"Teaching Design Thinking in Cheltenham"

Gerald Aungst

Challenge Consultant

Cheltenham School District


     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 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.

iLab Rotations

     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.

Maker Hour

     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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"Peter's Chair: A design thinking exercise"

Amy Musone

Technology Support Teacher

Central York School District


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.

Shared Planning Document: Peter's Chair Unit Plan

Event Kickoff: Classes from 4 buildings (2 districts) met via Zoom. They introduced themselves. They were introduced to the experience. The meeting agenda is outlined here.

L: Look, Listen, Learn
Each class read and discussed the story. Then, they added ideas to this shared document. The purpose of this collaboration was to not only share their understanding of the character, but to learn if others agreed with their assessment.

A: Ask Tons Of Questions
Here, children worked in small groups to dig deeper and explore what else they could uncover about Peter. A discussion protocol was used to keep conversations focused and ensure equity in speaking and listening.

U: Understand The Problem
Children had an opportunity to begin thinking of the research they have done (getting to know the character) and the problem of him not having a chair. All children participated in a rapid prototyping session. They were given 90 seconds to create a design they thought would be good for Peter. This was repeated three times. Children had to explain and defend their design ideas. (Defending Ideas)

N: Navigate Ideas Small teams of children got together. They shared their designs. They worked together to create a must-have list of design features based on their prototypes and discussions.

C: Create A Prototype Teams of learners worked together to create a 3D prototype. Classrooms used paper, Model Magic, and/or play dough. They worked to share their work with the other classes using Flip Grid.

H: Highlight & Fix Classes looked at the posted Flip Grid videos and left feedback for the different groups. Classes looked at the feedback from the videos. They discussed chair features with their class. They took the best parts of each design to create a final class chair. (Sample video clip)

The chair was created in Tinkercad. Each class reviewed their chair and collaboratively worked together to refine the class chair.

LAUNCH: Classes got together via Zoom to share their final chair design. The chairs were printed using a 3D printer.

* Chair maker, Peter Danko visited one of the schools to share his craft. Other classes had the opportunity to connect using Zoom. (Video)

One teacher had her learners document the entire process using Book Creator. The books were filled with images, video clips, lists, and reflections.

Reflection: It was really fun to watch this collaborative project play out. Although the base plan was the same, teachers adjusted to make the project work for their children. I heard from teachers that children were thinking deeply. That was confirmed when talking with children. We knew it would be impossible to connect synchronously during every step of the process so we employed some asynchronous tools to keep that connection going. The connections gave learners a purpose for making connections and opportunities to practice caring, sharing, and respect online.

Learners had a lot of opportunity to be creative and make decisions based upon evidence. It provided them a process to creatively solve a problem that was given to them via storybook.  I think it is a first step in empowering learners to take on challenges that are important to them. And hopefully it served as a catalyst for educators as they create authentic learning experiences for children.

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"Ready, Set, Code with Dash!"

Sara Heintzelman

Technology Integration Specialist/Adjunct Professor

Centennial School of Lehigh University


     Students with emotional and behavioral disorders struggle with basic social skills and classroom expectations. While social skills instruction can include direct instruction on appropriate use of social skills, it is challenging to create authentic scenarios where students can engage in collaborative tasks that may become frustrating and require the use of anger management strategies. To address the need for authentic social skills situations where students could participate in meaningful social skills lessons, a social skills unit around coding robots was developed. The purpose of this unit was to introduce students to basic block coding while coding robots to follow our school-wide expectations.

     At Centennial School, students are taught our five school-wide expectations. These expectations are operationally defined in all areas of the school.

     - Be There, Be Ready

    - Be Responsible

     - Be Respectful

    - Keep Hands and Feet Safe

     - Follow Directions

     Throughout social skills instruction, students are explicitly taught how to follow expectations in the classroom, common areas (e.g., conference room, hallway, gym,library, kitchen, playground), and bus. At the beginning of the year, students spend social skills classes doing various activities to practice the expectations in each of these areas around the school. To introduce this social skills and coding unit, students were exposed to basic block coding through Scratch Jr. For this specific coding unit, we focused on following expectations during a student’s morning routine. First, students used their iPads and the app Notability to draw out the hallway and the path they take from the entrance of the building into the classroom where they greeted teachers and peers. Next, students worked in groups of 2-3 to code the path from the entrance to the end of the students’ morning routines with the app Blockly. Using the recording audio features, students recorded themselves greeting teachers and peers they typically see along their morning routine. Students were assigned different roles: time keeper, coder, and robot manager.

Time Keeper: Keep track of when students need to be back in the classroom and remind students in the group to stay focused.

Coder: Use the iPad to type in the code the group agrees on after conversation.

Robot Manager: Picks up the robot with two hands and moves it to the starting point to run the code. Keeps the robot from moving too close to the walls.

To try the code, students connected Dash robots from Wonder Workshop and ran the lines of code. Throughout the project, students encountered naturally frustrating situations such as entire lines of code deleting, the robot not pairing, the robots stopping in the middle of the code, peers disagreeing with ideas, and not liking their assigned job. Each of the two small groups had an assigned teacher who worked through these areas of need with students. When students became frustrated, we prompted them to use anger management strategies and to communicate respectfully with their groups.

     Ultimately, students took about 5 class periods (each about 45 minutes) to plan the code, run it several times, complete the final code run, and create the iMovie. During the final run of code, students used an iPhone mount on top of the Dash robots to capture the lines of code. Students also setup iPads along the paths of the robot to capture different angles of the robot. After this footage was collected, students Airdropped the footage from the iPhone to their iPads where they spliced the footage from multiple angles in iMovie to create a culminating video. Students narrated their voices over top of the video to explain how the robot was following the hallway and classroom expectations.

     Students enjoyed the coding and found that running their code with the robots was reinforcing. Although this project was not graded with a specific rubric, students were awarded points daily using their point sheets. The biggest reflection from this project was that it took significantly longer for students to draft the code before they were successful with running the code and the robots. For planning purposes, allow for an extra period or two incase students lose their code due to an app crash.

Looking for more ideas on how to use Dash and Dot in the classroom? Visit Wonder Workshop’s classroom resources.

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