Solving the World’s Problems, One Project at a Time

How can design thinking solve the world’s problems? That’s just what Dr. Heather Warley’s class set out to discover.

Dr. Warley and her students have been exploring the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals in Social Studies. Make no mistake, these are huge goals! These 17 goals include “Zero Hunger,” “No Poverty,” “Gender Equality,” “Affordable Energy and Electricity,” and “Quality Education” for all.

Undaunted, the students worked in teams of two and picked one of the goals to focus on. Then, they selected a South American country they’d been studying for which certain goals were particularly relevant. For example, one pair investigated climate change and the effects of flooding on coastal cities in Brazil. Another team investigated the challenges of delivering quality education in Guatemala, while another focused on challenges to underwater life and ocean health in Mexico.

To initiate the design thinking process, Dr. Warley led the class in researching their topic and helping the teams devise their “problem statements”: the “who, what, where” for which they’d be trying to build solutions.

One of the "problem statements."

Then Mrs. Mattesky, our Director of Innovation and in-house design thinking expert, visited the class and led brainstorming exercises to generate ideas. Mrs. Mattesky urged them to imagine all possible solutions, focusing on quantity over quality at this stage. She explained that it’s important for individuals to come up with their own ideas first, and then share them, to maximize creative thinking.

After the idea generation, the students shared ideas with their partner, and pulled out particular bits of their ideas that they wanted to explore as a potential solution. Then the students created quick sketches of their solution ideas.

The final steps of the process were most exciting to the students. Using materials such as popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, cardboard, wood, yarn, etc. the students created their prototypes based on their plans. At this stage, students actively reflected on what worked and what they could change to improve their prototypes or models.

Isabella McKernan is holding a prototype of a fishing hook that could be an alternative to a gill net. Her partners were Dillon Locher and Sara Ahlgrimm.

Anthony Orapallo and his partner, Will Suttell, worked on a solution to a problem in Guatemala where many of the school buildings are not sturdy. Anthony and Will had the idea to weave scrap metal together to create more stable structures while also using found objects in the area.

This was the first time Dr. Warley taught this particular unit and incorporated the design thinking model. “It was fantastic. I wanted to introduce them to the full steps of the design thinking process. It was valuable for the students to learn that design thinking truly is a process, and it also aligns with the growth mindsetthere’s not just one answer. I really enjoyed seeing how students changed their designs once they entered the creation stage of the process. They showed a lot of flexibility in their thinking as they learned what worked and what didn’t,” she says.

Mrs. Mattesky says, “It is evident that the design thinking process is an excellent complement to the Benchmark tools and strategies that we employ for supporting executive functioning development. Our teaching approach and the design process work really well together, with powerful outcomes for our students.”

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About Benchmark School

Benchmark School, located at 2107 N. Providence Road, Media, Pa., is an independent, not-for-profit day school serving students in grades 1-8. Founded in 1970, the school is committed to helping bright students who have yet to reach their academic potential become confident and strategic thinkers, learners, and problem solvers who meet with success in school and life. For more information about Benchmark School, please call 610-565-3741 or visit BenchmarkSchool.org.