Mary Howard
Teaching design thinking to students helps them formulate and solve all kinds of problems.

Innovation leads to progress in industry as well as in education. Steve Jobs suggests that “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Considering the great impact of innovation and reflecting on the Innovative Designer standard in the ISTE Standards for Students got me thinking about how I can alter my pedagogy in my sixth grade science class to allow for more student innovation.

The ISTE Innovative Designer standard expects students to: Use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.

The standard is couched with instructionally compelling terms such as deliberate design process, considering design constraints and creating innovative artifacts. As I’ve migrated through each of the indicators of the Innovative Designer standard, I’ve seen how broad and approachable this standard is.

A closer look

The design thinking process is a tool for designing creative solutions to existing problems. This process is typically a cyclical process, beginning with defining and identifying problems and progressing through a cycle that emphasizes iteration.

Engineering solutions came to the forefront in science classes as districts began to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in 2016.

When the standards were written, a calculated choice was made to replace the term “technological design” with “engineering design.” In doing this, NGSS focused a lens on the “iterative cycle of design that offers the greatest potential for applying science knowledge in the classroom and engaging in engineering practices.”   

The standards focus on three component ideas of engineering design:

1. Defining and delimiting engineering problems involves stating the problem to be solved as clearly as possible in terms of criteria for success and constraints or limits.
2. Designing solutions to engineering problems begins with generating a number of different possible solutions, then evaluating potential solutions to see which ones best meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
3. Optimizing the design solution involves a process in which solutions are systematically tested and refined, and the final design is improved by trading off less important features for those that are more important.

The ISTE Innovative Designer standard reflects this “define, design and optimize” approach by specifically referencing the design process and, as such, opens the door to creative thinking, engineering practices and capturing the power of innovation.

With ISTE’s Innovative Designer standard in mind, I initiated more design thinking opportunities for my students by implementing experimental design challenges or STEM challenges in my classroom. In doing so, I learned how a measured approach to these challenges is critical for student learning.

Experimental design challenges

As a science teacher, integrating engineering (STEM) design challenges is a natural fit, and students love them! After all, what sixth grader doesn’t want to balance a marshmallow on the top of the tallest tower of spaghetti using only 12 inches of tape?

In these challenges, students progress through a process that addresses myriad innovative design skills, such as using a deliberate design process, creating innovative artifacts, generating ideas, exhibiting a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems.

But simply throwing STEM challenges at students and watching them puzzle it out isn’t enough. Experimental design requires a great deal of scaffolding. Laying out the steps for students can have a big impact on enhancing their skills in addressing innovative
design challenges.

A scaffold for design challenges

When establishing experimental design challenges, it’s important to provide students with opportunities to analyze the problem and establish the criteria and constraints they’re faced with as they address a challenge.  

The first indicator of the Innovative Designer standard states: Students know and use a deliberate design process for generating ideas, testing theories, creating innovative artifacts or solving authentic problems.

The process of tackling a design challenge is much more complex than just knowing what to solve. Students need to recognize specifically what’s involved in the problem before they can be tasked with solving it. So it’s important to approach the initial phases of a design challenge in a very methodical way, by explicitly summarizing the problem and focusing on criteria and constraints.

To introduce problem formation, I pose a very traditional design challenge called the Duncker’s Candle Problem. In this problem, students need to determine how to affix a candle to a wall so that it will not drip wax onto a table. They can use only a candle, a box of thumbtacks and a matchbook.

I only provide students with an overview of the challenge – not the materials – and they must clearly articulate the problem and establish the constraints and criteria before they can proceed to determining possible solutions. In this way, they’re armed with a broader analysis of the challenge and can consider a wider range of solutions as they progress to the design phase.

The approach begins by sharing a brief summary of the problem. Students are
asked to state what items they are working with and what solution they are seeking. Summarizing is often a task learned in English language arts class and a skill that
doesn’t necessarily transfer to science or STEM problems, so my students need scaffolding as they state the problem. The following guiding questions aid them in
this first step:

1. What is the required outcome of the task?
2. What materials are you working with?

By answering these questions, students come up with acceptable statements of the problem. An example problem statement that my students developed for the
Duncker Candle Problem was: “Attach the candle to a wall while collecting the wax
with only a box of thumbtacks and a matchbook.” Or, “A candle must be attached to the wall with only a box of thumbtacks and a matchbook, but still not not drip on the table.”  

Criteria for constraints

We then expand our understanding of the design challenge by identifying the criteria within the challenge and the constraints.

Admittedly the terms constraint and criteria can be unfamiliar to sixth graders, so I give them question stems to help with their evaluation.  

For constraints, I ask students to consider the limitations on them with respect to the problem. They need to evaluate what materials are available (or not available) and they need to establish an overall picture of what factors they need to keep in mind to successfully proceed with their solution. One compelling question that elicited a lot of discussion was the “constraint” that they had to obey the laws of science and that they could not simply make the candle hover or suspend the wax in mid-air!  

We view criteria like a report card: How will you know if you’ve been successful? This forces students to not only recognize any specific requirements of the project, but makes them more analytical during the process as they realize there are specifications that must be met while they’re creating their designs.

After students successfully formulate the problem and identify constraints and criteria, they’re ready to be highly engaged in innovative design throughout the next steps as they determine possible solutions and then design them.

As a scaffold to experimental design thinking, this is where we stop. We share our ideas with one another and discuss our results as well as the proposed “acceptable” solution.  

The new design challenge

As a follow-up to this experimental design challenge, I give students a real design challenge involving spaghetti, tape and a marshmallow (because again, who doesn’t want to build a tower like that?). I find that they can address a design challenge
much better after having practiced the process.

During our second design challenge, we focus on scaffolding the latter steps in the design process. With the marshmallow challenge, students have the opportunity to build the tower and apply the criteria they’ve established.

Of particular note is the importance of the iterative step in the experimental design process, which is a critical component in all real-world engineering projects. Experimental design isn’t a one-time shot.

It’s important for students to realize that there could be a better way to solve the problem, and it’s critical for us to allow them the space and time to reflect on their solutions and improve their designs.

Reflection and iteration lead students to the concept of optimization and drives students toward altering, adjusting, reflecting and improving their work in what could conceivably be an endless process. Like editing and revising a piece of writing, working toward a solution that best reflects our efforts is a critical skill in the experimental design process.
Formulating the problem and identifying criteria and constraints are the first steps toward integrating design challenges as a part of the Innovative Designer standard. When the process is effectively scaffolded, students have a greater understanding of their tasks as they continue through the design thinking process.

With this approach, the skills of analyzing and implementing possible solutions, with the goal of achieving the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources, will benefit from a solid problem-formulation foundation and open doors to greater student discovery and innovative design skills.


Mary Howard (@mrshoward118) is a sixth grade teacher at Veronica E. Connor Middle School in Grand Island, New York. She teaches English language arts and science, and was a finalist for the 2018 New York State Teacher of the Year. Howard features many of her educational technology adventures and musings on her blog yoursmarticles.blogspot.com.