How design thinking factors in STEAM education


The foundational principles of design thinking are often followed with great success in STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Math) education. Design Thinking (DT) is a user-centered approach to creativity, design, and development that explores what people need and how real world problems can be solved.

The idea of design thinking is not new in many educational disciplines. In business studies, design thinking is introduced to encourage critical thinking and careful planning for ideas that seem innovative on paper. Unfortunately, the power of design thinking is sometimes undervalued because of vague definitions, and the fact that it can be difficult to operationalize in curriculum.

The reason design thinking is a focus in STEAM education is because the STEAM methodology is a lot more nuanced than tagging on a few arts activities to STEM education. STEAM education, whether in class programs or after school, encourages innovative critical thinking and problem-solving. STEAM educators present more than just an argument to kids; they also offer frameworks, materials, and experiences that will help children think authentically, and creatively about problems that are grounded in real world situations. For both students and instructors, STEAM naturally connects with design and design thinking.

Beyond teaching students specialized skills that are likely to be useful, STEAM is committed to preparing children for the future. While many traditional school districts place a higher priority on standardized test scores and memorization than providing an inquiry-based curriculum, there is a compelling case to be made for incorporating creativity and curiosity into any curriculum through design thinking.

While design thinking may have more visible use cases in engineering domains, it also stands by itself as a framework for problem-solving that spans the arts and sciences. Artists can benefit from design thinking just as much as engineers.

Here are 3 ways in which you can encourage design thinking in your child (particularly young girls, and non-binary individuals, from 6-16, who will be the future trailblazers in technology)

  1. Create a project-based learning environment that encourages kids to come up with ideas, and outline project plans for how they would solve a major real-world problem. (For example: accessibility for people in mobility devices)
  2. Teach kids how to combine design thinking and artistry to build their own secure digital product that solves a problem in their neighbourhood. (For example: a way to replace Facebook as the community’s communication channel)
  3. Teach kids to ‘get their hands dirty’. Tactile activities that have tangible results can visualize some of the theories in design thinking like nothing else can. (Consider a community recycling program, or a neighborhood greenhouse for the long Canadian winters!)

To serve as inspiration, turn your attention to organizations like GEM – The Girls E-Mentorship Program in Vancouver – which is an example of applying design thinking in a primarily coding-focused STEM (science technology engineering math) program. It offers mentorship and guidance to young girls on using design thinking to explore creative solutions to real-world problems. Girls are able to learn how to build digital products and services that can solve a specific problem.

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