands.

Most importantly, students got a chance to learn in a new way, and their reflections demonstrated it. 7th grader Milan wrote of the prosthetic project, “It impacted me because I got to learn things on my own as I went through the project. I also got to work with other people and learn with them instead of a teacher telling us everything through a lecture and giving us the notes.” 7th grader Anna noted the power of this kind of learning, writing, “Being able to make a hand really showed me how a hand worked. It was a new way of learning, and I have never done it before. I was able to test out different ideas, trying to replicate an actual hand. It was much better trying to make a hand, rather than just trying to understand how a hand works.”

7th grade Science students from Ensworth School worked in affinity teams to build prosthetic hands.

In thinking about his growth as a learner and the value of collaboration, 7th grader Hayden reflected, “I learned that not every idea works. You sometimes have to rethink your original idea to make it better. Then rethink, revise, rethink, and revise even more. I also learned that you may not have the best idea in the group. My partners, Anna and Ben, came up with ideas that worked better than mine more often than not. They really helped me understand how to work with a group.” And when it comes to taking risks and solving problems, 7th grader Patrick noted, “The hand project positively impacted my role as a problem-solver and risk taker. Working with my group was relaxing because nobody really freaked out when something went wrong. If there is a pattern, I am very confident that a relaxed team of builders such as us can get pretty far. This confidence has allowed me to become a better risk taker and a problem-solver.”

By connecting Design Thinking with Project-Based Learning, these amazing teams helped their students see how innovation and imagination can solve not just local challenges, but those faced by humans around the world. The design process required the kind of critique and revision PBL asks of students, and the resulting increases in risk taking and resilience will serve students well in any field. Most importantly, by grounding the design work in empathy interviews and authentic challenges, students were invited not only to witness the world as it is, but also to begin crafting the world as it might be.

— Jennifer D. Klein, Director of Professional Development

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