Students at The Out-of-Door Academy explored the “design thinking” technique in an interactive project aimed at solving real-world problems. As ODA prepares for a reimagined middle school, students were empowered to think through changes that will impact their education at Out-of-Door. Sixth graders were tasked with designing an outdoor space in the new middle school space, and eighth graders were asked to recommend improvements to programs or facilities that would become their legacy.
Inspired by educators at Stanford University, design thinking is a unique approach to problem-solving and innovating that begins with understanding how a problem impacts a group of people. The process includes five stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.
Over the course of the one-day project, students interviewed peers, shared collected data, determined which ideas to focus on, wrote a focus statement and planned their course of action. Each group designed and built a prototype representing their solution that they tested and modified accordingly. Students were energized throughout the process. “I think my group’s creativity was great! We all had an open mind about our idea,” said Mia Proctor, ‘26.
Sixth grader Max Freeman thought making the models was interesting and enjoyed seeing what others’ ideas would actually look like in reality. “I learned that I am really good at designing things...our group was very creative and performed great together,” he said.
Sixth graders’ ideas for the outdoor area included a pool, zip line, sand volleyball courts, gardens and more. Most proposals incorporated physical activities where the adolescents could expend energy in a fun way. Eighth graders had other innovative ideas, including using a wristband instead of student ID cards that could be used for everything from purchasing lunch to taking attendance.
At the end of the day, each group presented its prototype to a panel of judges that consisted of ODA leadership and members of the Board of Trustees, who shared which designs were worth exploring. Judges were impressed by the thoughtful presentations and how quickly the teams created viable prototypes to visualize their ideas.
The design thinking approach, successfully used everywhere from schools and executive board rooms, allows students to gain experience and confidence in conceptualizing, using empathy, working collaboratively and creatively, and presenting. This method will be incorporated into various grade levels in conjunction with ODA’s commitment to student-centered learning. As for the challenge presented to sixth and eighth graders, we look forward to seeing some of our students’ ideas incorporated into future middle school plans.