“Houston, We’ve Had a Problem.”

Why Design Thinking and Why Now?

Reflection on 6th Grade Design Thinking Lesson

It was 12:30 p.m. and a few seconds away from the end of the lunch period. I couldn’t wait to facilitate an introductory lesson on Design Thinking with sixth grade students at Ashley Falls. I rehearsed my introduction that I planned to share with students in my head as the TV projected an image of an eagle with the words, “Design Thinking in the Eagle’s Nest” towards the back of the classroom.

“Good afternoon, my name is Sarah Raskin and I’m a Design Engineer. It is my job to….and… Today, we will use Design Thinking to address a current student need at Ashley Falls. Design Thinking is…”

    As I continued practicing my spiel, I realized this was all wrong. In my work as a Design Engineer, it is my goal to facilitate opportunities for inquiry, deep critical thinking, problem-solving and increased student voice and choice over the learning experience. So, why am I planning to tell kids the definition of Design Thinking and what I do as a Design Engineer? 


    The bell rang and students began trickling into the classroom. Eyes shot to the screen and a few students uttered, “Design Thinking in the Eagle’s Nest?” As students settled into their seats, I introduced myself by name and position and left it to the students to fill in the rest. I continued by asking, “When you see the words Design Thinking, what comes to mind?” After a minute or so of thinking time, students were encouraged to share their ideas. Student responses included, “I think it means you think about how you would design something like a house,” and “It means to think outside of the box.” Intrigued by this last comment, I asked the student to explain what it means to “think outside of the box?” The student elaborated, “This means you think of new ways to do something. New possibilities.” As the student spoke, memories of scenes from the film, “Apollo 13” filled my mind, and I briefly described the events of the the mission to the class.

“After nearly 56 hours in space, Apollo 13 was looking like the smoothest flight of the NASA program, until tragedy struck. Following a routine inspection of equipment aboard the module, the No. 2 oxygen tank ruptured, and shortly after, the No.1 tank also failed. The command module’s normal supply of electricity, light, and water were lost, and the crew was about 200,000 miles from Earth. With limited time and supplies, the only hope of saving the lives of the astronauts aboard the lunar module rested in the hands of NASA scientists at home in Houston. They had to think outside of the box.”

    This brief vignette built a sense of urgency for our work, and with that, we launched into our Design Scenario: “How might we, the student leaders at Ashley Falls, anticipate potential hazards during recess and P.E. periods to ensure the safety of all students?” Using observational data collected by the students, they identified a list of concerns and hazards that can cause student injuries. After analyzing this list for patterns, the students selected three concerns from which to brainstorm solutions, design prototypes representing their solutions, and share their prototypes with classmates to gain feedback. With only 20 minutes provided to design a solution for one identified problem, the students relied on their personal strengths and interests to demonstrate their ingenious ideas. Some chose to work individually, while others worked in groups. Some used straws, craft sticks, and cardboard to engineer physical models to represent their ideas, while others relied on their artistic and technological talents to draft 2D drawings in Google Draw or on a blank piece of paper. But all students, ignited their genius within to bring awareness to an authentic student need and develop plausible solutions.

    As we wrapped up the lesson, it was time for students to reflect on their experience. Through a class discussion, I asked, “What is one thing you learned from this experience?” A deeply reflective student shared, “I learned that there are many problems, but I can fix them!” It was a drop the mic moment and I proudly shared, “You have unlocked the purpose for Design Thinking and you are all Design Engineers.” 

    Of course, I couldn’t get off that easily, as the kids wanted to know if Apollo 13 ever arrived safely back to Earth. In sharing the good news, my mind wandered off to my favorite scene from the film. Who could forget when James Lovell’s mother heard the news of the accident aboard the module, and looking at her scared granddaughter, confidently proclaimed, “If they can get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy can land it!”

    You see, we don’t lead this work because it is the educational buzzword du jour, or to “innovate” for the sake of doing so. We believe it is our societal imperative to empower our students with the applied skills and dispositions to be problem-seekers and problem-solvers. We need our Jimmys and our Janes prepared to find solutions to problems that we can’t begin to predict.

AF Design Thinking