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Design Thinking @ Beavercreek

How can we provide schools with a systematic framework to teach today's most crucial skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity?

Beavercreek City Schools (near Dayton, Ohio) won a 2015 Ohio "Straight A" grant to build Design Thinking labs ("D-Labs") in four of their schools. They reached out to Experience Institute to bring these labs to life and integrate them into the school community and curriculum. 

Our Process

Design Thinking is a collaborative, creative problem-solving approach. It emphasizes understanding and developing empathy for “users”, and identifying and defining their key needs. Design Thinking then uses iterative cycles of brainstorming, prototyping and testing to develop solutions that have real value to those users. 

Through projects structured with the Design Thinking (DT) process, students develop their own creative confidence. They learn through experience that they can understand complex problems and contribute to meaningful solutions that make the world better for themselves and their communities. 

We approached the project from three different angles:

  • DT Professional Development for Science and Social Studies teachers
  • Co-created DT curriculum for Science and Social Studies courses
  • In-depth curriculum design for Design Thinking elective courses

My Role

  • Professional development facilitator
  • Lead facilitator, writer, and project manager for curriculum collaboration with science teachers
  • Lead curriculum writer for the 9th, 11th, and 12th grade DT elective courses

Professional Development for Science and Social Studies Teachers

Project-based Design Thinking is a significant departure from traditional teaching methods. While the district administration was very excited about it, we knew we needed the buy-in of teachers around the school. It was crucial to show them that the process has value for their students both in and out of the D-Labs, otherwise the idea might never catch on.

A key insight for us was that teachers need experiential learning as much as students do. To teach the value of DT in the classroom we kicked off the project with a 3-day workshop that introduced science and social studies teachers to the DT process in the mornings and then had them turn around and teach it to students in the afternoons (see video above). 

This format for professional development turned out to be a great success, and several of the science and social studies teachers from the workshop applied to become full time "D-Lab" teachers.

Co-created curriculum for Science and Social Studies courses

As good as a 3-day professional development session can be, new teaching processes won't become integrated without consistent follow-up support. 

To show science and social studies teachers how to create their own DT projects in the classroom, we co-created projects for their curriculum that incorporated empathy, ideation, and prototyping/testing. We hosted video calls with teaching teams throughout the summer and together created over a dozen 3-6 day plug-and-play projects that satisfied state learning standards.

In-depth curriculum design for Design Thinking elective courses

As part of the grant, D-Labs were built in the Beavercreek High School, 9th grade academy, and two district middle schools. These D-Labs are equipped specifically for DT projects and are the home base for a series of new Design Thinking elective courses offered to students. Our team worked with the new teachers for these courses to write in-depth curriculum that could be built on for years to come. Our courses included:

  • Introduction to Design Thinking (8th grade)
  • Introduction to Product Design (9th grade)
  • Introduction to Social Impact Design (10th grade)
  • Advanced Design Studio I: Beyond the Body: Rethinking Physical Ability (11th grade)
  • Advanced Design Studio II: Self-Directed Student Projects (12th grade)

Each course uses the DT process to get students out of the classroom and into the community to identify and design for real user needs. The courses provide a detailed structure to support student success, while pushing them toward independence. By the 11th and 12th grade courses, students are forming their design own teams and identifying their own projects to pursue. 


It’s not something that you really do in school often - have somebody come into your school and help them with a problem that they have. Getting to build something in this class and make it to where it’ll help his life everyday, it’s like, pretty cool.
— 10th grade Beavercreek student
Design Thinking is a different kind of thinking. Usually there’s a right and a wrong. [In this class] it feels like there’s a lot of paths you could go down, like this thing you’re making is yours.
— 8th grade Beavercreek student
I just like the idea of taking real life problems and finding solutions to them and having the kids realize that they are the ones who can come up with the answers - that the teacher isn’t just going to give it to them.
— Jamie Grothaus, 8th Grade Science Teacher, Ankeney Middle School, Ohio