July 30, 2012

Middlefield educators bring design thinking to CT

Contributed photos
Contributed photos
The Independent Day School of Middletown implemented a new teaching method called design thinking.

The Independent Day School of Middlefield is the state's first institution to adopt a new problem solving initiative called design thinking.

Design thinking is a method of problem solving that promotes leadership, creativity, and teamwork. Students, educators, and employees have found the process of researching, brainstorming, visualizing, and creating to be beneficial when working toward accomplishing a goal. Nearly all problems can be solved, but they require recognition that the solution often involves a degree of positive thinking.

"Failures and challenges are things to be overcome instead of expected boundaries," said Andrew Watt, director of the school's design lab. "The core of design thinking involves this philosophy."

Independent Day School began planning the curriculum change in 2008 and design thinking launched in 2011 through extracurricular activities, as well as before-and-after-school competitions. Participation was on a voluntary level, with students choosing to take part in projects outside of the required curriculum. Positive feedback from students and parents demonstrated the demand for design thinking. Now the school plans to integrate design thinking into the daily curriculum in the near future.

The school educates students pre-K through grade eight.

"The truth is that everybody is a designer at some point or another," said Watt. "Creativity is something that can't be taught as a right or wrong principle, but should be taught as a methodology that calls for rationale and imagination."

The first New England Design Symposium was held at the Middlefield school in March, inviting schools across New England to participate in design thinking challenges. This year's theme was landscaping.

"As I observed the students, I realized how effective design thinking is as a problem solving method to an authentic problem," said Ashley LaParre, teacher at the Renzulli Academy in Hartford for high performing low-income students. "My team of five or six students naturally worked together, as their strengths were different and all served a purpose, whether it was public speaking, drawing, or leading the group in collaboration."

Independent Day School's first design thinking challenge was developed for three teams of six students each; the topic was the school's energy use. Each team was given an information packet with measurements of the school, number of computers, enrollment of students, and number of faculty members. The goal was to come up with the most energy efficient proposal at the most affordable price.

Teams were given real data showing the electricity usage of prior years and told to act as consulting groups with the school serving as their client. The students had access to the Internet for research and were required to make a presentation using modest building materials. Each team had a different approach to the task, with geothermal energy, non-alternative energy, and hydropower all presented as possible solutions.

"From the educator standpoint, it was rewarding to see the students come up with three entirely different approaches to the same problem," said John Barrengos, head of the school. "We succeeded at engaging kids creatively while sparking their competitive spirits."

Another project focused on building the tallest tower with 20 pieces of spaghetti, a yard of tape, and a marshmallow that had to be the top of the tower. Rather than experimenting with a $50,000 satellite dish, students taught themselves architectural and engineering skills with basic materials and minimal risk, said Watt.

Independent Day School was inspired by the Nueva School in Hillsborough, Calif., and Stanford University's d.school. Both schools have been recognized as leaders in design thinking and have established programs for their students to gain experience working with this model of problem solving.

"Design thinking is a process crucial to any kind of project in any discipline, where you have to analyze and identify characteristics," said Watt. "Design thinking promotes creativity and yields good results."

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