Design Thinking Meets Computer Science

What is design thinking? Our Learning Village Coordinator of Computer Science Kim Wilkens is here to walk us through the answer!

Design thinking is a way of looking at a problem from the point of view of those it affects and iterating on solutions. Computer science (CS) offers the tools and skills needed to prototype and create those solutions. Projects that incorporate design thinking and computer science unlock powerful student-driven, interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning.

I first experienced the design thinking process alongside high school students in the inaugural Bio-Med Tech-Girls program. David Chen, U.Va. Biomedical Engineering (BME) Coulter Program Director, Rachel Smith, U.Va. BME graduate, and I launched the program in 2014 as an outreach effort to introduce young women to computer science and engineering. David had been incorporating design thinking into his classes at U.Va. and Rachel wanted to try it out in our program. I was excited to incorporate a real-world design challenge and it proved to be a powerful experience for all of us. The feedback from the participants made me realize I needed to start incorporating design thinking into projects at school. This feedback included:

"The design challenge was definitely new to me; I've never done anything like it before. All of the other engineering things I've been to always showed us other people's projects, but never got to offer us an opportunity to do a project ourselves."

"You gave us a real problem and expected us to come up with a good solution, and even have us build a prototype. Normally adults don't understand younger people are able to do this stuff."

What is design thinking? 
Design thinking is a method of problem solving that starts with empathy. Projects infused with design thinking tap into students’ intrinsic motivation as they solve relevant, real-world problems. Along the way, students build up their skills of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and compassion. The role of the teacher during the project is to be a facilitator. Instead of dispensing knowledge, teachers help guide students through their own learning and often learn alongside them. Design thinking is a relatively recent phenomenon and there are several flavors to choose from including models from IDEO and the at Stanford. The strategies below follow the DEEPdt process outlined by Mary Cantwell.

Step 1: Discover
This is the stage of researching, asking questions, observing, and immersing yourself in your environment. You are looking for something that’s not quite right and finding a problem to work on that catches your eye. 

What this looks like:

During this step, I also introduce students to the CS-related prototyping tools they will use for the project, like Scratch, MakeyMakey, Hummingbird Robotics, or micro:bit. I employ a strategy I like to call "hole in the wall learning.” Inspired by Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall project, the idea is to get students hands-on with these tools and mostly let them figure out how they work through trial and error. I do provide some scaffolding in the form of challenge or basic setup instructions, but I really want students to get a feel for what’s possible with the tools by playing around with them.

Step 2: Empathize
The next phase of the process is to empathize - to walk that mile in someone else’s shoes and then define a need they are facing. Exploring empathy means stepping outside your comfort zone and having difficult conversations. Those are hard to plan for and there may be failures of understanding and communication or in how an activity play outs. Here are 10 steps for discussing failure with kids.

What this looks like:

  • An empathy homework assignment for students, like spend 15 minutes doing a regular activity without the use of your arms. Afterwards, reflect on: 1. What was the most challenging thing to do? 2. How did you feel while you were doing this assignment? 3. What most surprised you about doing this assignment?
  • Completing an empathy map, in person, if you have the opportunity to interact one-on-one or based on a relevant video, podcast, or blog post.
  • Writing a need statement - a concise statement that describes a problem the person/population affected is facing along with the desired outcome while ensuring it does not focus on a specific solution.

Step 3: Experiment 
The next phase of the process is to brainstorm, experiment, prototype, and iterate. This is the stage where you really hand control of the project over to the students and this can often seem a bit chaotic and messy. 

What this looks like:

  • Brainstorming sessions in which students are challenged to come up with a large number of ideas to solve the problem in a very short time period, e.g. 20 ideas in 5 minutes. No idea is too crazy at this stage. 
  • Introducing design constraints, e.g. time, resources, scope of project and rubrics (if you have them).
  • Teams picking one solution to take to prototype stage by removing ideas that do not fit within design constraints, grouping the remaining ideas into overarching themes or ideas and ranking them based on how well you think they address the need statement. 
  • Sketching a design and storyboarding idea.
  • Trying out different materials, testing often, getting feedback and ensuring everyone on the team is on the same page and can explain what they are working on and the process they have been through.
  • Recognizing frustration is a normal part of the learning process. (Failure, Frustration & Fearlessness)
  • Reflecting at the end of each work day - what did you accomplish, what are you going to work on next and what, if anything, if blocking your progress.

Step 4: Produce
The final step is to produce something, so that you can get feedback to make it better. 

What this looks like:

St. Anne's-Belfield School Perspective Blog logo


Looking for fun things to do at home? We've got you covered!

Download our e-book for 30+ virtual field trips.

Get Your E-Book