6. Applying Design Thinking

Design is directed toward human beings. To design is to solve human problems by identifying them and executing the best solution. 

Ivan Chermayeff

Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning (PBL) is different from Problem Based Learning which is a specialisation of Inquiry Learning that describes approaches to learning where students are presented with a scenario or problem and assisted by teachers to identify and research issues and questions to develop their knowledge or solutions. Through this process of problem solving, students learn both thinking strategies and about the domain of knowledge involved in the problem.

Project Based Learning however is the use of in-depth and rigorous projects to facilitate learning. PBL provides students with complex tasks based on challenging questions or problems that involve the students' problem solving, decision making, investigative skills, and reflection that includes teacher facilitation, but not direction. 

Project-based learning emphasises learning activities that are long-term, interdisciplinary and student-centered. Unlike traditional, teacher-led classroom activities, students often must organise their own work and manage their own time in a project-based learning. Project Based Learning differs from traditional inquiry by its emphasis on students' collaborative or individual artifact construction to represent what is being learned.

The core idea of project based learning is that real-world problems capture students' interest and provoke serious thinking as the students acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context. The teacher plays the role of facilitator, working with students to frame worthwhile questions, structuring meaningful tasks, coaching both knowledge development and social skills, and carefully assessing what students have learned from the experience. Typical projects present a problem to solve (What is the best way to reduce the pollution in the schoolyard pond?) or a phenomenon to investigate (What causes rain?).

PBL is focused on questions that drive students to encounter the central concepts and principles of a subject in a hands-on method. Students form their own investigation of a guiding question, allowing students to develop valuable research skills as students engage in design, problem solving, decision making, and investigative activities. Through Project Based Learning, students learn from these experiences and apply them to the world outside their classroom. PBL emphasizes creative thinking skills by allowing students to find that there are many ways to solve a problem.

Comprehensive Project-based Learning:

  • is organised around an open-ended driving question or challenge;
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills;
  • requires inquiry to learn and/or create something new;
  • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication, often known as "21st Century Skills";
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice;
  • incorporates feedback and revision; and
  • results in a publicly presented product or performance.

Design Challenges

A Design Challenge is a situation, problem or task that provides a meaningful context in which students can ‘work technologically’ to demonstrate learning outcomes in technology through project based learning. 

Design Challenges should involve 1. Students going through a design process, and 2. a challenge appropriate for their current capability.


Students should be given (or decide on their own) a problem or opportunity for which to develop a solution. They should then use one of the Design Thinking Processes. Younger students should use simplified models such as Design/Develop/Evaluate or Design/Make/Appraise, through models such as the Technology Practice model that has four stages of Investigation, Ideation, Production, Evaluation, then to more complex and specialised models for older students.

Whatever the model, the process of design should always be at least as highly valued in terms of student thought process and teacher assessment, as the final solution e.g. product. This process is where the learning occurs, the problem and the solution simply provide the context for the learning.

Wherever practical, students should be given opportunities to include all stages of the design process in their projects but this has consequences:

  1. an evaluate stage requires projects to have solutions that can be evaluated and this invalidates many that involve model making or artistic works as these cannot be easily evaluated against measurable qualities; and
  2. to gain the full benefit of the design process, students should be given the opportunity to use the results of their evaluations at various stages to make changes, ideally going through the entire process several times in a cyclical process. This allows students see the benefit of evaluation to drive improvements, often taking a solution from one of many compromises because students are learning the processes involved and not fully appreciating what is possible, through to where several iterations (cycles) through the process can generate much more creative and effective solutions - analogous to the drafting process in writing.


Design Challenges should also be of sufficient challenge to individual students to be of benefit to their learning. Vyotsky (1935) developed the concept of a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in which in order to learn, students need to be challenged by something they cannot currently do, but not so difficult that they cannot at present attempt.

More recently, the concept of Flow has been used to set challenges that are of sufficient challenge to engage students but within their skill level so that students are not overly anxious. A state of flow can be then entered in which students become entirely engrossed in an activity.

Design Brief

Design Briefs are concise statements clarifying the project task and defining the need or opportunity to be resolved after some analysis, investigation and research. It usually identifies the users (client), criteria for success, constraints, available resources, timeframe for the project, and may include possible consequences and impacts.


Many organisation sponsor design challenge competitions to encourage students in their study of various fields of learning and these can provide quality resources and motivation for student engagement in design challenges. 

Egg drop challenges are popular design challenges at all ages and involve developing a solution to prevent an uncooked egg from cracking when dropped from a set height. The height and available materials can be modified to make the activity challenging at different age levels.

Challenges can develop the full range of curriculum outcomes from the Technologies Learning area, including skills and concept development. 

Challenges often use recycled and low cost materials, but some challenges can include the use of 3D printers, model rockets, various foods, fibres, metals, woods, etc. and associated tools including ovens, lathes, sewing machines, CAD/CAM, etc.

Many competitions provide access to expensive tools. The F1 in Schools challenge for example provides wind tunneling and CAM machining tools to produce model drag racing cars and where schools cannot afford the equipment themselves, will link schools to schools, universities or companies that have the equipment.

Challenge Based Learning

Challenge Based Learning (CBL) was developed by Apple and focuses on increasing student engagement through a collaborative learning experience in which teachers and students work together to learn about compelling issues, propose solutions to real problems, and take action. The approach asks students to reflect on their learning and the impact of their actions, and publish their solutions to a worldwide audience. CBL has the following framework:




1. The Big Idea

Challenges start with the selection of a big idea — a broad topic that has importance to students and their community. Topics like democracy, the environment, or sustainability. Students research to define and better understand their big idea. Let’s use food as an example.


2. Essential Questions

Students explore their big idea by asking questions that reflect their individual interests and community’s needs. How does food impact our health? How do our diets impact the environment? What are the benefits of organic farming? 

3. The Challenge

From the essential questions a challenge is developed to guide students toward a real-world solution. Like, let’s improve what we eat. Students collaborate and communicate throughout the challenge and document the process.

4. Guiding Questions and Activities

To meet their challenge, students need to ask guiding questions. What exactly do we eat? What nutrients do we need? What foods can we grow locally? To find answers, teachers work with students to identify guiding activities they can do at school and in their community. Students can interview people about their diets  and analyse nutritional data.

5. Guiding Resources

Students take advantage of resources to help answer guiding questions and develop solutions. 

6. Solutions, Implementation, and Reflections

With their research complete, students choose one solution to develop. In this example, creating a school garden. To showcase their thinking, they can make presentations and videos to showcase their solution to help deepen their learning and enrich future projects.

Paper Roller Coasters


Completion Activity 1 (assessed) (50 minutes):

(Arts and Technology room) Activity: Complete an egg drop challenge, working through the entire design process. Show video as investigation, students generate as many possible solutions on paper before beginning production. (Completion Activity).

Students build an egg drop solution using materials provided and test solutions over balcony for 4 meter drop to concrete.

Completion Activity 2 (assessed):

(Computer Lab) Activity: Using the DIY.ORG website for ideas, plan a design challenge unit (Completion Activity)

Demonstration: Share your problem idea and design challenge concept with the group.

Be prepared to explain your big problem, how you could use this in project based learning with students, the thinking skills that could be used/developed, and how doing this project could address at least one Australian Curriculum Design and Technologies learning outcome (you should look this up on the curriculum website).

Students work through ideas for a D&T unit, prompted by the DIY.ORG website, and using the Australian Curriculum website to frame their unit ideas to include the processes and production outcomes and at least two knowledge and understanding outcomes. Essentially students do a first run of their Learning Portfolio assignment.