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Students Have Fun With Design Thinking

The creative juices were flowing on February 20 as Germantown Academy hosted an all-school design day in which students in each division went through the design thinking process to find solutions for different needs statements.

Design Thinking is the creative five-step problem-solving process founded by David Kelly of the Institute of Design at Stanford. All GA students, PreK-12, learn the five-step process of empathizing (interviewing for need), defining (articulating the need), ideating (generating as many possible solutions to the problem), prototyping (building your ideas), and testing (having users interact with the prototype). First studied by GA faculty in 2013, design thinking has become thoroughly integrated into the GA curriculum at all levels, but it truly shines during dedicated Design Days held several times per year. During these experiences, students and faculty work together to tackle real world problems, resulting in opportunities for collaboration, leadership, and critical thinking.

Using design thinking to solve problems gives students an opportunity to practice risk-taking and failure, two critical pieces to a good problem-solving practice. When students see that a failed idea gives them good information that can lead to successful ideas, their relationship to the concept of failure changes, and they are more apt to develop resilience, grit, flexibility, and courage. It also draws on 21st century methods from engineering and design and combines them with ideas from the arts, tools from the social sciences, and insights from the business world. The process provides a glue that brings teammates with different skill sets together around a common goal: to make the lives of the people they're designing for better.

"GA remains committed to engaging in the study and practice of Design Thinking as a way to foster 21st century problem-solving skills in our students," said Head of School Rich Schellhas. "As a college (and life!) preparatory school, we are passionate about giving our students the tools they need to adapt to the ever-changing world in which we live. So many universities are now embracing Design Thinking as a way of approaching challenges on their campus and in their communities. How lucky are we to have gifted, dedicated faculty and administrators to lead us in this work so that our students can get early, intensive exposure to the possibilities of hands-on, empathic problem-solving?"

During the day, Lower School Students worked in cross-grade teams to design products for hypothetical individuals with specific disabilities. After first studying source materials like Keep Your Ear on The Ball by Genevieve Petrillo and hearing inspirational stories about magician Sam Sandifer and nine-year-old sports fan Ezra Frech, the students were challenged to think about how they could make GA "A Space for Everyone."

Mixed teams of students from Grades 1-5 visited 17 distinct spaces around campus to determine what challenges these spaces might present to differently abled individuals. They then were introduced to characters like Bridget, who wears leg braces, or Ryan, who is blind in one eye. Keeping in mind the specific needs of these individuals, teams got to work brainstorming ideas for products that could help these people access the spaces at GA more easily.

Armed with a stockpile of donated cardboard boxes and plastic bottles, the mixed-grade teams got to work prototyping and refining their designs. Every classroom in McLean Hall was filled with collaboration and activity. The resulting products represented an impressive breadth of ingenuity and compassion.

One team designed a set of audio aids for the whole class that would help students hard of hearing to know who is speaking and what they are saying. Another team designed powered lifts that could help wheelchairs climb stairs, and a third built a modification for leg braces that would reach out and detect objects in someone's path. Many of the students' proposals integrated software or other technology alongside mechanical devices, demonstrating an understanding of the potential for new ways of thinking to solve longstanding problems.

Design Days are not easy to pull off, with the amount of coordination and logistics at play, but seeing a first grader and a fourth grader proudly describe their prototype to their classmates and teachers more than makes the case that this type of learning has a real impact on engaging young minds and preparing them for the future.

Across Connor Quad in the Middle School, students were tasked with designing a custom puzzle for their partner that suits their individual learning style and incorporates one more of their interests. Certainly not an easy challenge, but students rose to the occasion. After lunch, students had a chance to try out their teamwork skills in a fun and interactive way as they figured out an "escape room" designed by the faculty.

Over in the Upper School, students considered the following needs statement before creating art-specific solutions: In our busy world, it can be sometimes difficult to get to know each other's perspective. It is challenging to really listen and share stories so that we can build trust, friendship and community. Design and create something that will build better understand of each other through sharing of personal stories and perspectives. This creation should strengthen community, build trust and friendship, and reveal and nurture our shared humanity."

Upper School's work resulted in collaborative art performances and pieces.

"The Upper School Design Day was entirely student-driven," said Upper School Arts Teacher Sara Krupnick-Ritz. "they listened and heard the multitude of stories that make our community. Students presented a range of creative works that helped us see, listen and learn from one another in deeper, more loving ways. The day brought us closer, helped us see each other in more brilliant colors, and most importantly, enabled us to celebrate and continue building on a shared storytelling and story-sharing experience."