Planning a Design Thinking Event at Your School

What is Design Thinking? How does it benefit students?  A public event is a powerful way for parents, community members and your school’s other stakeholders to gain a better understanding of Design Thinking.

At Henry Ford Academy: Elementary School in Detroit, an annual Design Thinking Expo showcases students’ emerging creativity, collaboration, and 21st century problem solving skills. It also provides an opportunity for teams to gain authentic feedback on their prototypes.


Design teams line the hallways and present their prototypes to visitors.
Design teams line the hallways and present their prototypes to visitors.


Henry Ford Academy: Elementary School students learn the processes and ways that “Design Thinkers” approach problems through four challenges each year. These activities differ by grade-level and give students the opportunity to innovate solutions to real-life human problems while at the same time applying concepts and skills from other disciplines, such as language arts, math, science, and social studies. They learn a specific way to understand and solve those problems.

Then, once a year, each class cohort grades K-5 selects a team of innovative thinkers to represent their learning studio at the Design Thinking Expo. These 20 teams present the prototypes they developed to potentially change the world of an adult, child, or pet.

Based on feedback and observation, the planning team iterates each year, refining the Design Thinking Expo. The dedicated educators at Henry Ford Academy: Elementary School have shared five key elements to consider when planning your school’s event:

Format – Identify a format that is best for your school community given team sizes, space, time, and anticipated attendance. Henry Ford Academy: Elementary School uses a science fair format, with a table for each team; one modification for next year will be to spread tables out a bit more, so it is easier to hear young voices.

Preparation – Help teams practice their presentations. Prepare them to tell the step-by-step story of their solution by taking their guests through their Design Thinking activities and demonstrating the features of their prototype. Posters and other visual aids can help them describe their challenge and their journey.

Invitations – Invite a range of stakeholders. Parents, neighbors, board members and donors will enjoy the opportunity to learn from students in a highly interactive way. Remember to invite and acknowledge any community partners who supported the Design Thinking Challenges as a thank you for their sponsorships, interviews, site visits, or initial feedback.

Questions – Develop a list of age-appropriate questions for visitors to ask teams. A printed list helps visitors engage with students, provide feedback, and better understand aspects of the Design Thinking process themselves. Students as young as kindergarten will be able to answer the question “Who was your group’s user?” but it might be only older students who can respond to the question “How did your group incorporate feedback?”.

Program – Prepare a printed program. Consider including an explanation of Design Thinking, a list of the Design Thinking Challenges to which students have responded, photos of teams and the names of their prototypes. A future, greener iteration for Henry Ford Academy: Elementary School might include the use of iPad kiosks rather than printing booklets.

Do you need to talk through some ideas for your Design Thinking exhibition? Would you like to share your exhibition success story with others? Contact us at Planning a successful showcase event does take time and careful thinking, but when done well it can be a learning experience for your entire school community.

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