Design Thinking Day Challenges Middle Schoolers to Solve Real-World Problems

Before heading off to spend time relaxing with family and friends, the students in Middle School spent a uniquely designed day working together on group projects to create solutions posed in three grade-specific questions.
Inspired by educators at Stanford, design thinking is a unique approach to problem solving and innovating that begins with understanding how a problem impacts a group of people. The process includes five stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. By challenging assumptions and brainstorming with peers, students outline several solutions to a problem, then evaluate which one(s) work best. Students ultimately design and build a prototype representing their solution that they test and modify accordingly.

For the Middle School Design Thinking Challenge Day, each grade was given a topic: sixth graders were asked to design the quad space in the new Middle School and eighth graders were asked to design improvements, from facilities to programming, for the Middle School that would, in turn, become their legacy.  The seventh grade participated in the National Geographic GeoChallenge and worked to develop a creative solution to the environmental problems caused by plastics.

Through the course of the day, sixth and eighth grade students went through a process that included interviewing and sharing collected data, determining which ideas to focus on, and writing a focus statement. The next steps, brainstorming and developing design solutions saw a rise in the energy of the participants. “I think my group’s creativity was great! We all had an open mind about our idea,” said Mia Proctor ‘26.

Each group then built a prototype which they presented to another group to gain feedback. Sixth grader Max Freeman thought making the models was interesting and enjoyed seeing what others’ ideas would actually look like in reality. “I learned that I am really good at designing things...our group was very creative and performed great together,” he said.

After gathering feedback from their demonstrations, each group made revisions to their prototypes and developed a skit or TED Talk style presentation to demonstrate how their design would benefit students. Each group presented their prototype to a panel of judges that consisted of ODA leadership and members of the Board of Trustees, who shared which designs were worth exploring. Judges were impressed by the thoughtful presentations and how quickly the teams created viable prototypes to visualize their ideas.

The design thinking approach, successfully used from schools and executive board rooms, allows students to gain experience and confidence in conceptualizing, using empathy, working collaboratively and creatively, and presenting. This method will be incorporated into various grade levels in conjunction with ODA’s commitment to student-centered learning. As for the challenge presented to sixth and eighth graders, we look forward to seeing some of our students’ ideas incorporated into future Middle School plans.

Click here to see photos from this event.

The Out-of-Door Academy

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