AceraEIFrom the Classroom

Lessons in Design Thinking

By November 6, 2015No Comments

It is Tuesday afternoon, right after recess – project time in Miss Christine’s MS1 class. Huddled around tables in different corners of the room, students work in groups as small as two and as big as five children. Computers are open, some groups are discussing, others are plugging away on their keyboards quietly. What is going on?

Since this fall’s theme in MS1 is food, students are working on a building project related to food. Shortly after school started in September, they brainstormed ideas: Maybe they could build compost bins? Grow plants in water? Or, could you make plants grow vertically? Students then chose which project they wanted to work on; and the teams formed based on their interest.

Next came the research part: If you wanted to build a cold frame, how would you design it? What, and how much, materials would you need? What would it cost to build it? And how much time would it take?

2015-10-06 13.48.42Today, some teams are finishing up their research proposals, still looking through Home Depot or other specialty stores’ websites to find details on, say, which windows exactly are suitable for that cold frame and if they are affordable; or writing up what they have found out about building an Aquaponics system, where plants and animals can support each other in a symbiotic, water-based ecosystem.


One group is ready to move from the planning to the building phase, and heads to the innovation lab with Mr. Josh.

A civil engineer who joined the school full-time this fall, Josh Briggs spends Tuesday afternoons with MS1 students. He is one of five curriculum-collaborators who join this classroom once a week, each on a different day, to co-teach with Ms. Christine from their various specialists’ angles.

This model of collaboration and co-teaching is applied throughout the school, in every classroom. At the beginning of the year, core teachers map out their themes, and plan out their collaborations with specialist teachers. They may ask Mr. Anthony for art ideas around the theme of identity, for example, and he suggests working with students on self-portraits.

Similarly, Ms. Jenna spends time in various classrooms to support teachers on writing instruction, or Ms. Vanessa is called on to design and run interactive sessions around mindfulness and social emotional learning.

There’s Ms. Kate for computer science segments and Mr. Michael and Mr. Eric for general science support (next to Lab time classes are already spending with Mr. Michael) – and so forth. As class projects and themes evolve over time and create new demands for very specific expertise, these collaborations evolve and change as well, which is part of how student-driven, project-based learning is made possible at Acera.

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Out in the wood shop – which Mr. Josh has turned into a well-organized tinkerer’s haven over the summer – a passionate conversation is unfolding. The MS1 group making compost bins is presenting a lid they are hoping to use. It is rectangular, made out of metal, with a rubber framing to soften the sharp edges; but the rubber is peeling off.


“Where on the compost bin should it sit?” asks Josh. “On the top or on the side?” As the students explain their design, more questions arise. What weather conditions will the bin and lid be exposed to? How does that affect the design of the lid? If you want to re-attach the rubber, what kind of glue can survive Boston winters? What if the lid gets frozen shut?

What unfolds is one of those true Acera moments: Here they are, all excited and ready to build, yet discovering that there are so many more questions they hadn’t thought of. They can’t start just yet! But no one is thrown off by Josh’s inquiries – to the contrary, the students are invigorated by the challenge.

It should be noted that in this process, Josh does not tell these children how to do anything. With his detailed questions, he moves them into a deeper level of thinking about building before starting to build; and showcases anticipation and using your creativity to plot out your needs and potential errors. And sure enough, students quickly add their own questions to the mix.

Dimensions of the bin and lid are drawn up on a piece of paper. Solutions are being discussed. Now, Josh is consulted for his expertise on, say, various glues one could use. As these students explore and collaborate, they work out how they want to proceed.

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While ‘team compost’ pulls together materials in the wood shop they need to start building, Josh returns to the classroom to meet with another group. These students want to build a hydroponic system – a bin in which you can grow plants using water, not soil. And there they are again, those questions: “You are planning for a clear tank, is that necessary for your design?” Josh asks. Yes, explains the team. “Is that educational or for presentation?” asks Josh. Mhm. The team considers this. Both, they decide. You need to see how the plants are doing, and it looks cool.

“I love your design. It’s simple and very affordable,” continues Josh. “Have you settled on what you will use as a fertilizer? And how often will you fertilize? Have you thought about a maintenance schedule?” Nope, not yet, says the team. “Do you think that’s important for the success of your project?” asks Josh. A conversation about the role of fertilizers in a water-based planting setting ensues. Yap, it’s pretty important, realizes the team. So they decide to do a bit more research and include scheduling details and cost of fertilization in their proposal.

Josh continues to move through the classroom to see who’s ready for this kind of design review. There is a productive atmosphere in the classroom. Sure, occasionally, a student gets distracted, stands up and retrieves something not really needed from the locker; or just stares at the ceiling. There’s a conversation about screen backgrounds as a group slowly finds its way into discussing what they need to do next. Sometimes, Ms. Christine calmly suggests a kinder way to talk to a team partner, or senses that someone is stuck and has an idea that gets them going. So they all move along, on their own terms for the most part, and what they then write and plan together is impressive.

That is, until Mr. Josh and his clipboard arrive at their desk and bring, you know, questions.