Design Thinking is becoming a popular buzzword in the classroom, although some teachers are still confused as to exactly what it refers to and what it means in their classrooms. This is not really surprising as the term is context dependent and has a slightly different meaning for different fields. It also appears, at first glance, to be counterintuitive to STEM related education. STEM subjects, from their very nature, are based on a problem-oriented approach, while design thinking is need-oriented. So how can the two modes of thinking be aligned and interpreted in our classrooms?

Well, let’s first set our boundaries by deciding on the definition of design thinking that we will adopt. According to the Australian Curriculum, design thinking is “the use of strategies for understanding design problems and opportunities, visualising and generating creative and innovative ideas, and analysing and evaluating those ideas that best meet the criteria for success and planning” (ACARA, n.d.).



How does this relate to STEM?

Classroom science and mathematics has traditionally been considered to be areas where procedures and facts need to be learnt and where there is limited space for students to be creative or innovative. The introduction of engineering and technology into the classroom has enabled opportunities for students to apply their science and mathematics learning through design thinking. In doing so they are acquiring and practicing skills that empower them to work in cross-disciplinary teams. By its very nature design thinking is cross disciplinary and draws on other areas, such as numeracy, literature, technology and art. Most importantly, design thinking provides opportunities for real-world problems to be addressed. It also empowers students to develop skills such as empathy by positioning them to understand the needs and motivations of the end users.

So how does this translate into a process that can be used in the classroom?

To make it easier to understand how design thinking can be put into practice, Stanford University proposed five stages of thinking: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.


1. Empathise

Empathy is the centre of the design thinking process. In this stage, the aim is to get an empathic understanding of the problem or issue and a substantial amount of information is usually collected to do this. Designers will ask questions, consult experts in the field, and observe the end user to determine what is meaningful for them. This is where our students are encouraged to find out as much information as they can about the end user, (whether it be a pet, a plant, an individual or a group) and to think about the user’s needs and the problems that might underlie the project.

2. Define

During the define stage, the information that has been gathered is organised and analysed to make sense of it and to identify the core problem(s) that the Design team is facing. After collecting all the interviews or research, the students’ need to work out what to do with it and how to phrase the problem into an actionable question. For instance, once the information has been analysed, and the problem to be solved identified, turn the problem into a ‘How might we…?’ question.

3. Ideate

Now it’s time to generate ideas – lots of ideas! Using the information that has been collected and the problem statement, the students need to brainstorm any ideas on how to address the problem. This is where ‘thinking outside the box’ is encouraged. Use brainstorming, mind-mapping, The idea here is to generate ideas – not to evaluate them.

Once all the ideas have been generated, the students then develop the criteria to select the ideas that they want to test. This can be done by the team creating three voting criteria (for example, the most likely to entertain/ the most unique / the most rational) and then choosing the top 2-3 ideas that received the most votes.


Prototypes are now developed for the 2-3 ideas that have been selected. Here, students’ investigate the solution ideas they identified by producing a number of inexpensive, scaled down versions of each product idea. One by one, each prototype is investigated and either rejected, improved and then re-examined or accepted. By this stage, the design team will have a good idea of how the real users would behave, and feel when interacting with the end product.

5. Test

By putting the prototypes developed by the team into the hands of other users (whether they are other teams, the teacher, or even the end user) the team tests their solution ideas. The ideas that generate from this stage are often used to refine the design and further inform the team’s understanding of the needs of the user. So this is a reiterative process, not a linear progression (even though it has been presented that way here). At any stage the designers could return to any stage in the process to refine their work before moving on.

How to include Design Thinking into your classroom

A number of schools have successfully and effectively incorporated design thinking into their classrooms. Bialik College, for example, ran a STEM day where year 7, 8 and 9 students focused on homelessness, understanding what it is, developing empathy and coming up with solutions. The Catholic Education South Australia offers a downloadable design thinking STEM project on Tiny Houses. While other teachers used design thinking to teach science lessons using paper airplanes.

Li et al (2019) remind us that we all carry out design thinking in our everyday lives. As we go about planning a journey, house decorating or setting up a home for a new pet, we are using design thinking skills often without being aware of what we are doing. As teachers it is up to us to ‘think outside the box’ and see how we can bring the design thinking we do in our daily lives into our classrooms. In doing so we can teach our students the skills they need for the future, skills such as empathy, critical thinking, observation, problem solving, communication, teamwork, resilience and perseverance. Bearing in mind that the beauty of the design process doesn’t culminate in the end product. It lies in the process and in the skills our students’ develop along the way.

Now I’m going off to see how I can use design thinking and my fable robot to design a series of competitions for my class’s Robolympic Games…. I’ll let you know how I go.



ACARA, n.d.. “Glossary”. <> [accessed 21 July 2021].