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May 20, 2021

Have you thought about incorporating a long-term, project-based curriculum into your summer or next program year? Consider asking students to think about a need or frustration in their lives or the lives of others, something they’d like to do something about. Tell them to let their ideas “simmer” on their mind’s back burner for a while. You might even give them a full week to ponder a real-world problem before you tell them why you’re asking (i.e., to prepare them for a project where they’ll invent a possible solution). By blending the benefits of Y4Y resources on student voice and choice, design thinking and project-based learning, you can help your students discover how necessity is the mother of invention. Imagine their excitement when they experience their Eureka moment!

Let’s start by unpacking the steps of design thinking, with a spotlight on diffuse (“back-burner”) thinking and just how valuable it can be when it comes to innovation. The Y4Y Design Thinking Framework: Project Planning Template can help.

  • As a problem-solving approach, design thinking places human users at the center of all design. The first step in design thinking is to empathize with the people experiencing the problem so you can identify their needs. It may be a new concept to bring an emotionally charged word like empathy into STEM learning, but ultimately designers want to market their products, and the better their products match users’ needs, the more successful the product will be. Empathizing with users demands focused inquiry to collect data on user needs, but also contemplation of those data. What IS the necessity that will drive your students’ invention?
  • Next, students define the specific real-world problem their design will address. Borrowing from the Student Goal Setting and Reflection tools in the Y4Y Student Voice and Choice course, you can help students set goals for their project and reflect. That way, they can experience firsthand the value of both focused thinking (the kind required for things like organization and planning) and diffuse thinking (letting their minds work on the problem they want to solve when they’re not working on it directly).
  • In the next step of design thinking, students ideate. The architects of the design thinking process encourage a broad, big-picture approach to running every possible solution up that collaborative flagpole. Budget plenty of time for this step, and remind students of the kind of open-ended thinking that drove their original simmering on a frustration of their own or others.
  • Prototype is the step where students roll up their sleeves and build a solution. This is where design thinking and project-based learning overlap. Consult Y4Y’s Planner for Brainstorming, Project-Based Learning Budgeting tool and Group Discussion Guidelines for tips to complement the STEAM Activity Center Planner and STEAM Implementation Checklist. Building a prototype demands the most focused thinking yet, so help your students to understand the relationships between all the diffuse (back-burner) thinking that got them here, and how to develop the skill needed to shift gears to more concentrated work.
  • Finally, students test their solution. They also consider improvements as needed. As a hybrid of the “ideate” and “prototype” steps, this step requires flexibility. Students may need to alternate between focused thinking (to assess their solution) and diffuse thinking (to open their minds to new strategies for improvement). The Five Whys Questioning Technique tool can be used to challenge assumptions and identify root causes during the “ideate” and “test” steps of design thinking.

Invention myths about “Eureka” moments are popular, but remember: They’re myths. Sir Isaac Newton didn’t “discover” gravity simply by sitting under an apple tree; rather, when his university studies were interrupted by an outbreak of the plague, he observed the consistent pattern of apples falling directly toward the earth when breaking off a tree, and this inspired his intellectual, open-ended search for explanations. Benjamin Franklin didn’t stumble onto electricity while randomly flying a kite in a thunderstorm; rather, much was already understood about static electricity, and he was testing a hypothesis that lightning was also electrical in nature.

Dispelling myths that discovery only comes to superhuman scientific geniuses is one more way you can arm your students with the confidence to embark on their own discoveries and successes. Those innovators built on their prior knowledge, approached the world around them with open-minded curiosity and didn’t restrict their thinking to focused “in-the-box” structures. In other words, their “superpower” was a combination of focused and diffuse thinking. That same superpower is available to each and every 21st CCLC student — with your guidance, encouragement and reminder that simple necessity is the true mother of invention.

 


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