Low science and math proficiency in Nevada’s public school system indicates there are inherent and structural inequities that exist. As a researcher and innovation leader, I wanted to explore the “why” behind the low proficiency rates.
I conducted empathy interviews to gain a deeper understanding of the structural inequities from the perspective of teachers and students closest to the challenge. I learned that it was deeper than simply understanding content: Students had not developed the mindsets or foundational skills necessary to tackle complex problems in STEM. Furthermore, students and teachers alike revealed that students were not comfortable with using failure as a learning opportunity, and did not have the wherewithal to break complex problems into smaller parts to make the larger issue easier to address.
When I began to explore peer-reviewed research and insights from reputable sources, I also began to uncover opportunities to strengthen student mindset and build the foundational skills needed to tackle complex problems in STEM. The opportunity that frequently emerged from the research was improving students’ mindsets and skills through design thinking methodologies. At the most basic level, design thinking can be described as a core set of skills in which students engage in hands-on activities that focus on building empathy, developing skills in prototyping, cultivating a bias toward action, encouraging ideations, and fostering active and creative problem solving.
Preliminary research suggests that design thinking improves metacognition in K-12 students, and ultimately improves STEM performance. Work in mathematics (Goldman et al., 1998), science (Kolodner et al., 2003), and technology (Kafai & Resnick, 2002; Todd, 1999) suggest that design thinking skills are not merely extras, but can in fact aid students in core subject areas as well as building cognitive and social skills (Carroll et al., 2010). Furthermore, it has the potential to engage students in ways that are inclusive of their diversity; makes school learning relevant to real, pressing local and global issues, which can enhance motivation to learn; and creates a “third space” (Gutierrez, 2003) for students where they can develop agency, confidence, and identity as change agents as they respond as innovators to the interdisciplinary nature of design challenges (Caroll, 2014). Over time, students who practice design thinking improve their STEM performance.
For K-12 students to develop strong skills in design thinking, they rely heavily on the acumen of their educators. Traditionally, design thinking facilitation is not offered to K-12 educators and thus, their students do not build those skills. However, we’ve launched an unique learning opportunity that provides educators the opportunity to facilitate design thinking activities with their students, and to receive professional development credit through a micro-credential. As we recognize that educators’ capacity is already limited with classroom-related responsibilities, we also understand their time for seeking out professional learning opportunities is also limited. With this new micro-credential, “Solving Real-World Challenges Using Design Thinking,” there are curricular resources within the program to assist teachers with facilitating the process with their students, evaluating impact, and reflecting on their experiences. Moreover, educators are able to earn as they teach and reflect on their experience to earn the micro-credential. If all students need skills in design thinking, all educators will need the skills to facilitate the appropriate learning experiences.
The world around us is constantly evolving and our young people will enter a world that doesn’t currently exist. It is imperative that we prepare our young people to be adaptable and agile in order to prepare for such an unknown future. Our educators must be prepared to design and lead learning experiences that cultivate skills in design thinking for our young people to reach their full potential. Design thinking is not a luxury for our students and teachers; rather, it’s a toolbox of skills that will prepare them to be productive in the next half of the 21st century.