Challenge Summary

Creative Thinkers Engaged in Over 65 Innovative Outcomes
during the IDSA Design Learning Challenge 2013!

In partnership with the Industrial Designers Society of America and National Art Education Association during the 2012-2013 school year, the Design Learning Network challenged K-12 educators and their students to explore a world of infinite creative ideas as they tackled a problem worth solving within their classroom, school, neighborhood, or community – the goal was to engage in the design learning process to create innovative outcomes resulting in positive impact.

Observations to Objects

In its third year, over 65 projects were submitted to Design Learning Challenge 2013 where our first place winner, “Observations to Objects,” empowered students to investigate the following problem set:

Problem Statement: Our lives in the built world are fraught with” icebergs”--products, experiences, services, with which we must interact but which often hinder our growth and happiness in ways we cannot immediately perceive, ways which lurk just below or deep below the surface we must skim over in our busy, everyday lives. 

Challenge Brief: Take a series of photographs to identify a point of 
difficulty in an everyday activity or action and then synthesize a problem definition statement from the photographs; following the design thinking process, design a method/object/process that will make your life and the lives of those in your community (school, family, or neighborhood) better.

Critical Question: In what ways might students, empowered through the process of inception (problem finding, clarifying and defining) and self-generated criteria, manage their own learning and work towards an as yet unknown end?

Students of Mr. Garreth Heidt and Ms. Kathleen Todd from Perkiomen Valley Middle School East produced several innovation outcomes such as:
  • Electronic bracelet designed to increase motivation to complete homework on time and improve attitudes towards learning

  • Set of linked smart-device apps designed to share schedules and availability of family members to spend valuable time together

  • Infinite clock designed to start the morning with a sense of calm and offer greater alertness during the day as a result of feeling well rested
One particular Perkiomen Valley student reflected on her design learning experiences by sharing:

“After we received feedback from reviewers and prototyped it on our own, our group had to really try and think “outside the box” for ways to make our product the best but different and convenient at the same time, like if it were real... Aspects that designers do like observing, building, and researching made me think differently about how problems are found and solved in the world. I enjoyed having to do this while making our design because it was a way I’ve never used to find and solve my own problems and I feel it made my creativeness and ability to expand my thoughts larger!”

Art for Autism: Raising Autism Awareness

Challenge 2013’s second place winner, “Art for Autism: Raising Autism Awareness,” embraced a communication design campaign aimed to build a student community who not only learned about the isolating condition but transformed school climate and culture.

Directly linked to the Common Core State Standards, students of Ms. Alison Crane’s from Blue Valley Middle School participated in the following design learning experiences:

Explore: Students were introduced to the design process by participating in a backpack design mini-workshop with a partner – where they learned how to ask critical questions, develop empathy, brainstorm ideas, frame a problem, make sketches of understanding, and give/receive feedback about their ideas.

Describe: Learners then reviewed the design process and terminology – then began to ask questions such as what do kids and teachers want to know about autism. Students developed a survey for students, staff, and autistic peers to help determine how to raise awareness.

Explain: Students reviewed survey results and findings to discover what areas of knowledge were needed. Learners brainstormed many ideas and possible solutions that would gain the greatest level of awareness and desired long-term outcomes.

Demonstrate: Students implemented their plan of action by drawing attention in creative ways such as wearing the color blue on the same day, rolling out a set of incentives. Learners also documented their story by unpacking the challenges that an autistic person faces every day and communicating that message in a compelling video.

Evaluate: To wrap up the project, students interviewed and surveyed their community to gain a sense of the level of impact the project had made. The final video was shared at an all-school assembly on the last day of school – resulting in a standing ovation! Students hope to expand the campaign to include other schools in the district and taking the “Aut Squad” to the next level.

The principal of Blue Valley Middle School sums up the Art for Autism project by sharing:

“As a principal, one of my most proud moments this year is this last assembly we had. We celebrated the students for “Art for Autism” and we got a standing ovation from our students. I actually got teary eyed just looking at the student population and looking at those students who are giving their heart and soul to an organization”

Museum Exhibition Design

As tie in second place, “Museum Exhibition Design,” explored the level of difficulty when developing a permanent exhibit in a museum caused by the rapid pace of change in technology and pedagogy versus the time and effort required to design an exhibit. Students were challenged to investigate this dilemma while learning about design.

Learners grappled with the following critical questions:
  1. What is design, what is the design process, and why does it matter?

  2. In what ways can the oldest permanent exhibits at the museum be re-designed to make them as effective of an experience as possible for visitors?

  3. What can high-school students offer in this process? What unique abilities do they have that make them valuable to the exhibit designers? 

Facilitated by Mr. Luke Van Meter and Mr. Phil Holcombe, this design learning challenge was a collaborative effort between the Franklin Institute Science Museum, the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), and a local educational design consultancy. SLA is an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st century learning and provides a rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.

Participating students in the challenge instinctively shared the following insightful statements:
  • “I liked the experience a lot because I did a bunch of things I never did before” 
  • “I’ve never really designed anything”
  • “Design is everything that we see and its also everything that we use”
  • “Once you’re trained to look at it [design], you see it everywhere”

Honorable Mentions

Additional projects submitted earned an award of Honorable Mention – such as a makerspace workshop, school lunch tray design, bike rack design, household product design, wellbeing design, locker design, backpack design, safe social hangout design, athlete headgear design, fashion design, historical impact on design today, and thoughtful playground design.

Challenge 2013 Jury Members

Jury Members this year included Mr. David Weightman – design professor from the University of Urbana-Champaign; Ms. Shelley Takahashi – design professor from California State Long Beach; Dr. Robin Vande Zande – Associate Professor of Art Education from Kent State University, Jared Vanscoder – Design Educator from Irving High School, Ms. Linda Keane – Professor of Architecture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and Dr. Scott Warner – Associate Professor of Applied Engineering, Safety, and Technology from Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

Challenge 2014, Chicago Design Learning Workshop, and Contact Information

Plans to expand the IDSA Design Learning Challenge 2014’s curricular focus to include science, technology, engineering, math (STEM), and the humanities – will be shared during a five-hour Design Learning Workshop at Columbia College Chicago on Saturday, August 24, 2013.

The IDSA Design Learning Challenge is facilitated by Doris Wells-Papanek MEd, - the Director of the Design Learning Network. Doris can be contacted at To learn more about these efforts, please visit: