From Name Tags to Lasting Artifacts; Fostering a Culture of Deep Projects


by Christa Flores -


Much hype has been made about incorporating Design or Design Thinking into education, but what is design and why is it “suddenly” a valued 21st century concept in education? Anyone who has taken a Design Thinking workshop knows that little is gained from a one hour design cycle, especially those based on product development that may or may not be a sustainable use of resources. On the other hand, understanding the actual process of design through first hand practice requires time, a lot of time. Years in some cases. That being the case, are schools that are pushing design into their programs allowing students to know more than the terms of design (brainstorm, iterate and empathy) or are they truly teaching the value, and intricacy of the design process? Inspired by Paulo Blikstein’s contribution to Agency by Design’s Makeology book (in press), I am writing this blog on the importance of “fostering a culture of deep projects” as it relates to the work that I do in science with my 5th graders.

The Design Process, Design Thinking or Design Science

Anyone can wikipedia Design Thinking to discover the term is rooted in the product design industry which grew out of Stanford’s David Kelly, one of Design Thinking’s co-fathers is a revolutionary thinker; his “human-centered” approach to design is more than colorful post-it notes and white board doodles. Design Thinking is based on an older idea referred to as Design Science or The Sciences of The Artificial.

“The central task of a natural science,” according to Simon Herbert author of the book The Sciences of the Artificial (1969), “is to make the world commonplace, to show that complexity, correctly viewed, is only a mask for simplicity; to find pattern hidden in chaos.” If the sciences of the natural sought to make the wonderful “not incomprehensible,” Herbert describes the “artificial” as any artifact created by man. Design Thinking then, evolved from a perspective that to Design, was an attempt to use the thinking routines of the natural sciences to inform how to construct artificial means for humans to interface with the world. Using a glass to drink water, rather than a cupped palm. With the addition of the concept of empathy, Design Thinking claimed to be more than a mindless march to mass produce. The user centered approach led to better products, better left up to the user to define, of course. 

In a book entitled How Designers Think: The Design Process Demystified, architect and design researcher Bryan Lawson argues that applying the design process is a skill of the mind, akin to riding a bike, or playing an instrument. His research suggests that thinking like a designer can compliment thinking like a scientist, when it comes to problem solving with constraints.  

For Kenya Hara author of Designing Design, “There are an unlimited number of ways of thinking and perceiving. In my understanding, to design is to intentionally apply to ordinary objects, phenomena and communication the essence of these innumerable ways of thinking and perceiving.”  Design in this sense, is a mindset, a lens through which you can see the infinite layers of detail in the world.

The Design Process allows the designer to apply the knowledge from the natural sciences to a creative science. The creation of the artificial, whether it be room temperature, a modernist chair or a school system is solution finding, armed with scientific knowledge; with or without a strong focus on the user. Placing the user at the center of why we make things brings to the engineering process a story. Stories create connections and allow students to empathize; and in turn gain diverse perspectives of the world they live in.

Making for Change; the Value of Design in School

I recently visited the East Bay School for Boys and got a huge crush on their metal arts program. At this five year young, agile, middle school serving under 100 students, I saw projects that allow boys to identify with their culture and their emotional and physical selves (they have capoeira class, beekeeping, they made a half-pipe skate ramp and make their own steel knives). I also saw projects that get boys to work with local homeless residents and projects where boys gain empowerment through capstones based on a super hero theme for social justice. Kyle Metzner and David Clifford are the creative minds behind the EBSB design thinking program. Kyle comes from a professional background in design and fabrication and David has a fellowship at the Stanford where he is part of a cohort of individuals "working in a variety of ways to invent, disrupt and innovate in and around complex social systems." The value of teaching the design process, claims Metzner is that "you can not hand hold a student through the design process.” Design is the ultimate test of creativity and willingness to iterate, he explains.

Kyle explains their blacksmithing curriculum and how it has informed their students in areas ranging from conscientious consumption, molecular structure to ancient cultures.

Kyle explains their blacksmithing curriculum and how it has informed their students in areas ranging from conscientious consumption, molecular structure to ancient cultures.

In problem based science level 5 at Hillbrook, we are in the midst of a six month long design project that we affectionately refer to as the “spring hard problem.” For this year’s challenge my 10 and 11 year old students have to follow four simple rules or prompts. In May, they will grade themselves on the design and engineering process by arguing for a pass or fail grade. This construction of an argument, as well as a detailed log of skills and topics employed to solve problems, is another avenue for practicing the design process.

We use Google docs when working on process, as they offer students easily accessible tools for self-publishing, as well as a quick and permanent means for me to give students feedback. We use terms such as craftsmanship when working with words or wood.

Measure twice, cut...well it depends. The iterative process almost never follows a straight line.

When my students invent, they take ownership over an idea, then face real world problems on their route to making their idea come to life. At the middle school level the design process is a creative exploration of hard, yet fun, problems (rigor + risk + reward), positive identity formation (I am creative, I am a scientist, I can solve problems) and collaborative learning that questions the status quo. Add responsible resource management and exposure to social justice issues, and design becomes a thinking tool for empowerment and stewardship. These are a few reasons why we incorporate the design process into the sciences at Hillbrook. What do you see your students gaining from the design process at your schools?

Small successes, for big solutions. This young lady is endeavouring to build a 60+ light display using a single wall outlet plug with a 12 volt output from our e-waste pile.

Science through survey for peer feedback. This was the winning font for the re-design of the Hillbrook Late Pass. We decide as a community what quality and beauty are.


Works Cited


  1. Blikstein, P. & Worsley, M. (2015). Why the maker movement carries the seeds of its own failure, and how to avoid it. In Halverson, E., Peppler, K., and Kafai, Y. (Eds.). Makeology. Routledge.
  2. Hara Kenya. (2011). Designing Design. Lars Muller Publishers
  3. Simon, Herbert (1969). The Sciences of the Artificial. The MIT Press
  4. Lawson, Bryan (1997). How Designers Think: The Design Process Demystified. Oxford: Architectural
  5. Martinez, Sylvia Libow., and Gary Stager (2013). Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge, 2013




Susanna Tesconi's picture

Great post Christa, as ever!! 

What do I see my students gaining from the design process at  school? The experience allows students to decide about what to learn and when, fostering critical thinking about traditional manufacturing, team work, use and design of technology among other competencies. Also lot of hard fun!

I'm working on a post about design as not just related to science and funcionality, inspired by the great pre-maker, designer, artist and pedagogist Bruno Munari. I think it can be usefull for your research also.  Design as art is just one of the inspiring books he wrote. 


Christa Flores's picture

Nice, thank you Susanna. Munari insists that "design be beautiful, functional and accessible" We have been having some fun conversatoins in 5th around what is beautiful. Subjective and Collective, its a tricky topic. I look forward to reading your post!