Design thinking drives problem solving at Heatherwood


April 14, 2016

Photo by Jennifer Simms Heatherwood Elementary School student Simon Schmid creates a prototype of his play structure with the help of his mom, Kate Schmid, during the school’s Design Thinking Challenge Night.

A new play structure. The best backpack ever. Over 300 Heatherwood Elementary School parents and students used the Design Thinking method to dream up solutions for common elementary school problems, at the first ever family challenge night on Thursday, April 7. Participants worked together as a family to design and build a product prototype, which they presented to a classroom of participants.

“I liked all the colors and using all the puff balls,” second grader Kaitlyn Tschoepe said as she explained the climbing wall she and her mom created for their play structure.

“It was fun because my mom helped me do all the stuff,” Heatherwood second-grader Simon Schmid said of his zip line and pool creation. “It’s just fun to design all this stuff I want to happen.”

The family challenge night replaces Heatherwood’s traditional science fair and learning fair event. “Both events became less and less a part of the curriculum, and more and more a showcase of parent talent,” Heatherwood Principal Brent Caldwell said when explaining the motivation for the change. Caldwell challenged the staff to consider, “How could we redo the fair to make it more student led?” They decided Design Thinking was the perfect solution.

Design Thinking is a method of critical thinking designed by professors at Stanford University. The philosophy is taught through Stanford’s, to university students, as well as educators and business leaders. The process consists of five steps: interviewing the end user, defining the problem, brainstorming possible solutions, creating a prototype and collecting feedback.

“Most of my staff has done a considerable amount of inquiry-based learning professional development in their years," Caldwell explained. "What makes Design Thinking different than most models is the empathy piece. You’re really training people how to talk to the end user and get information about what they need. And the process is all based on the end users’ need and solving that problem rather than the one we think exists.”

Caldwell introduced the Design Thinking philosophy to Heatherwood as a recommendation from the School Accountability Committee (SAC), which was looking for a way to make Heatherwood stand out among all the excellent education opportunities in Gunbarrel. “We all agreed we were missing our own brand,” Caldwell explained.

A parent, who’d previously worked with Design Thinking when she lived in the Bay Area in Calif., suggested the philosophy. After meeting with a local Design Thinking educator, Caldwell was sold and, thanks to PTO funding, began training his staff.

Though school-wide instruction for students began this school year, third grade teacher Cathy Zimmerman was so excited about the philosophy that she challenged last-year’s class to use the method to create a solution for the congestion and noise in the cafeteria. Students collaborated to create both temporary and long-term solutions, and their changes, including redirecting traffic flow and opening the outdoor amphitheater for seating, were implemented with great success at the start of the 2015-16 school year.

“The students really got an idea of what it is like to address a problem, think about how to solve the problem, and actually see their ideas come to fruition. They were so proud and excited,” Zimmerman said of the experience.

After the family challenge event, Caldwell plans to determine whether or not the school will officially adopt the Design Thinking philosophy. “I asked for [the staff’s] 100 percent buy-in through the challenge night and then an open debrief about the future of the implementation,” he explained.

However, based on the enthusiasm from teachers and parents thus far, Caldwell is confident that Design Thinking is at Heatherwood to stay. “I don’t ever remember being as excited about a project in my sixteen years of teaching,” he said.


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