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Design Thinking and Human-Centered Innovation

written by Kelly Wilson, Director of Studies
“Design Thinking” is one of the latest buzzwords in education and business today, but what is it and why the hype? The term was coined as early as the 1960s but has recently been popularized by the Kelley Brothers and Tim Brown’s design firm, IDEO. Their firm focuses on creating change through design to make a positive global impact. This spawned the Stanford design thinking process and courses for educators and students.

Empathy First

This human-centered approach to problem-solving begins with the element of empathy. Before creating a product or a process we ask, “Who am I creating this for? Will it address the needs they have?

Developing a Methodology

In 2015, Severn School opened the Graw Innovation Center, a space for exploration equipped with state-of-the-art tech tools like 3D printers and laser systems. However, these tools are just the stepping stones. Innovative and entrepreneurial ideas don’t just happen; they require work and persistence. And failure is a big part of the process. In order to challenge our students and teachers — to weave design thinking into the fabric of our learning — we developed a standard methodology that spans all disciplines, Engineer by Design.
Graphic of the engineer by design process

What is Engineer by Design?

Ask, imagine, plan, create, improve, and share. By using this design thinking routine, Severn students develop the same habits and practices of the best problem solvers in the world. More importantly, they do so with compassion and concern for others through considering the global impact of their decisions. The Engineer by Design methodology (shown above) introduces students to the structures that engineers and entrepreneurs use to solve real-world problems. They learn to follow a structured approach that includes feedback and collaboration while trying to answer a question or need.

Design Thinking in the Classroom

Severn’s Middle School students are introduced to this approach in Introduction to Design Thinking. In this class, 6th-grade students are presented with an authentic engineering challenge — to design educational toys for Severn’s prekindergarten and kindergarten students. Knowing that their product will be used by young children in our community gives our 6th graders a greater sense of purpose as they learn tech, design and teamwork skills.

Design thinking isn’t exclusive to “design” classes. We focus on the process so teachers and students alike can take this method and apply it to any task. We use it to develop business ideas in our Upper School entrepreneurial class New Business Ventures, and in an interdisciplinary workshop where we explore how science, history and fictional writing helped to develop products of the future. The possibilities are limitless.

Design Thinking for Professional Development

This methodology is not limited to classroom use, we also work with Severn’s administrators to improve upon strategic initiatives. Ms. Lise Charlier, Ms. Julia Maxey, Ms. Mary Carrington, Ms. Melissa Osquist and Mrs. Vicki Dabrowka used the design thinking process to prototype a new version of Severn’s professional development program. Their challenge was to design “the ultimate professional development experience” for their partner. In designing for others, empathy emerges through the listening process. Rather than make assumptions about the root of a problem, we ask questions and the problem or need is flushed out. Then we begin to brainstorm and imagine what is possible.

Human-Centered Innovation

Immersing yourself in a design thinking challenge requires that you let go of preconceived ideas and be open to wherever the process may take you. Through the cycles of creating, sharing and improving, what begins as one challenge could result in the solution to another. How can you and your child use design thinking at home, at school, or at work? Ask, imagine, plan, create, improve, and share.

Lower School

Upper School