The Most Common Questions K12 Educators Have About Design —Featuring Nicole Cerra

Ariel Raz
Ariel Raz
Oct 18 · 3 min read

In this first article in the Q&A series we’ll talk about timing, scoping, and facilitating design projects in the classroom. Responses are from Nicole Cerra, the Director of Learning at Design Tech High School and edited by the Stanford d.school.

Elementary student walks down a tunnel made by educators and their arms
Elementary student walks down a tunnel made by educators and their arms
Teachers celebrating K12 students after their first design thinking experience.

Over the last few months, the K12 Lab team has been gathering questions from participants who attend our introductory program at the d.school, Discover Design Thinking. As we poured over the many questions, we realized they pointed to many lessons worth contemplating as we bring creativity and design into classrooms, schools, and the education system.

It didn’t feel right to keep these questions to ourselves. So we compiled, summarized, and synthesized every last query into a few large categories and sent them to experienced educators in our network. Without further adieu, here’s the first response from Nicole Cerra, Director of Learning at Design Tech High School, a public charter high school in the Bay Area.

How do I time, scope, and facilitate design thinking projects for students?

Nicole: “At d.tech, we recently ran a few 10-hour design challenges over several days with our 10th grade students. The entire grade had to address the needs of our campus operations team, and there were a few different challenges the teams could work on. Despite the fact that students had the same activities, same tools, and the same amount of time, some of the challenges were better scoped than others, and that led to different learning experiences and project outcomes.

The most successful prototypes and most fruitful learning experiences occurred for the teams working on redesigning our dining room. There are several reasons that the time, scope, and facilitation of this challenge were effective:

  1. Just the right amount of open-ended-ness: Design thinking was the right tool for this job. There were a lot of ways for the student designers to reframe the problem and that created multiple possible solutions. Importantly the client, our facilities director, had more than one need, some of which were explicit and others that were implicit. This made the design work creative because students were not simply executing on their client’s vision.
  2. Access: The problem space was highly accessible to students. The dining room is a place that is easy for the students to observe and they required no special permissions to be there or to make changes. They had repeated opportunities to observe and test with real users and they had a lot of materials on hand for experimentation.
  3. Clear Expectations: The client had appropriate expectations and she was amenable to this being a learning experience for students, even if the design work missed the mark at times.
  4. Predictability: Because the problem space, in this case the dining room, was contained and familiar, it was easy for facilitators to predict constraints and coach students to respond to those constraints. These constraints include time, dimensions, objects in the physical space, and the essential needs of the users.

Why were some of the other projects less successful? The answer boils down to insufficient pre-work to determine if the challenge was a good fit for the time and process we had. Here are a couple of mistakes we made:

  • Not suitable to design thinking: One of our clients had a problem with convenient access to her files; however, the solution didn’t really require design thinking. This client had already identified an elegant and efficient solution beforehand. She genuinely didn’t need design work, she needed someone to execute on her idea.
  • Not enough constraints: One challenge centered around the fact that our front desk administrator sometimes misses deliveries or visitors when she has to step away from the desk. In presenting the challenge, we presented no legal or monetary constraints. Student prototypes quickly veered to sophisticated, high tech concepts that would be difficult and costly to make. This made for a frustrating experience when the time frame was just 10 days.
  • Not enough distance: In some challenges, students were asked to solve a problem that was too familiar. For example, one challenge revolved around keeping the campus clean during lunch time. The teams with this challenge had a hard time getting beyond their own experience and their belief that the campus was in fact clean after lunch. They felt blocked when it came to identifying underlying needs or motivations.”

Stanford d.school

Learning shared by the Stanford d.school community

Ariel Raz

Written by

Ariel Raz

Stanford d.school

Learning shared by the Stanford d.school community

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