" IN MY CLASSROOM "
"Teaching Design Thinking in Cheltenham"
At Cheltenham Elementary School in the Cheltenham School District, we are in our second year of having a school makerspace. Last year, the students voted to name it the iLab, and we had a contest to create the logo. As our team of teachers was planning how we would set up and use the iLab, we collaborated with district STEM supervisor Brian Reilly and Instructional Tech supervisor Brandon Lutz. In line with district initiatives, our focus has been on creating project-based experiences that incorporate design thinking to support grade level curriculum and student interests.
Many different frameworks exist to teach and guide design thinking. Though we experimented at first with the excellent engineering design materials from Engineering is Elementary, we settled this year on the more widely applicable design thinking process from Stanford’s d.school. The five steps of Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test have become common language in the iLab and are informing everything we do.
At first we were concerned that the terminology might be a bit abstract for elementary age students, but as we have worked with projects and used the language, it’s clear that even young children can grasp the concepts and apply them successfully.
The iLab and how we use it at Cheltenham are themselves a work in progress and a result of using this design thinking process. We design a structure, schedule, or project, prototype it with a class or group of students, and then iterate on the process to improve it. Two of the ways that students currently access the iLab are working well and illustrate how design thinking is helping us enrich our STEM curriculum.
When our principal approached me in 2017 with the idea of creating a makerspace in the school, we very quickly agreed that it would be a space for all students and that everyone in the building should be able to use it. Though my primary role was gifted support, the makerspace would not be only for the gifted or high-achieving learners. The team we put together decided that classes should rotate through the iLab so that every student would have a baseline experience with technology and engineering.
This year, each class is scheduled twice during the year to come to work on a project in the iLab. Each project takes 4-6 sessions which occur over about two weeks. The projects are intended to connect with content or concepts in the regular grade level curriculum. Here are the projects we are doing this year:
To illustrate how these projects combine design thinking with hands-on making, let’s look specifically at the second grade fall project, Design a Playground. We told students that the township was developing a new playground and wanted input from them to help design a new structure. They spent some time on the school playground, taking notes and making sketches of how the equipment was constructed. When they began designing their equipment, we asked them to consider the needs of students with different needs, including students with disabilities. They built working prototypes using K’Nex.
The iLab rotation projects were chosen by teachers. To give space for students to pursue their own interests, this year we initiated Maker Hour. A variation on Genius Hour, this is an opportunity for a few students at a time to come to the iLab and work on projects they choose in ways they want to. My role as the teacher is to guide their explorations, give some parameters, teach them the design process, and supply advice and materials. The process starts with students making a proposal for their project. My only criterion is that the student must be able to explain why this particular project matters to them. As long as they can articulate why they care, almost anything goes. To keep the group size manageable, only a few students from each classroom can come each time. The classroom teacher and I collaborate to decide which students will come during the Maker Hour time.
I have a first grader writing a book about spiders, a third grader taking apart an old PC to figure out how it’s built, a fourth grader building a model of a Korean temple, and two second graders designing their own t-shirts. I have students building a model of a beach resort, a tiny house, a telescope, and a cardboard guitar. Many students wanted to learn more about coding or robotics after doing an Hour of Code activity back in December.
Maker Hour takes place once a week during our WIN period. WIN, or “What I Need”, is a time reserved for support and enrichment. Teachers do no new instruction, so this is the ideal time for students to come to the iLab and work on their passion projects.
As each student finishes his or her project, they complete a self-assessment and come up with a plan for sharing their work. At that point, they rotate out of Maker Hour and the next student from that classroom with a project idea comes in. The goal is to allow as many of the students as possible who have ideas to do a project.
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This winter, a team of classrooms (grades 1-3) collaborated as their classes worked through the design thinking process using the text, Peter's Chair and the LAUNCH Cycle. Teachers elaborated on an idea shared on Novel Engineering.
L: Look, Listen, Learn
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