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Guardian Angels of Our Better Nature: Finding Evidence of the Benefits of Design Thinking

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Best of DEED

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.828.1 - 26.828.12



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Paper Authors


Luke David Conlin Stanford University

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Luke Conlin is a postdoctoral scholar in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. His work focuses on the learning of engineering and science in formal and informal environments.

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Doris B Chin Ph.D. Stanford Graduate School of Education

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Kristen Pilner Blair Stanford University

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Maria Cutumisu Stanford University


Daniel L Schwartz Stanford University

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Dr. Schwartz studies human learning, especially as it applies to matters of instruction.

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Angels  of  Our  Better  Nature:  Finding  Evidence  of  the  Benefits  of  Design  Thinking     In  the  field  of  engineering  education  and  beyond,  there  is  a  widespread  and  growing  belief  in  the  importance  of  teaching  the  disciplinary  practices  of  engineering  design,  i.e.,  “design  thinking”.      Despite  this  enthusiasm,  researchers  have  not  found  much  evidence  of  (1)  what  design  thinking  is  important  for  and  (2)  that  it  is  teachable,  i.e.  that  kids  will  learn  to  apply  it  somewhere  else  besides  the  immediate  context.    Many  have  attempted  to  teach  design  thinking  in  the  service  of  learning  content;  others  have  emphasized  its  importance  for  training  future  designers.    In  our  view,  one  of  the  most  important  features  of  design  thinking  is  that  it  (like  the  scientific  method)  invites  a  focus  on  ways  of  thinking  that  can  protect  against  common  pitfalls  (e.g.,  falling  in  love  with  your  first  idea,  or  getting  derailed  by  negative  feedback).    Instruction  incorporating  design  thinking  therefore  has  the  potential  to  help  lower  achieving  students  the  most,  for  whom  instruction  tends  to  focus  on  remediation  of  content  rather  than  the  disciplinary  strategies  and  practices  of  engineering.         In  this  paper,  we  report  on  a  study  in  which  we  taught  elements  of  design  thinking  to  middle  school  students  (N~200),  integrating  it  into  the  existing  curriculum  throughout  several  subject  areas  (math,  social  studies,  &  science).    The  instruction  had  two  conditions;  about  half  of  the  classes  at  all  levels  were  taught  in  a  way  that  at  key  points  emphasized  the  stakeholder  relationship,  specifically  the  importance  of  seeking  (negative)  feedback.    In  the  other  condition,  at  key  points  the  emphasis  was  on  parallel  design,  specifically  the  benefits  of  coming  up  with  a  bunch  of  initial  ideas  and  sorting  them  on  key  characteristics.       At  the  end  of  a  month  of  instruction,  students  took  computer  game-­‐based  assessments  that  measured  process  data  of  the  choices  they  made  while  playing  an  apparently  unrelated  video  game.    One  game  involved  designing  a  poster  and  getting  feedback  on  it.    The  other  involved  taking  photographs  and  learning  about  how  camera  settings  could  affect  the  pictures.    High-­‐achieving  students  in  both  conditions  looked  similar  on  both  games,  but  low-­‐achieving  students  differed  by  condition.    In  the  poster  game,  the  low-­‐achieving  students  in  the  stakeholder  condition  sought  more  negative  feedback  than  their  counterparts  in  the  parallel  design  condition.    In  the  camera  game,  low-­‐achieving  students  in  the  parallel  design  condition  sorted  their  ideas  more  than  those  in  the  stakeholder  condition.    The  results  of  this  crossover  study  demonstrate  that  all  students  can  do  design  thinking,  given  an  environment  where  it  is  valued.    This  study  serves  as  an  existence  proof  that  it  is  possible  to  measure  the  benefits  of  teaching  design  thinking,  offering  hope  that  we  can  improve  the  instruction  of  disciplinary  practices  and  dispositions  based  on  evidence.    

Conlin, L. D., & Chin, D. B., & Blair, K. P., & Cutumisu, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2015, June), Guardian Angels of Our Better Nature: Finding Evidence of the Benefits of Design Thinking Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24165

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