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What Is Design Thinking?

By Assistant Head of School for Design and Innovation Matt Abbondanzio
Terms like STEM, STEAM, maker space, design thinking or innovation are used interchangeably, especially in the school setting, but what do they mean? I believe these terms are used to answer the same question: How do we make K-12 education relevant and give students a competitive advantage in college and their careers?

While STEM and STEAM are multidisciplinary-focused curricula that typically take place in “maker spaces,” design thinking is where we leverage design research techniques and a reframing process. Together, these processes enable the discovery of insights, the emotional drivers behind our decisions and subsequent actions, to help us determine what problems are the most valuable to solve. In K-12 education, design thinking is often used as a teaching technique or a tool to teach a specific topic. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, in my opinion, this is not what design thinking was meant for.
 
The value of the design thinking process is in developing insights by performing design research, where we observe and speak to people to gain empathy and understanding about how people interact with their world. From these insights, we can develop novel and valuable problem statements such as, “How can we help a family’s meal decision be less driven by the amount of preparation or cleanup necessary for that particular meal?” rather than more obvious ones such as, “How can I get my earbud wires to stop tangling?”
 
At LJCDS, we have intentionally chosen to name our space the Innovation Lab because we believe this authentically embodies our goal: to teach our students not only to solve technical problems but also learn how to determine the “right” problems to solve. This approach, which leverages a state-of-the-art maker space type lab combined with a design research-heavy process, creates a program that reaches far beyond STEM, STEAM and makers.
 
To accomplish our goals, we are investing not only in the facilities but also in the right people. Hiring people with industry experience offers a real and differentiating benefit to students as it brings relevance to what students are learning and bridges the gap between industry and education. LJCDS has been doing this for years. Science faculty members Susan Domanico, Ph.D., and Julie Strong, Ph.D., share their real-world knowledge with students on a daily basis, providing an authentic technical laboratory experience. Computer science teacher Darren Cameron, Middle School science teacher Jeremy Bank and our lead innovation designer Dan Lenzen all have extensive experience in industry. When students connect with outside experts, they gain an understanding of what it takes to be innovative in the real world and develop the skillsets necessary to attain remarkable results.
 
If you are reading this and think that I may have given away the proverbial “secret sauce,” the LJCDS trade secret, the KFC™ recipe if you will… well, you’re right!
 
I share this information with the hope that other schools will develop innovation programs, where students can learn a proven process and gain real-world experiences. We owe it not only to our students but also ourselves to offer our community exposure to the magic, excitement and endless possibilities of design and innovation before they select a focus for college and beyond.
 
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La Jolla Country Day School

9490 Genesee Avenue
La Jolla, CA 92037
858-453-3440

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