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Hands-On Learning Goes High-Tech

Design thinking encourages students to engage, expand, and explore.

Caitlin McLemore | April 20, 2015

The sounds of drilling and sawing fill the room. Students design and collaborate on the whiteboard walls while other students are creating, filming, or programming. This may not seem like your typical geometry classroom, but it's a day in the life of the Design Den at the Harpeth Hall School.

Harpeth Hall School is an independent college preparatory school for girls in grades 5 through 12 that encourages them to think critically, lead confidently, and live honorably. Our school houses the Center for STEM Education for Girls, and recently opened the Design Den, a place for students to imagine, design, and create. The Design Den is different from any other place on campus, housing 3-D printers, a laser cutter, power and hand tools, programming components, and a variety of raw materials. The space was deliberately designed to encourage girls to engage with content, expand their knowledge, and explore while learning. Even if schools don't have the budget or space to implement a dedicated maker space, design thinking and principles can be incorporated into the classroom curriculum using a variety of software and technology tools. Design thinking gets kids to engage, expand, and explore.


Engage students with projects that connect content and real-world situations.

This year, our high school geometry students studied angles and the Pythagorean theorem, then designed children’s soccer goals out of bird netting and PVC pipes. The girls first calculated measurements and sketched designs using Microsoft OneNote, a note-taking tool that works great with a stylus. After creating a 3D model of their design using the free website 3Dtin, girls worked in groups to physically build the goals using hand saws and other construction tools. Each group had to document the process, creating a documentary video in Windows MovieMaker, informational report in Google Drive, and assembly instructions in Microsoft Publisher. Knowing that the soccer goals would be used by children made the end product more meaningful for the girls, as they were building for a real purpose.


Expand classroom learning by incorporating design projects into the curriculum.

In seventh-grade science, the girls are hired as science experts to consult on a variety of projects from bridge design to toy invention. During the bridge design project, the girls first studied civil engineering and physics principles using interactive websites like BrainPOP, then reported their findings using the multimedia slideshow creation website VoiceThread. The girls were given a design problem -- design a bridge that will hold vehicular traffic over a canyon -- and then set to work. They used the modeling software SketchUp to create designs and then built actual bridge models using popsicle sticks and glue. The most fun part of the project was testing the popsicle stick models -- even though the models were tested until failure (meaning lots of surprised squeals and broken popsicle sticks). This was an important lesson, showing the girls that failure is a learning opportunity and that designing requires persistence and many iterations before finding the ultimate product design.


Explore ways to connect subject areas through experimenting with new ways of doing, learning, and thinking.

Knowing how to code and program is a powerful tool for harnessing the power of technology. The world needs more people, and especially girls, who know how to code. Thankfully, there are a variety of tools for introducing students to coding and problem-solving in fun, interactive ways. Our fifth-grade girls re-create scenes from the play The Miracle Worker using Alice, free software that teaches object-oriented programming. The entire middle school participated in Hour of Code, then eighth-grade girls explored coding further through Scratch and JavaScript on Khan Academy. The girls were excited for the opportunity to be creative in math class. The project sparked some girls’ interest, inspiring them to continue coding just for fun. One day you may even download an app or visit a website created by one of these girls!

Photo by Joanne Mamenta, Hapreth Hall School Communications Director