Design Think It: Teaching Pragmatic Coding Through Design Thinking

If you’ve been following some of my posts, you’ll notice that many of the projects I pick for students to pursue are centered around bringing real world experiences to them. Very often, they involve solving a problem or designing something that helps somebody else. While the degree of intensity in the problems varies widely, I am definitely abhorrently opposed to having students code or make just...because.

So, who cares, right? All educators do this at some level, and all students are asked to push beyond their boundaries - what makes my curriculum so special that I feel the need to remind random internet strangers of it?

Simpsons - Mom says I'm cool

Photo Credit

Narcissism aside, it’s because I never got to experience this in a public school setting. All word problems on tests were obviously made up just to communicate the important bits of info I’d need to solve the problem. Not one test I took asked me how I would solve a problem and to defend my reasoning. It was either right or wrong. Can anybody else relate?

So, I’m going to make the case for giving your students real world problems that they can sink their teeth into.

Problems that are frustrating, or misleading. Problems that might be picking a solution you don’t like, because it moves the group forward. Problems without all of the facts needed to solve it. Problems focused on helping real people.

Because this is what the real world is like.

And this is also fundamentally difficult for educators. The power is out of our hands and we are no longer the holders of knowledge. We are instead taking on the role of mentor and project manager for our students - not teacher. It is difficult at first, but it drives home curriculum in a much more powerful way. And it isn’t as time consuming as one might think.

In this post, I’ll discuss how I incorporate an extra class or two into a project to let students make this a truly impactful project. In subsequent posts, I’ll show you how to do the same.

Finding Problems

Finding problems is actually not as hard as it seems. They are all around us, all the time. Anytime you have to use a work around to get something done, that is a problem you just solved. We may think of them as minor inconveniences, but if enough people have the same inconvenience and there is a high “pain point,” which just means it is super frustrating, then this may be a great problem!

Frank Costanza problems

Look no further for problems than Frank Costanza. Photo Credit

Solving Problems With Design Thinking

Solving the problems is usually a lot trickier than identifying them! And there are many ways to do it. But one that has repeatedly come up in Business and Education spheres is Design Thinking. There are others, such as Jobs to Be Done, and Six Sigma(I know Six Sigma is more about quality control but shhh), but nothing has gotten quite the same hype as Design Thinking (DT from here on). It has the entire Stanford Business School spreading it’s message and now it is being picked up in Educational Circles as “the way to reform higher ed!”

I’m not here to talk about how great Design Thinking is - it’s just a tool. The Leatherman is great when you don’t have your toolbag on you and need to fix something small. But you don’t see mechanics using Leathermans in place of Torque Wrenches. It just wouldn’t work! Design Thinking, like the Leatherman, is a great way to introduce students to methodologies of solving problems and how to think through them; and I fully expect them to grow out of it and eventually use parts of it within their own toolbelt.

What is Design Thinking? - The Abridged Version

So what is Design Thinking? Well, a quick search on google gives us the following definition:

“Design Thinking - A process of using user centered approaches to create innovative solutions to problems.”

Pirates of the Caribbean - unhelpful

Photo Credit

I hate that definition. Talk about buzzwords. But it does give us a clue!

"User-centered." So that means we will be designing solutions with a specific user or group of users in mind. But it really is more than that. We are instead trying to understand why the user does what they do. The what and the how are important but empathizing is understanding why. That means everything from current wants and needs to current solutions, where this problem lives, what external factors might influence it, what successful resolution of the problem looks like, how it affects those around them, etc.

There are a whole host of questions that can be asked and research to be done. And this is where Design Thinking aligns with current educational standards. We can do primary and secondary research on this problem and the people it affects. We can perform statistical analyses and research to determine how big this problem is. How much money is thrown at it by governments or non-profits? Is this problem important enough to tackle? Welcome to the first stage of Design Thinking - Discovery.

stages of Design Thinking

All of the stages of Design Thinking in their glory. They also go by many other names and some models use 6 stages but this works well for us at Steward.

As you can see from the image above, Design Thinking is the process before students design their awesome coded contraption that lights up and spins around. It is about asking students to persuade me that their idea is a good one and can help people based on their research. I will cover more on individual stages in the next post, but want to focus on the impact this process has on my class. If you remember my second post ever for SparkFun, I showed how I use Arduino in my classroom and showcased the Assistive Device project. What I didn’t show is the steps leading up to what students build.

How I integrate Design Thinking into the Assistive Device Project

To start, I ask students to perform primary research on various conditions that might affect vision and hearing and the Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (industry term for everyday activities such as brushing teeth, cooking food, bathing, etc). Students then must then empathize and research current solutions on the market or individual workarounds for helping with these. They must narrow down activities that have a highly saturated market or very well established solutions in these communities.

For example, I do not allow a student to pick “navigating without a walking stick” as that is an integral part of life for somebody who is vision impaired. I used to allow it, but it was not truly empathizing because many in that community will tell you that it is a non-start solution. I also do my best to let the students perform primary research and each year we team up with the Blind-Deaf Institute to find people they can interview. Whether those are doctors or patients or advocates or allies, they aren’t sure who they will get. As students pick a specific activity and a specific condition, they are asked to report to the class on what they’ve researched.

Then, students are asked to define for me What the actual problem is for that individual or group of individuals. Often they may start with a problem such as “It is hard for people to know where their keys are if they can’t see.” which is 1) Not true because they put it in the same place each time to prevent that and 2) Does not really help inspire ideas. As they research and interview, they may change it to something such as “How might we help individuals that are mostly blind be able to locate their keys if their bag is misplaced or moved by somebody else while they are in class?”

These types of statements are infinitely more valuable and specific enough to merit a solution that can be tested in a way that determines success.

Then they get to actually code their ideas! But the coding and the building and making is just a result of a process of working through the problem. This brings their code to life and makes it much more meaningful - even for those students who think coding "is too hard and isn’t fun.” It’s all about the buy-in.

Stay tuned for my next post detailing more about what Design Thinking is and how I’ve completely cannibalized it for my own use to fit what I think students need. Because we really need to stop doing the stinkin’ “Wallet Challenge” that always pops up as the intro to DT. 

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