Design thinking—an approach to innovation practiced by product designers, inventors, and entrepreneurs—is making its way into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning in and out of school. Many STEM educators are already well-versed in one version or another of the engineering design process. So, you might be wondering what design thinking has to offer that is new and different. Although the similarities are many (both are iterative processes that include steps such as understanding the problem, brainstorming possible solutions, creating and testing prototypes, making improvements, and learning from failure), the differences are nontrivial.
When students engage in the engineering design process, the problems to be solved often are derived from hypothetical scenarios. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a cleanly defined and constrained problem allows students to focus on developing their engineering skills without having to commit the time necessary to understand the complexities and nuances of a real-life problem. Importantly, however, designing solutions for real-life problems provides learners with the opportunity to develop skills that aren’t easily taught through theoretical scenarios, skills that are important to life outside the classroom, now and in the future.
Design thinking is a human-centered process—focusing on real problems experienced by real people. It explicitly incorporates the practice of empathy. Empathy in this context means having a deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for—their needs, desires, environment, and motivations. It means setting aside your own assumptions about the world and how it works, being open to unanticipated insights, and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Clearly empathy comes into play when we define the problem, and it’s also important when we test a solution to see if it actually meets the identified need. The people who will ultimately be the users of the designed solution are included in the process. This process is more about designing with than designing for.
Design thinking can be applied to the creation of any product, including programs, curricula, and lessons. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we as STEM educators not only provided young people with the chance to engage in design thinking, but also applied it ourselves (and, notably, the practice of empathy as defined above) when we create and refine learning experiences—especially those designed to address achievement gaps, variability in access and opportunity to high-quality STEM learning, or underrepresentation in STEM careers.
Beth Murphy, PhD (email@example.com) is field editor for Connected Science Learning and an independent STEM education consultant with expertise in fostering collaboration between organizations and schools, providing professional learning experiences for educators, and implementing program evaluation that supports practitioners to do their best work.