Engage students by solving real-world problems using STEM and creativity!

Every year there seems to be some toy that fascinates the majority of K-5 students at my school. Whatever the "toy of the year" is, students all around the playground can be found playing and discussing it. A couple of years ago it was Rainbow Loom, this year it’s Kendama, a wooden skill toy that originated in Japan. By capitalizing on the excitement students had for this toy, and by using design thinking, my students learned traditional math concepts and STEM skills. Read on to see how students used design thinking to solve a real-world challenge, and how you can start planning a design thinking project in your classroom!

Create student excitement by linking tasks and skills to real-world scenarios. 

To start, I asked students to pull out their Kendama (an unheard of event in the classroom) and immediately there was excitement in the air. We lined up the Kendama along the whiteboard and talked as a class about similarities and differences between the different models. This provided an excellent opportunity to practice observation and compare/contrast skills.

Next, I explained to the students that they would be creating the best packaging possible to increase Kendama sales, and as a follow-up, they would create the optimal packaging to mail Kendama to a friend. As a class, we looked at packaging for a variety of other products and discussed the materials used and why the manufacturers may have chosen those materials and package designs. Students learned that packaging had to be streamline, visually appealing, and eye-catching, inexpensive, and protective enough that the Kendama wouldn’t be damaged during shipment to the store.

If this is your students' first experience with design thinking, I suggest taking time to brainstorm and talk about the different steps in the design process and why each step is important. Encourage students to discuss the skills and materials they may need to complete each task. Ask them to list things they already know how to do that will help them with each step. Then, ask them to brainstorm what they might need to learn to accomplish the task.

Encourage critical analysis and synthesis through creativity and teamwork. 

To start the package design process, students took turns sharing and recording what they liked about the Kendama (referring to one particular Kendama so they were talking about a specific color and design style). Next, I gave each group packaging from common items (pasta, Kleenex, chips, Legos), making a point to provide each group with packaging made from a variety of materials and shapes. They discussed the pros and cons of those package materials in relation to what was inside and then predicted how those materials would work to package a Kendama.

Either on paper or in an iPad app, each group drew what they wanted their packaging to look like. They had to consider the size, shape, and what would be written and drawn on the container. To tie in with our Common Core math standards, each group determined the cost of the supplies and used measurements (in centimeters and inches) of the Kendama to decide how much of each supply they would need. Groups created a video presentation (using Educreations or iMovie) to show each math step and explain their thinking.

After completing the math video and prototype drawing, students were free to actually create their prototype. Groups shared their prototypes with one another other and received constructive feedback. Using these peer comments, they had a chance to redesign their prototype, and when all groups had a final packaging solution, they presented their models to the class.

Challenge students with extension activities that reinforce and expand learning. 

After the student groups created their final prototype, we summarized the steps we took, the skills we learned, and in a whole-class discussion, we quickly determined that the aesthetic of the shipping package wasn’t important, but the weight and ability to protect Kendama from dings were critical. The students were then charged with creating a new package that followed the priorities of weight and level of protection. Students could choose bubble wrap, regular envelopes, padded envelopes, boxes of different sizes, paper, and packing foam. Again, each item had an associated cost. The groups used scales to weigh their supplies to determine shipping cost and added this to the cost of the shipping supplies to determine a total mailing cost.

As a final step, each group created a graph related to the project -- some students graphed shipping cost to the nearest dollar, the number of packages that used each of the different supplies, and length of the different Kendama toys.

Jennifer A.

I have been teaching for 15 years at Montclaire Elementary School. I am passionate about teaching in ways to engage students and encourage them to develop and answer their own questions. I have served on the district technology committee, as a BTSA mentor, and as a master teacher. In 2014 I was awarded Cupertino Union School District's Innovative Technology Educator Award. I enjoy beta testing apps, most recently including apps by Osmo and a Nearpod about design thinking created by the Stanford d.school. I am Silicon Valley Education Fountain teacher fellow. An article I co-authored about student collaboration is published in the spring 2015 MACUL Journal and I recently presented at the spring 2018 SV CUE conference.