According to new research led by Bryant University faculty, design thinking training increases middle school girls’ creative and problem-solving self-efficacy, attitudes about group work, and tendency to seek feedback, helping them to grow as leaders and tackle real-world challenges. The results of their study were published in Middle School Journal.
Led by Allison G. Butler, professor of Psychology and director of the Innovation and Design Experience for All (IDEA) Program at Bryant University, co-authors Heather P. Lacey, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychology; Michael A. Roberto, D.B.A., Trustee Professor of Management; Deborah Hanney, M.A.T., middle school director at Lincoln School in Providence, Rhode Island; and Nina Luiggi '18, research manager at Verve, created a model for teaching middle school students design thinking, a process for creative problem-solving used by many of the largest and most successful companies in the world, including Amazon, Google, and Apple. They also studied the virtues of university-school partnerships and quantitatively evaluated the benefits of teaching middle school students to be design thinkers.
Middle school, the paper notes, is an ideal time to begin to instill design thinking skills as it coincides with the period where children begin to develop the capacity for abstract, hypothetical, and scientific reasoning.
“Design thinking is an empowering skill set for leaders and entrepreneurs, as it promotes strengths in empathy, communication, problem-solving, and decision-making based on feedback,” says Butler. “We hope to encourage middle school educators to bring design thinking into the curriculum, as students who learn design thinking also develop important habits of mind and 21st century skills.”
Introducing young women to design thinking has an even greater value, Butler states. “While design thinking skills can benefit all students, empowering young female learners to be innovative thinkers and problem-solvers is especially important,” she says. “Historically, women have been proportionally outnumbered by men in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics) fields due to long-standing gender stereotypes and biases, which lead to a dangerous lack of confidence in women’s ability. Design thinking provides an entry point for young women to succeed in engineering, science, and mathematics-based fields.”
"The now longstanding partnership with Lincoln School in design thinking benefits both institutions and student groups."
The research drew from a long-running collaboration between Bryant and Lincoln School, an all-girls Quaker school. Each year, Butler, a Lincoln School alumna and former trustee, and her team run a three-day design thinking program, dubbed “Innovation Nation,” at Lincoln School modeled after Bryant’s IDEA program, which teaches first-year college students the proven skills of innovators. Both institutions embrace a partnership model in which university faculty and IDEA student mentors take on the role of designing and delivering the curriculum. While the middle school faculty are not in the lead teaching role, they collaborate with the university team and serve as mentors to the students — gaining their own exposure to design thinking throughout the process.
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"The now longstanding partnership with Lincoln School in design thinking benefits both institutions and student groups. It is a true partnership. Bryant IDEA mentors deepen their design thinking and leadership skills and grow through the experience of teaching a class of middle school students,” Butler notes.
Sixth, seventh, and eighth grade girls from more than 50 cities and towns across Rhode Island and Massachusetts participate in Innovation Nation annually, where they engage in workshops and collaborate in teams to learn the five phases of design thinking (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) and then apply that methodology to human-centered innovation challenges.
The challenges are unique each year but range from addressing the issue of gender stereotyping in the toy industry to redesigning the school library to increasing adoptions at the local animal rescue league, providing engaging prompts for focused brainstorming. At the end of the program, they present prototypes of their solutions at a final exhibition attended by parents and the school community.
Butler and her fellow researchers found that Innovation Nation participants dramatically increased their understanding of design thinking through their experience with the program and made important gains in creativity, design skills, and problem-solving aptitude. There was also evidence that their time in Innovation Nation impacted other mindsets and behaviors, as they showed an increased tendency to seek critical feedback and revise work based on feedback and developed better attitudes regarding group work. “These are skills that students can leverage in academic and co-curricular experiences to be successful,” notes Butler.
By providing a framework for design thinking education, the researchers hope to make it more accessible to a wider audience, noting that the Innovation Nation model can be readily adapted to different timeframes, grade levels, and academic content areas. The most important thing, they note, is imparting the skills to think differently.
“I hope that middle school educators will be inspired to bring design thinking into their curriculum and that our publications helps them learn how that can be done,” says Butler, who will spend her spring 2024 sabbatical deepening Bryant's engagement with Lincoln School through an expanded partnership program called Lincoln LEADS (Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Design Skills) that nurtures students’ leadership, design thinking, and entrepreneurial skills.