Is Design Thinking The Key to Workforce Development?

These students at a school in Indiana are learning through design thinking. Here's how they do it.

By Carri Schneider

How do you position an entire city to lead the way in STEM-related fields of the future? According to the team of education, business, industry, and state leaders behind Purdue Polytechnic High School (PPHS) in Indianapolis, the only way is through an investment in young people — all young people.

And high school is the best place to start.

Preparing a New Generation

Created in partnership with Purdue University, business leaders, and industry partners, PPHS is preparing a new generation with the skills and mindsets needed for the jobs of the future. Students will earn college credit and in-demand industry credentials, and qualified graduates will get direct admission to Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute.

PPHS is designed specifically to move students — particularly underrepresented minorities — into a position where they are well-equipped to succeed in high-tech, STEM careers. Now in its second year of implementation, this vision for PPHS is well on its way to becoming a reality. But, how?

A growing list of core principles drive teaching and learning at PPHS: rigorous academic preparation for careers and college, personalized learning with unprecedented voice and choice for students, a curriculum built around challenge-based design thinking, high-tech career pathways through industry partnerships, and deep relationships with people including staff and industry mentors.

Challenge-Based Design Thinking

As an XQ School, PPHS regularly welcomes guests to visit and learn from their journey to rethinking high school. During one such visit, we headed to Indianapolis to for PPHS Pitchfest — a culminating activity at the end of each project cycle where collaborative groups of high school freshmen pitch their team’s solutions to the industry partner for that challenge.

In preparation for the afternoon pitches, we spent the morning digging deeply into what challenge-based design thinking means at PPHS from a group of educators who, alongside students, are learning just what it means to be design thinkers.

“At its core, design thinking is just solving human-centered problems,” says Andrew Goodin, a coach whose focus is on design. If your goal is ensuring students are prepared to solve the challenges of the modern world, design thinking is an obvious choice for engaging students in real-world problems.”

PPHS needed a design process that would enable student to solve problems while simultaneously building their academic knowledge and skills. Acknowledging existing frameworks from the and IDEO, they created a five-phased approach that “spoke the PPHS language.”

PPHS design chart

Exploring Interdisciplinary Topics

The curriculum is organized around six interdisciplinary “project cycles” per year exploring topics like sustainability, public transportation, conservation and more — each with a local industry partner. Partners in 2017–18 included the Indianapolis Zoo, Subaru, Fair Oaks Farm, the Indy Fuel Hockey Team, IndyStar Newspaper, and the City of Indianapolis. See 2018–19 Partnerships below.

To develop the partners and related project challenges, the team considers a number of inputs led by Curriculum Director Brad Weinstein:

  • What are the state academic content standards and related concepts that we need to teach?
  • What content knowledge and experiences are going to be necessary for students to succeed in the Purdue University Pathway of their choice?
  • What industries do students need better exposure and access to?
  • Who are the potential industry partners and experts in our state?
  • What challenge questions would deeply engage students in real-world problems?

Once partners and projects are selected, each project cycle follows the PPHS design thinking process.

An Instructional Strategy and So Much More

And at this innovative high school, design thinking is an instructional strategy and so much more. As students get more experience with design thinking, they master a number of related skills including experimentation using the scientific method as well as engineering, prototyping and designing solutions. But that’s not all. Design thinking is also a mindset and an integrated part of the culture for teachers, leaders, and industry partners.

For the staff, the shift from a traditional high school to a project-based design thinking high school was not without its challenges. As they tell it, it’s taken a lot of hard work and humility to totally rethink the way they’d always approached teaching — planning for standalone courses using a traditional “scope and sequence.”

A Productive Struggle

Coach Alicia Johnson says it’s been a “productive struggle” but insists she can’t imagine going back to a traditional school. “I don’t know that I felt that way in the beginning” she admits. “I think it might have been a relief to have some familiarity, but now I couldn’t live with myself going back to that.”

Coach Devin Lee told us during a visit to the school’s opening year that it was “rough, but for the right reasons.” She explained, “You plan a challenging cycle and you can try all of these things. You’re prototyping new ways to teach the students, new ways to cover the concepts, the content, the challenge question, and all of it.”

That’s right. PPHS teachers themselves are using design thinking in real-time to improve the projects as students are working through each project cycle.

Head of School Scott Bess is quick to point out that even the school itself is a design thinking challenge — with last year’s school model serving as the first prototype. The staff stays constantly involved in an analyze-execute-reflect cycle.

Ready to get started with design thinking in your own school? According to the teachers at PPHS, it’s not a simple as saying, “here are the components you need.”

Their advice? Think about the “enabling conditions” that would allow design thinking to take hold. At PPHS, this comes down to the open schedule, shared spaces, and a culture of collaboration.

Adjusting Course in Real-Time

“I think about life in a traditional school and there would be many days that I would go without seeing another adult in the building,” Coach Goodin describes. “The fact that [teachers and students here] are scheduling on a weekly basis allows us to iterate really, really rapidly. Then the nature of the space causes serendipitous interactions all the time. You know, because we are sharing a classroom space, we’re able to just hop on over, ask a quick question and then use that real-time to adjust course.”

“Design thinking is a really simple process, but it takes a ton of practice,” Coach Goodin explains. “Things have been really messy up to this point, but we’re learning that creativity thrives within constraints. We’re asking ourselves how can we design those constraints to alleviate some of the mess but maximize the creativity of our staff and students. We’re getting really close. We’re systematizing the identification of problems that are getting in the way of student learning and solving those. We’re using design thinking to solve it. Meanwhile, we’re all growing as practitioners of design thinking, and I think the students are realizing it.”

Coach Johnson also sees evidence that students are taking the design thinking skills they are learning and applying them. They’re even using design thinking to initiate changes in the school.

She explains why this matters so much to the core mission of PPHS, “Our kids can take the skills that they’re learning here, and those skills are transferable no matter what career path they take. We’re not teaching kids to regurgitate correct answers, we’re teaching them to think. That’s what school should be…this is actually going to help change the world.”

Learn more about Purdue Polytechnic High School here.

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